Grassroots Initiatives Are Helping Gazans Build Lives in Cairo

In the absence of support from the Egyptian government or international aid agencies, civil society is stepping in to assist the dispossessed

Grassroots Initiatives Are Helping Gazans Build Lives in Cairo
People cross the Rafah border crossing from southern Gaza into Egypt in November 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

On Feb. 10, Rajai and Asma Shalayel paid over $30,000 for permits to leave Gaza with their five children, fleeing into Egypt via the Rafah crossing.

“We were happy to escape the war, the death, the destruction. But psychologically … it also means that you are leaving and may never come back again,” said Asma, 51, as she fought back tears. “We saw many ambulances carrying people who were in such terrible condition. Thank God we are okay.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said several times that the solution for Gaza’s besieged, starving and displaced people will not be found in his country. At the Cairo Peace Summit in October, he delivered a speech in which he made his position clear, saying, “The liquidation of the Palestinian issue without a just solution will not happen, and under no circumstances will it be at Egypt’s expense.” He reiterated his policy on March 24, after visiting wounded Palestinians at Arish General Hospital with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. In a statement quoted by the government-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, Sisi said that his rejection of settling displaced Palestinians from Gaza in Egypt was “complete and categorical.”

But the situation on the ground in Gaza is dire. As the war rages on, the U.N. and various international aid organizations estimate that at least 1.7 million people, or 85% of the population, have been displaced from their homes. The north of Gaza, which is cut off from aid trucks, is teetering on the edge of famine. The Gazan Ministry of Health estimates that at least 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 80,000 wounded. With imminent death by starvation or airstrike a real possibility, those with the financial resources to pay the astronomical fees for crossing permits are fleeing, though they are aware that the Israeli authorities might never allow them to return to their homes in Gaza.

Israel’s spokespersons have insisted many times when speaking with international media that the war in Gaza is against Hamas and not against the civilian population. Israel, they say, makes every effort to avoid hurting noncombatants. Nonetheless, Israel has closed its borders to civilians from Gaza who are trapped in a war zone. With the exception of a tiny minority of Gazans who possess Israeli citizenship, the only option for civilians who want to leave Gaza is to depart via Rafah for Egypt. Diab al-Louh, the Palestinian ambassador to Egypt, said in a recent Cairo press conference that nearly 85,000 Palestinians entered Egypt from Oct. 7 to the end of March. An average of 700 Palestinians cross at Rafah each day, he said.

Those who have arrived in Cairo say the brutality of the current war is incomparable to Israel’s previous military incursions. Traumatized and often impoverished after spending their savings on the crossing permits, they arrive with nothing: no possessions, no jobs and no prospects. All they carry is the heavy weight of worry for the loved ones and homes they left behind.

The Shalayel family left their home in Gaza City on Oct. 11 with only their passports and some clothes, believing they would return soon. They later learned that their apartment building had been leveled. During the first week of the war they moved five times, evacuating to Khan Younis and eventually to a school in Rafah, where the entire family lived in a room of roughly 30 square feet.

Before the war, Rajai, 60, was a practicing dermatologist and agricultural land owner. Asma worked in project management with nongovernmental organizations. Their son Omar, 27, was a digital artist who had just established his own studio. Baraa, 24, had graduated from the now-destroyed Al-Azhar University in Gaza and was scheduled to sign her first formal work contract as a technical proposal writer on Oct. 7. Salsabeel, 20, was a junior at Al-Azhar studying English translation. Aya, 17, and Abdelrahman, 14, were high school students and talented pianists.

The family decided to leave Gaza because Rajai has a chronic medical condition and Omar had had a cancer diagnosis in 2020, so both needed specialized medical care and medication.

“It was a difficult decision,” said Asma, explaining that the war had destroyed all their financial assets — their home and their land. Going into exile would bring terrible financial insecurity, partly because they had to raise $32,500 to pay the prohibitive fees for permits to cross Rafah and enter Egypt — $5,000 for each family member older than 16 and $2,500 for 14-year-old Abdelrahman.

