Fatemah El-Taweel, 31, left war torn Syria where she was born and raised for Egypt. Yet when she attempted to send her three children to school here she met with an unexpected response.
“A Palestinian, and you want to enroll your children for education here?” asked an employee of the ministry of education whose shocked face made it clear he thought her request audacious.
“I told him yes, I do,” says Fatemah. “Just like Syrian refugees who are given these rights in Egypt.”
A presidential decree issued last September grants exceptional rights to Syrian refugees in Egypt, including access to government schools. It did not, however, make any mention of Palestinians who had fled Syria..
There are an estimated 525,000 Palestinians in Syria. Following the creation of Israel in 1948 and, in the aftermath of the 1967 war Israel’s occupation of what remained of Palestine, ethnically cleansed Palestinians sought refuge in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
In Syria they enjoyed equal rights with the host country’s citizens, a privilege denied by most Arab countries.
Now they are subject to the same atrocities.
Under the threat of missiles, bombardment from tanks and trigger-happy snipers Fatemah’s family fled to Egypt last December. They have since been joined by 1,900 families, an estimated 10,000 Palestinians who moved from Syria to Egypt to escape the conflict.
None are given residency permits. The Palestinian embassy doesn’t follow their cases, monitor their arrival or seek to register them.
The luckiest receive short term tourist visas. Scores are turned away at Cairo airport. If they are between the age of 18 and 40 and traveling alone they are sent back to Damascus, returned to the life threatening situation they had sought to escape but faced with the added burden of the suspicion of the Syrian authorities towards asylum seekers rejected by Egypt.
Denied refugee rights Syrian Palestinians must grapple with a bureaucracy that either doesn’t recognize them or lacks the flexibility to do so and negotiate a decades long mentality that considers them a threat to national security.
Very few managed to flee with their savings. Most didn’t have time to take anything. Lacking any support in a country they barely know, they are left to battle for healthcare, education and housing. Those who did manage to bring money find it soon runs out.
The constant threat of deportation is unsettling. They face an uncertain future in the absence of any institutional support.
Last week hundreds of Palestinian-Syrian refugees began a sit-in at the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo, demanding practical solutions for the dire problems they face.
“I'm fighting and struggling to be recognized as a refugee,” Abdeljabar Bilal, a 42-year-old Palestinian lawyer who moved to Cairo from Syria last October with his family, told Ahram. “I’m not a tourist.”
They are demanding equal status with Syrian refugees in Egypt, who not only have educational and health rights but the option of registration with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which provides financial assistance, educational grants, food coupons, protection from deportation, health care and counseling. But this can only happen if Egypt – the host country – gives UNCHR permission to work with Syrian-Palestinians.
Lost in technicalities
According to a UNHCR source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the commission has repeatedly applied for the necessary permission from the ministry of foreign affairs only to be turned down.
The ministry says it’s doing its best to find a solution for Syrian Palestinians in Egypt. “If we didn’t want them to enter Egypt we could have prevented them from doing so,” a ministry official said to Ahram. “We are letting them in because we understand that they are individuals fleeing from war.”
The situation, she adds, is very “complicated.” There are no quick or easy solutions.
To balance – or compensate – Palestinians for the creation of Israel on occupied Palestinian land in 1948 the UN allowed several resolutions protecting Palestinian rights, including the right of all displaced Palestinians to return to their homeland.
To emphasize the uniqueness of their case (Palestine remains the only occupied country in the world) the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was created in 1949 specifically to provide relief and jobs for Palestinian refugees.
In Egypt, unlike Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank where refugee camps were built especially for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA only operates a liaison office.
The level and the nature of relief provided by UNRWA elsewhere cannot be replicated in Egypt without a change in its mandate here. And that requires both Egypt’s approval and a vote by the UN General Assembly. Yet Cairo’s position is that only UNRWA, and not the UNHCR, is authorized to address the problems facing Palestinian refugees coming from Syria.
According to a foreign ministry official involved in the issue, Egypt is discussing the possibility of re-channeling part of UNRWA’s Syria budget to Palestinian refugees in Egypt. This way the agency maintains its liaison mandate in Egypt.
But this is unlikely to offer much of a solution given UNRWA’s already stretched budget. Any nominal financial assistance that might be offered will be a far cry from the services provided by UNRWA in its areas of operation which include education, health, social services, protection, micro finance and infrastructure development.
Identity and security
While Egypt’s foreign ministry is at the forefront of dealing with the refugees it doesn’t have a monopoly over decisions that seek to address the Syrian-Palestinians’ dilemma.
There are the security bodies, the ministry of interior and the intelligence services, and the ministry of social affairs, which according to one Egyptian diplomat all have a say.
Officially, Egypt is maintaining its commitment to preserve Palestinian identity so long as there is Israeli occupation, preventing the “erosion” of that identity by refusing to allow the refugees to be registered by UNHCR which does not distinguish Palestinians from the rest of the world’s refugees.
The most significant difference between other refugees and Palestinians, as per UN resolution 194, is that descendants of Palestinians keep their refugee status, giving them the right to return to their homeland.
