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Palestinian refugees from Gaza live in hiding in Egypt

CAIRO — When Israel began its war against Hamas, Cairo was determined not to accept Palestinian refugees. Yet more than 115,000 Gaza residents have entered Egypt since October, the Palestinian Authority embassy here estimates.

Most live in limbo, without legal status and without prospect of finding somewhere else. They are members of a new Palestinian diaspora, a people already haunted by memories of expulsion.

While several thousand sick and injured people were treated in Egyptian hospitals, the vast majority of evacuees came with the help of foreign embassies or through Hala Consulting and Tourism – an Egyptian company reportedly linked to the state security service that charges a hefty “coordination fee” to help Palestinians escape.

Once in Egypt, the refugees, who have no access to medical care, are largely left to their own devices. Tens of thousands have illegally overstayed their 45-day tourist visas and are now no longer entitled to public education, health care and other services.

The UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees is not dealing with the refugees in Egypt. And the United Nations refugee agency said it could not help the new arrivals because Cairo does not recognize its mandate for the Palestinians.

A spokesman for Egypt’s foreign press center declined to comment. Egyptian officials have previously denied government involvement in Hala and said they would not tolerate the prosecution of Palestinians seeking to leave Gaza.

Washington Post reporters visited displaced Gaza residents in their homes and workplaces in the greater Cairo area, where they have found refuge and some peace but are unable to build a future.

Papers are everything to Palestinians. They determine where they can live, work, travel and access services.

For a 42-year-old mother of six daughters who moved to Gaza after her marriage, her Jordanian passport could mean the difference between life and death.

In December, after the family had endured a harrowing journey to southern Gaza, the woman received a phone call. Her name was on the list for evacuation to Egypt, the Jordanian official said. Her daughters’ names were not on the list.

The woman spoke to The Post on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized by her employer to speak publicly.

Jordanian women cannot pass on their nationality to their children; all six of the woman’s daughters only have Palestinian passports, which severely limits their travel options. At the Rafah border crossing, she begged Egyptian officials to let her daughters through. After hours of waiting, customs officials escorted them through.

Her husband, who works in a hospital, stayed behind.

The woman spent her first month in Cairo trying to get permission to leave Jordan, but the country already hosts more than two million Palestinian refugees and is not willing to accept anyone fleeing the war.

“We are stuck here in Egypt,” she said.

The woman took her daughters to Alexandria for the spring, hoping that the sight of the sea would ease her homesickness. Without an Egyptian residence permit, she could not find permanent work.

In May, the family moved to a quiet desert suburb an hour from downtown Cairo. Their younger daughters, who are not allowed to attend Egyptian schools, were able to attend classes in Ramallah virtually through a program run by the Palestinian Authority embassy.

But the girls have missed months of classes because of the war and are struggling to catch up. Math, once 15-year-old Batoul’s favorite subject, has become a source of frustration.

“The people here are so nice to us. When they know that we come from Palestine, more specifically from Gaza, they sometimes don’t let us pay for coffee, taxis or snacks,” said Batoul. But it is a “new life – it’s hard.”

Their mother tries to help the girls adjust.

“We are very close to the Egyptians and we love them,” she said. “But they have to do much, much more.”

On a recent Monday night, the El-Khozondar falafel restaurant was packed with Gazans seeking a taste of home. Waiters carried trays of salads, falafel and fatteh – a Palestinian dish made of pita bread, chickpeas and meat.

Majid El-Khozondar, 60, had already started planning a branch of his famous restaurant chain in Cairo before leaving Gaza, while he spent the winter in tents with his children and grandchildren, who had been displaced from their homes several times and nearly lost their lives in an Israeli airstrike.

All three of his restaurants in Gaza were destroyed by the fighting – as was the five-story house he built with all his savings in 2021. But the family – and the brand – had survived war and displacement before: Majid’s grandfather, who founded the flagship falafel shop in Jaffa, opened the first branch in Gaza after being displaced during the creation of Israel in 1948, an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

After paying $25,000, Majid Hala crossed the border into Egypt in February with two of his sons, their wives and a young grandchild. Another son and his Egyptian wife had already left Gaza.