The family was fortunate to have friends who had arrived in Egypt before them and were able to help them find a furnished apartment in the Fifth Settlement district of Cairo, a sprawling new neighborhood known for its gated communities.

“We were shocked at the sheer size of Cairo,” Rajai said. “Gaza City is half the size of the Fifth Settlement.”

Abdelrahman and Aya are now attending school online, via an initiative launched by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Omar has been able to do some digital art remotely. Asma and Rajai are trying to figure out what to do next; they are considering launching a catering business to make ends meet. Salsabeel recently joined An-Najah University in Nablus online, following an agreement with Al-Azhar. She and Baraa are also volunteering with the Network for Palestine, a grassroots group of Cairo mothers helping Gazan families in Egypt rebuild their lives with dignity. Baraa said, “Just as people helped us, I want to help others.”

Palestinians in Egypt are not under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) operates only in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — not in Egypt. “We don’t have a mandate in Egypt,” said Sahar Al-Jobury, chief of the UNRWA representative office in Cairo. Without help from an international aid agency or the Egyptian government, Palestinians from Gaza in Egypt often depend on individuals, private charities and grassroots organizations for financial support. Even their medical care is often covered by individual and corporate sponsors.

Civil society has stepped in to help fill the vacuum. One such initiative is the Network for Palestine. A group of Cairo mothers — Egyptian, American, Palestinian and Moroccan — set up the network in January to collect donations and connect those in need with sponsors. They opened the Pali Boutique in an apartment building in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis for displaced families from Gaza to choose from donated clothes and shoes.

On a recent Monday, the rooms were bustling with families choosing items, with some volunteers recording data from those who had just arrived while others found various ways to help. Most of the volunteers are Gazans who initially came to the boutique seeking help for their own families. Now they help those who came after them. Organizers estimate that about 1,200 Palestinians have come through the boutique, which serves 10 to 14 families a day. “A lot of people need rent, a lot of people need food, a lot of people need a lot of things,” said Stephanie Hooper, 58, one of the founders. “They have nothing. That’s why we opened; we want people to be able to survive with dignity.”

Hooper, an American married to an Egyptian, has lived in Cairo since 1988; she said the network started with one family asking for help through word of mouth. Grassroots philanthropy is new territory for her; previously, she worked in catering. Friends and acquaintances have been eager to offer support and the need continues to increase. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been contacted by someone with a desperate situation. That’s a constant thing,” she said.

The Palestinian volunteers have become a community themselves, finding some comfort in their shared experiences and giving structure to their unstructured lives. Several had been university students in Gaza. Moneer Skaik, 20, who arrived in Egypt in November, had been in his third year studying software engineering at Al-Azhar University. He is now developing a web application system for the Network for Palestine while he searches for work. Another volunteer, 26-year-old Ali Nusrof, was in his fourth year at Al-Azhar and working as a classical guitar teacher who also specialized in postwar musical therapy. “The best thing is that we’re all volunteers,” said Nusrof, who arrived in December.

Sanad Initiative is composed of displaced Palestinians supporting other displaced Palestinians in both Gaza and Cairo. The four-member group holds its meetings at the Pali Boutique. Founder Amal Awni, 28, who has a degree in social development and is a former youth activist, is a Gazan who was in Cairo on a work trip when the war broke out and has since been unable to return home. “Sanad,” explained Awni, means “support” in Arabic, “because we are supporting each other,” she said.

The group has been raising money to provide cooked meals and bread to families in shelters and tents in Rafah. In Cairo they help families with food, rent, medical treatment, clothing and other basic needs. Sanad has also brought together displaced Palestinians for emotional support groups and social gatherings.

Awni’s parents, eight siblings and fiance are still in Gaza. “When my parents ask me what I’m eating, I don’t want to tell them,” she said. “I can’t be happy when they are unhappy.” She sold her jewelry to raise money to get her fiance out of Gaza, but it was not enough to cover the prohibitive cost of a crossing permit.

