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Island of exile: Egypt's forgotten Palestinian community
Sixty-five years on from the Nakba, the Nile Delta's Fadel Island, housing the largest community of 1948 refugees, struggles to survive and keep Palestine alive in Egypt
Zeinab El-Gundy, Wednesday 15 May 2013
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Grandchildren of Palestinian refugees playing between mud walls on Fadil Island, Sharqeya (Photo: Zeinab EL-Gundy)

When Bedouin farmer Salman Salem and his community fled Palestine by camel after war broke out in 1948, he thought he would be in Egypt's Nile Delta for just a few months. Sixty-five years later, he is still there.

What began as a temporary asylum in an uninhabited piece of desert in Sharqiya is now known as "Gezirat Fadel" or Fadel Island: a forgotten village housing the largest community of 1948 Palestinian refugees in Egypt.

"We used to farm watermelon and barley in Beersheba [in the Negev desert]. We came here on camels to escape the attack of the Zionists," Salem, 79, tells Ahram Online from his tiny mud hut. "It was meant to be a temporary solution and we believed that after the fighting we would return to our homes, but instead we had to stay and claim this area."

Salem, one of the oldest members of the community, describes how Fadel Island began as a couple of makeshift shelters made from straw after which people built small homes from mud. Now Fadel Island houses nearly 3,500 people.

"All the people in the village originate from one clan in Beersheba; they were Bedouin brothers and cousins who escaped the war," explains the village Mayor Mohamed El-Nahamawly, whose father and grandfather were chiefs of the village before him.

Unlike Salem, El-Nahamawly was born in Fadel Island. His family was forced to abandon over 400 acres of land in Beersheba (which is now part of southern Israel) when they fled to Egypt during the Nakba (Palestinian exodus).  

Speaking in a perfect Egyptian accent El-Nahamawly explains that his predecessors had chosen this area of Sharqiya governorate simply because it was empty.



"It was desert with no farms. Bedouins preferred open space where they could raise their camels, they did not belong in cities," El-Nahamawly says.

Sharqiya houses the largest population of Palestinians in Egypt who fled in 1948, explains El-Salmi Abu-Olan, who was originally from Fadel Island but recently moved to the governorate's capital Zagazig.

"You will find clusters of Palestinians in [Sharqiya towns of] Zagzig, Abu Kabir, Fakous and Belbis. People here do not call us Palestinians but rather Arabs," he adds, estimating that there are 40,000 Palestinians in the Nile Delta governorate alone.

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The Village economy: recycling plastic (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

It takes three hours from Cairo to reach the small village, which is not written on any Egyptian map. Instead you have to ask local Tuk-Tuk drivers in the nearby Abu Kabir city, who know the village because of its plastic trade, for directions to "the Arab's Island."

The village itself is not surrounded by water, as its name suggests, but an old mud wall, which winds around the clutch of shacks creating a haphazard maze.

Once inside you find a typical rural Egyptian village: it lacks key facilities, the houses have straw roofs, the streets are narrow and unpaved.

"We do not have a sewage system yet but all the villages surrounding us suffer from the same problem," the mayor bemoans, adding that the Fadel Island only got electricity in 1989.

Like many places in the region, reading and writing is a major issue in the village.

"The literacy rate has increased from five years ago to reach 30 percent, after the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt agreed to pay school fees as well the cost of schoolbooks for residents a couple of years ago," says village resident Mohamed Nossair.

Unlike Egyptians, who have access to free public education, foreigners have to pay for their schooling. 

However, according to the website of the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt, the mission only covers school fees of 1,300 students across the whole of Sharqiya.

"We have a problem of large families, I have eight kids while my uncle has 19, we simply cannot afford to educate them all," Nossair explains, adding that some of his children work while some go to school. "Most of the people here get diplomas from educational institutions not university degrees."

Responding to the growing problem, in 2010 the Palestinian Embassy funded a one-roomed school to fight illiteracy in the village.

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The school's only teacher Abdel-Hamid says its important to keep heritage alive (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

The small classroom is papered with posters of deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former premier Salam Fayyad and renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

"The students need more teachers, plus they need to know more about the history of their country, Palestine, and its folklore. I am just an Egyptian," explains the only teacher, Mohamed Abdel-Hamid. He worries that the younger generation of refugees is becoming increasingly out of touch with their heritage.

Originally an elementary-school teacher in a neighbouring village, Abdel-Hamid explains that Palestinian students cannot be added to the registry of Egyptian schools or obtain textbooks without the approval of Sharqiya's security apparatus.


This approval is usually received after a month of students starting their schooling, Abdel-Hamid continues, which means Palestinian students frequently miss out on textbooks because they have already been distributed among the Egyptian children.

