Daniel Estrin / NPR
For over a decade, the Gaza Strip – controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas, has been obstructed by its neighbors, hard to leave – an experiment in human isolation.
Now there is a new escape route. Egypt suddenly opened its border with Gaza in May 2018, and increasingly unbearable living conditions are believed to be tens of thousands of Gazans having crossed the border and scattered across the globe in the last chapter of a mass emigration of immigrants out of troubled Middle East.
"I didn't find my future here," says Zeid Al Kurdi, 25, at the border between Gaza and Egypt with just a backpack and a small rolled suitcase.
He grew up in a refugee camp and, like most Gazans, stood at UN food stores. His family's house was destroyed in an Israeli airway in 2008, during the first of three wars that Hamas and Israel have fought, and his father was broken by paying a loan to rebuild it.
Kurdi had a plan: He attended university and received a bachelor's degree in English and French and was confident that his language skills would give him a job with an international aid organization working in Gaza. But some aid groups have scaled down their activities in Gaza. The United States has recently cut all utility money to Gaza, and donor countries are scattered thinly and help other Mideast hotspots. He couldn't find work.
Kurdi tried to get a visa to the United States – "you know, land option", he says – but his application was rejected. So his family raised enough money for him to fly from Cairo to Abu Dhabi to seek work.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
"It is really bad for me to leave them," he says of his brothers who came to the border to see him out "and also very badly to leave my mother and father. But it is necessary to seek a better one the future ".
Gaza is a central focus of the White House's new thousands of dollars to improve the quality of life of Palestinians. But the US says that the proposal cannot be implemented without a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Youth like Kurdi cannot afford to wait.
He went through Gaza's main portal to the world, a black iron gate on the Egyptian border.
In recent years, this port has only been open a few days every few months when Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade to contain Hamas and keep militants out of danger. Egypt tightened its border after the 2013 crash of the country's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and when it fought militants near Gaza in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
Last May, the border entrance was opened to "relieve the brothers in the Gaza Strip", as Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi tweeted. Days earlier, when the US inaugurated its new embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli troops shot dead 59 Palestinians and wounded more than 2,700 during protests and violence along the Israeli fence with Gaza.
The Egyptian border crossing has been open since last May, teeming with young men like Kurdi and waiting for the Hamas authorities to call their names over a scratchy speaker to board a bus and cross. Absent official emigration statistics, experts in Gaza estimate that about 35,000 to 40,000 Gazans have left since mid-2018.
"It's:" Let me get out of Gaza and I'll find out, "says Caitlin Procter, a Harvard University researcher studying migration out of Gaza." It speaks to the level of desperation. "
Procter Know about more than 10 newlywed couples waiting to have children – thrashing Gaza's conservative tradition – until they can leave Gaza and reach a place where their children can live a better life.
The conditions have gone from bad to worse since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. The group refuses to recognize Israel, who considers it a terrorist group and blocks Gaza.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
More pressure comes from the Palestinian Authority, which has cut officials' salaries in Gaza in an attempt to push Hamas and regain control of the territory and exacerbate an already destroyed economy. Two out of the three young people in Gaza are unemployed, according to the World Bank, while electricity is spotty and most of the tap water is unpopular.
When Egypt opened its border, it was a window of opportunity.
Those who leave are mostly young Palestinian men in their 20s, many of them from poor families and refugee camps, says Gaza-based Al-Azhar University's political science professor Mukhaimar Abu Sada, whose four nephews and son have moved abroad during the past year. 19659008] "Most of them are college students, poor, no jobs," says Abu Sada. "You can't get married. You can't rent a house. You can't start a new life here."
Some fly to the Gulf. Others have family ties in Egypt and settle there, or fly to Turkey, where visas are easy and relatively cheap. Some take Turkish smugglers to Greece. Some have drowned along the way. Many make their way deeper into Europe; Belgium and Norway are popular destinations.
Hamas has arrested and interrogated critics and beaten demonstrators in Gaza, and Abu Sada says some Palestinians who make it to Europe seek asylum and claim they are facing harassment at home.
So far this year, Palestinians are the third largest group of Afghans and Syrians to take the smuggling route across the Mediterranean to Europe, the International Organization for Migration tells NPR. At least 1,046 Palestinians have taken the sea route so far this year, as did 1,433 Palestinians last year. As long as 2015, over 6,000 Palestinians took the same road, according to the IOM.
Hamas has publicly been silent about the migrant phenomenon. It sees the open Egyptian border as a sign of warming the ties between Egypt and Gaza's Hamas rulers as it seeks help and a long-term ceasefire agreement with Israel and Egypt that will ease the restrictions on Gaza.
"I do not deny that there are any who will go out and leave," said Hamas official Ghazi Hamad. "We are struggling to make life easier for people … every day, look here and there and look for opportunities."
Daniel Estrin / NPR
Egypt allows only a few hundred Gaza travelers a day, so Hamas maintains a month-long waiting list. Those who pay for "coordination" – a bribe that is believed to be pocketed by authorities on both sides of the border – are bumped up higher on the list.
The last straw for Siham Shamalakh, an English translator and mother of two, was Israel's Prince in March, who hit a Hamas security building around the corner from her well-appointed Gaza City apartment. She slept in the living room, away from windows for a week and signed up for the waiting list to leave for Egypt.
Across her bedroom, balcony is a building that she and her neighbors believe in a Hamas affiliated group recently moved in – due to the sudden appearance of guards and police officers in the street and new air conditioners installed on a previous plot floor in the building.
She is convinced that it will also target an Israeli airstrike one day.
"I won't sleep [while] I'm afraid of the bombings and the missiles, whether they are from the Israelis or from Hamas," she says. "I know I have a nice occasion and life in Gaza is great when it is peaceful. But when the escalation comes, I change my mind. I say no, I want to catch hell from here."
Gaza's flight also includes doctors and surgeons.
At Gaza's main hospital, three of its five gastrointestinal specialists left for Canada, Ukraine and the Gulf, and about one-fifth of the physiotherapists and the lonely cardiac surgery have gone abroad in the past year, according to hospital staff. Doctors' salaries have fallen because of the Palestinian Authority's cutbacks on civil servant salaries and further wage cuts in the cash-strapped Hamas. Many doctors are looking for better paying jobs abroad. Some doctors have traveled abroad to train, and it is unclear if they will ever return.
The doctors' disappearance comes just as they are most needed. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and treat more than 7,000 Gazans who, according to the World Health Organization, were shot by Israeli soldiers over a year of protests at the Israeli fence.
Hamas authorities have begun to restrict doctors leaving Gaza by only accepting travel for those they are sure to return, according to a Gaza-based physician who spoke on condition of anonymity because Hamas did not make travel arrangements publicly, and he did not want to fall by the authorities.
Many young people say I want to live in Gaza if there was decent work, even with all the other difficulties. It hurts, they say, leaving their families, their culture, their homes.
Among their parents' generation, many choose to stay. Older Palestinians have long-standing families and careers in Gaza. University graduates have stable salaries, and some entrepreneurs are investing in new ventures, as a historic home converted into a café-restaurant and a fancy new wedding hall on the Mediterranean's shore for Gaza's thriving wedding business.
And some of the immigrants in Gazan, following a better job, took Khalil Abu Ibrahim his wife and children in the boats across the Mediterranean last year, from Turkey to Greece and then Austria. But he couldn't stop living costs and he and his family returned to Gaza.
Now he has found a way to make a decent home in Gaza. Using his experience as an immigrant, he collects a fee to help other young Palestinians apply for a visa to escape.