Abwab Al-Khair, a charity founded in 2018, has been helping Palestinian university students who are stranded in Egypt with no source of funds, and families who can no longer afford rent.

Abwab Al-Khair founder Haitham El-Tabei, an Egyptian journalist now based in Riyadh, said the organization provides an average of 3,500 Egyptian pounds ($73) per month for Palestinian students and helps to furnish apartments for families, but they are finding it difficult to meet the ever-expanding need. “The number of families is increasing every day. The furniture challenge is getting more pressing. And at a certain point, you cannot help all the people coming from Gaza,” he said.

The efforts of grassroots organizations are supplemented by calls for help that are communicated informally via word of mouth. One such call was to provide meals for 40 Palestinian cancer patients and their families, 113 people in total, in a hospital in the densely populated area of El Marg in eastern Cairo during the month of Ramadan. Another was for baby clothes for a Palestinian mother who had given birth to triplets. A group called Women for Palestine sends out lists of Palestinian families and the amount of financial assistance needed for each. For example, four siblings — aged 14, 18, 22 and 24 — whose parents were killed in Gaza, and two of whom are injured, are in urgent need of tuition fees, clothes, a monthly allowance and possibly $30,000 for a surgical inner ear implant.

Aya Akel, 42, is half-Egyptian and half-Palestinian. She lives in Cairo, where she has been helping Gazan families with financial and emotional support. Her Palestinian grandfather and Egyptian grandmother were displaced from Jerusalem during the Nakba in 1948. They arrived in Egypt when her father was 5 years old.

“For me, it’s a personal thing. I’ve seen my father struggle. I’ve seen him always feeling he’s not home,” Akel said. She was born in Egypt but became a citizen only in 2004, after then-President Hosni Mubarak enacted a law that naturalized the children of Egyptian women married to foreign-born men. Previously, Egyptian women married to foreign nationals could not pass their nationality on to their children.

Akel’s grandfather was a fabric wholesaler in Jerusalem; after he left during the 1948 war, the Israeli government seized his business. “The one thing we were able to keep was his house. But we have people living there, because if it’s left unattended, it will be confiscated,” Akel said. Her grandparents were able to reestablish their business in Egypt; today Akel runs her own company, Aya Textiles. But while the family is grateful for their success, “the feeling that you’re never home still exists for my dad.”

Akel said that the common thread that connects the families from Gaza that she is helping is that “none of them wanted to leave.” One Palestinian woman was trapped under rubble with her 1-year-old and 7-year-old daughters for several hours after an airstrike. Their trauma was exacerbated by a horrific experience in an overcrowded hospital that was barely operational. Her Egyptian citizenship provided her and her family with an escape route, but they left only because they felt there was no other option. The woman’s husband is in Belgium, but they cannot join him; visas are almost impossible to acquire. “I think it’s going to be very hard for people here,” Akel said. “Ironically, it’s one of the easiest things to raise money. But giving them stability, a home, school — all of this has proven to be very hard for them.”

Palestinians have fled to Egypt in waves, especially following the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. During the Nasser presidency, from 1956 to 1970, they were treated as Egyptian nationals; before and since, the state has designated them foreign nationals. Obtaining a residency permit requires certain conditions, such as marriage to an Egyptian or a license to work. Finding a job is also difficult, because Egyptian labor law specifies that only 10% of employees in a given company can be foreigners, with the exception of companies operating in special economically liberalized free zones, for whom the maximum is 25%.

Oroub El-Abed is an Amman-based refugee research consultant and adjunct associate professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, whose book “Unprotected: Palestinians in Egypt since 1948,” is based on interviews conducted between 2001 and 2003 with 80 Palestinian families in Egypt. She estimates that from 100,000 to 200,000 Palestinians currently live in the country, with most in a state of legal and economic uncertainty. “What I wrote in my book continues to be valid until today,” she said. “Egypt needs to assume the responsibility vis-a-vis the refugees that live in its land — full stop.”