"The process is long and it can make the students feel discriminated against. You have to apply at the foreign students department in the Ministry of Education in Cairo," former village resident Abu-Olan explains.

The Palestinian community has found creative ways around the problem: the majority present a "poverty certificate" from the Ministry of Social Affairs to the education ministry to prove they cannot pay the fees.

"Of course, university is another issue because as a Palestinian you have to pay LE1500 to popular faculties like medicine and agriculture," continues Abu-Olan, who studied at Cairo's Al-Azhar University. "The student may graduate from an Egyptian university but will not get a certificate until he pays the fees."

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The village classroom (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

Money is constant problem. Aside from farming, the village's main source of revenue is recycling plastic.

Rubbish is brought to the village; the youth then remove the plastic casings in order to sell it. Many children work in this business: some of them go to go school in the morning while others do not bother at all.

"We can't find jobs anymore, this is why I want to work in the Gulf," says Walid Nossair, a 26-year-old resident who tried his luck as a carpenter and builder in order to support his wife and two children. 

"However, although the Gulf States receive Palestinian migrant workers, it is now much harder for Palestinians to travel and work in the Gulf if they are coming from Egypt," Nossair claims.

Rising youth unemployment is compounded by inequality between Egyptians and Palestinians when it comes to the price of food, in particular bread, residents explain.

"Palestinians have to pay more than Egyptians for a single loaf of bread, this is too much for our large families," Abu-Olan says, explaining that the new system of bread distribution adopted by the current Minister of Supply Bassem Ouda is adding to the problem.

Starting this July, subsidised food will only be supplied to those who have Egyptian identification cards: something Palestinian refugees do not have.

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Nafela Hasouna, born in 1922 and escaped Beersheba as a young bride (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

Another problem facing the village is the lack of health care.

"The Ministry of Health allocated nearly LE1 million to build a clinic here but they needed a plot to build the clinic on and we do not have the right to own the land," Mayor El-Nahamawly explains, adding that the funds were then spent on another area.

"There is even a lot of red tape surrounding marriage. We have to travel to Cairo to get permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then the Ministry of Justice after which we have to document the marriage at the capital's notary office. The whole process costs a lot of money, why can't we have a notary office for foreigners in Zagazig?" the mayor adds.

"We did not suffer from those problems in the past as we used to be treated the same as Egyptians," Abu-Olan says, making reference to life under former president Gamel Abdel-Nasser, when Palestinians were granted equal rights with Egyptians.

This changed in 1977 following political differences between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and then-president Anwar Sadat. Sadat cancelled Nasser's decrees and Palestinians were consequently treated as foreigners.

The eternal problem separating Palestinian communities from other migrants in Egypt is lack of identification and proper travel papers.

"Almost everyone is here documented as a Palestinian refugee, we have got Palestinian travel documents issued from Cairo except the few that received the Egyptian nationality from their mothers," explains the mayor.

Even this was a battle. It was only in 2004 that a presidential decree was issued granting Egyptian nationality to the children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers.
"However it was not implemented until after the January 25 Revolution in 2011," explains Palestinian resident Abu-Alwan, "We had to protest in Cairo for several weeks until the then-prime minister Essam Sharaf finally put the decree into action and the Palestinian children of the Egyptian mothers were granted Egyptian nationality."

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The people of Fadel Island and its mayor hold a reconciliation council (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

The problems Fadel Island faces has drawn the attention of Egyptian and Palestinian activists who sought to make public the plight of the forgotten village.

Consequently on Friday 17 May, three days after the international commemoration of Nakba Day, activists are organising a convoy of medical aid and supplies for the children from Cairo.

"As Palestinian activists and organisations, we believe we can help Fadel Island village and our people there," says Ahmed Biqawi, one of the event co-coordinators, while showing Ahram Online around the village. 

Sixty-five years on, village residents say they are fighting to preserve their traditions.

"We solve our problems, especially between families, by ourselves using our traditional reconciliation system," Mayor El-Nahamawly explains. "Police often send civil disputes back to the mayor to deal with, even between Palestinian families outside the village."

On the day of Ahram Online's visit, the village was hosting a "reconciliation council" between two fighting Palestinian families from Zagazig, after the Sharqiya Security Directorate requested the mayor intervene. Instead of resorting to legal action residents try and resolve the issues in a meeting.

This is one of the small ways they can keep their culture alive, say the older members of the community who still dream of one day returning to their homeland. However the villagers are in limbo and that dream is fading.

The younger generation, who speak in perfect Egyptian accents, know little about where their great-grandfathers came from.

"As long as there is life there is hope," concludes Mayor El-Nahamawly as he walks around his village, "Right now we are living our lives normally like Egyptians, pushing for key changes, but we still have hope."

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