He opened the falafel shop in Nasr City, the district in eastern Cairo where many residents of the Gaza Strip have settled.

Most of its customers and employees are displaced Palestinians for whom the restaurant has become a community center.

“Some people come here just to meet. Some people spend too much time at one table – that’s a problem for business,” he said with a rueful smile.

Majid sends his earnings to the rest of his family trapped in Gaza. He still hopes he can get them to safety. But at some point, he says, he would like to return home.

“I love Egypt. … I used to spend half the year in Egypt,” he said. “But I can’t replace Palestine.”

Mosab Abu Toha, 31, knows he is one of the lucky ones. His reputation as a poet – he has an MFA from Syracuse University and won an American Book Award last year – meant that literary figures from around the world came to his aid when he was arrested by the Israel Defense Forces in November as he tried to flee northern Gaza with his young family.

Two weeks after his release, they were able to enter Egypt – an exit made easier by his son Mostafa’s US citizenship. Abu Toha, his wife Maram and children Yazzan (8), Yaffa (7) and Mostafa (4) stayed with friends before moving into an airy apartment provided by the American University in Cairo – as part of Abu Toha’s writing residency there in the spring.

Abu Toha taught a poetry class and enjoyed the peace and quiet to write. His next collection is due to be published on October 29 – almost a year to the day after an Israeli airstrike destroyed his house. He describes it as a response to the loss of his library.

“For me, poetry is a poetry of testimony,” said Abu Toha, holding a copy of his first collection, the only book he brought back from Gaza.

The children made friends with Egyptians. Yazzan, a quiet boy with dark hair, stopped asking if his uncles and aunts in Gaza were still alive. One afternoon in early June, Yaffa sang a French song she had learned at the private international school the children attended. But Mostafa, the redhead, still wakes up in the middle of the night, crying and pointing at something his parents cannot see.

Despite the support of friends and the university, life in Egypt was not easy, says Abu Toha. He was not able to get a residence permit. The private school cost almost $6,000. Applying for visas to travel abroad was a nightmare.

“When you talk to people here in Egypt, they always talk about how they love the Gazans. When it comes to bureaucracy, you are nothing, you are an alien,” he said.

His inability to protect his father and siblings, who were still in the Gaza Strip – despite his international contacts – haunts him, Abu Toha said.

Unable to stay in Egypt, the family returns to Syracuse, where Abu Toha has been appointed professor. He plans to give readings from his next book in the United States.

“The role of poetry is to document the suffering and misery of the human experience,” he said, hoping that it “will not be repeated.”

Mohammad Sabbah, 44, felt oppressed in Gaza long before the war.

After 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza, “life in Gaza was no longer life,” he said. Electricity was sporadic, poverty was widespread and freedoms were limited.

Sabbah worked for nearly two decades as a researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. He went to the sites of Israeli airstrikes in previous wars to document civilian casualties and brought to light human rights abuses under Hamas, which arrested him in 2012.

He had previously considered leaving Gaza, but family ties and commitment to his work – “my baby,” as he called it – kept him there.

But after the October 7 Hamas-led attacks, he said, Israeli forces “want blood, they want revenge, they want to teach people a lesson.”

When Israeli troops began scaling back their ground operations in central Gaza in February, Sabbah knew Rafah, where he had sought refuge with his wife and four children, was next.

With the help of a cousin in Egypt, he paid $22,500 to register his family with Hala in early March. He spent his last night in Gaza with his 82-year-old mother, a diabetic who had trouble breathing.

“She wasn’t happy that I left,” he said.

With a few clothes, some olive oil and an electric bread oven, the family crossed the border into Egypt in April. Their bus dropped them off in Nasr City, and Sabbah took his wife and children to the residential quarters of Palestine Hospital. He didn’t know where else to go.

He soon found an apartment through word of mouth. Rents in Egypt are expensive, he said; the landlords “see us as a sack full of money.”

In June, Sabbah learned via WhatsApp that his mother had died. She had become ill after being displaced by the Israeli invasion of Rafah. Since then, he has been unable to contact his siblings.

In Gaza, “we experienced an emergency situation,” Sabbah said. In Egypt, it still feels that way.

“Everything is getting closer.”

Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.

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