But technically, registering with UNHCR would not strip Palestinian refugees of their inalienable rights to their homeland. And given the limitations of what UNRWA’s liaison office can do in Egypt, temporary registration with UNHCR would offer the fastest and most practical, albeit partial, solution to the problems facing Syrian Palestinians in Egypt.
Abdeljabar Bilal, the refugee lawyer, points out that UNHCR would provide a yellow card for refugees which protects them from deportation. “This isn’t about wanting to be provided with some food and means to live but about gaining some respite from the constant fear that any security body in Egypt can decide on a whim to deport me,” he says.
Critics argue that Egypt’s logic of preserving the Palestinian identity is being abused to justify political, racist and security motivated practices against refugees.
Peace agreement with Isreal
Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s rule (1956-1970) Palestinians were granted equal rights with Egyptians.
This changed drastically when his successor Anwar El-Sadat (1970-1981) signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in 1979. Sadat’s government reneged on Palestinian rights and changed the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict for good.
As official Egypt normalized relations with Israel it broke ranks with the rest of the Arab world, including Palestinians who lost their privileges in Egypt. Part of Sadat’s defense mechanism was to launch an anti-Palestinian campaign in the media which accused them of abandoning or selling their land to Israelis, and of involving Egypt in costly wars.
When the Palestinians decided to pursue a peace process with Israel and created the Palestinian Authority relations with Egypt improved but the benefits enjoyed under Nasser were never restored. The Palestinian file became the prerogative of the intelligence and security services in Egypt which, say critics, continued to approach the issue with suspicion and often open hostility.
Many commentators question the genuineness of Egypt’s position in preserving Palestinian identity while also cooperating and normalizing with Israel on various levels, including security.
Syria, for example, pursued a different tack, issuing refugee travel identity cards for Palestinians so as not to grant them citizenship and risk dissolving their identity but ensuring they enjoyed full citizen rights, including conscription in the army and access to senior state jobs.
The status of Palestinians in Egypt, in contrast, is extremely volatile. Their temporary resident permits are constantly threatened and the right to travel freely is restricted. Egypt has developed a far from welcoming reputation for Palestinians. The sad fact is that those who fled here from Syria have done so because they had no other choice.
'Don't kill us twice'
Mahmoud El-Shehabi, 46, who was born in Syria’s El-Yarmouk refugee camp to which his father moved after fleeing his Palestinian hometown of Lubiya, Tiberias, in 1948, recalls his life before the armed conflict.
He graduated with a university degree in applied chemistry and became a successful construction contractor. He owned property and a farm but was forced to stop working as early as 2011 when the situation in Syria became dangerous. In summer 2012 he took his family to the Lebanese capital Beirut thinking they’d be safer there.
They faced open hostility from day one in Lebanon when an immigration officer who demanded his papers glanced at them only to snap, “what’s this trash?”
“I had never left Syria before and it was painful and humiliating to be in this situation,” he told Ahram as he squatted on the dusty pavement facing the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo with hundreds of other Syrian Palestinians.
Palestinian children and their parents held placards which read “Don’t kill us twice,” “All embassies are for the service of their people except the Palestinian embassy,” and “Where are human rights?”
Beirut, buzzing with pro-Bashar Al-Assad elements, monitored refugees from Syria, including Palestinians who were viewed with suspicion which made feel unsafe. After a month of tension he took his family and moved back to Syria which was getting even more dangerous.
One day a missile crashed into his neighbour’s house. It took four days to recover the bodies from beneath the rubble.
“He was holding his son in the kitchen where they died. It was then that I decided I couldn’t stay in Syria any longer,” said El-Shehabi.
He chose to come to Cairo, calculating it was a relatively inexpensive city where he could afford to support his family. Those calculations, though, proved far from accurate.
As the war in Syria raged ever more viciously he found he had to enroll his four children in a private school after failing to get official permits to register them in public schools.
He wasn’t making money in Egypt and in order to get a residency permit he had to provide proof his children went to school. It cost him a fortune but his family got a one-year permit with a stamp “not to be renewed.”
El-Shehabi is hoping to find luck with a small butchers shop which he is opening with partners and the assistance of an Egyptian philanthropist.
“I appreciate the help some of us are getting from Egyptians but where is our embassy? Is it even aware of the refugee crisis? Why isn’t it doing anything for us or speaking on our behalf with the authorities?”
It’s the frustrated question on everybody’s lips at the sit-in. Protesters accuse the embassy of indifference, bullying and incompetence. After ignoring the sit in on the first day Palestinian ambassador Barakat El-Farra visited the protesters and promised to find solutions with the Egyptian foreign ministry and PA president Mahmoud Abass.
“Does Abass know about the Palestinian refugees in Syria? He’s never mentioned them before,” quipped one protester. Although the promises were met with skepticism, the protesters agreed to suspend the sit-in for ten days to give the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities a chance to act on their words. If no practical solutions are offered the plan is to resume and escalate the sit next Saturday.
It’s been a week since the suspension and Abdeljabar Bilal says no progress has been made.
“They think we’ll give up and this will go away but it won’t,” he told Ahram. “All I have with me is $400. Once it runs out I’ll have no option but to continue protesting in the street with my wife and six children. I’m not going anywhere.”
This story was also published on Ahram Weekly