But Egypt is in the midst of an economic crisis, with massive debt, an acute foreign currency shortage and soaring inflation. Since early 2022, the Egyptian pound has lost more than two-thirds of its value against the dollar in a series of devaluations. Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping have caused Suez Canal revenue to drop by more than 50%. The country is struggling to support its own population of 106 million, let alone refugees — including more than 500,000 who fled from Sudan over the past year.

For people from Gaza, the choices are stark: Flee Gaza and survive, or stay in Gaza and face the constant threat of death from bombings, bullets, starvation or disease.

Nedal Al Abadla, 46, left his home in Khan Younis with his wife, Fadwa, and four children, following the Israeli army’s orders to move south. They lived in a tent in Rafah for 80 days. Al Abadla’s home and the business he owned — a driving school and five cars — were all destroyed. He pulled out his phone to show me pictures of his three-story home, now a pile of rubble; of him and his cousins smiling during happier days; of his cousins’ bodies after they were killed; of his family sharing a meal of lentil soup in their tent in Rafah.

Al Abadla’s youngest son, 13-year-old Mohamed, has a degenerative disease and is in a wheelchair. His wife has diabetes. With no electricity in Gaza, it was difficult to keep her insulin at the required temperature and supplies were running low. “We decided to go to Egypt because it was very hard for the two of them; they need special medical care,” Nedal said.

Nedal’s grandmother is Egyptian, so he and his children have Egyptian passports. But they still had to pay $650 each, plus an additional $1,200 for Fadwa, for crossing permits. They borrowed the money from a friend and entered Egypt on Jan. 29. In Cairo, they are renting a small apartment on a crowded, noisy, unpaved street in the densely populated Nasr City neighborhood for 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($215) a month. It is impossible for Mohamed to leave the apartment in his wheelchair. He cannot navigate the stairs of his apartment building or the dirt road; Uber drivers refuse to take him, saying the wheelchair does not fit in the trunk of the car.

“I’m trying to find a better place, but the prices are very high,” Nedal said. “Here in Egypt there’s safety, in terms of nourishment and health, and mental peace of mind, but we need money for our basic needs.” Without permission to work, Nedal cannot earn a living. His financial distress is exacerbated by constant worrying about his friends and family still in Gaza. His two oldest sons, 22-year-old Fouad and 20-year-old Mourad, were studying IT and law at the now-destroyed Gaza University, but they cannot obtain their academic transcripts so they would have to start from the beginning if they wished to obtain their degrees from a university in Egypt. His daughter, 17-year-old Rima, was in the 11th grade, while Mohamed was in a school for the disabled.

“We are hopeful that we will go back, because how will I work here? I don’t have a house or a job or certificates. So we are hoping that this is temporary,” Nedal said. Fadwa, however, acknowledged that it “could take years” to rebuild Gaza.

Others view the move to Egypt as transitory until they can find better opportunities elsewhere, although that is not an easy task either. Iyad Altahrawi, 36, arrived in Egypt from Gaza on Feb. 25 with his wife, Shahad, and their 7-month-old twin girls. Iyad is head of startup programs and partnerships at Gaza Sky Geeks, a program under the auspices of Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian NGO. Prior to joining Sky Geeks he worked for Coca-Cola in the U.S. and Germany, where he earned his MBA. He is looking for job opportunities in Europe, the U.S. or Canada but applying for a work permit and an entry visa for Palestinians is “more complicated,” he said. There are only 41 countries that admit Palestinians without a visa; according to the 2024 Henley Passport Index, Palestinian Authority passports rank 91st in terms of travel freedom, just after North Korea.

Iyad’s story of leaving Gaza has themes in common with those of many other displaced Palestinians in Egypt, but each has its unique circumstances. His twins were just 2 months old when the war started. Iyad and Shahad were living in a four-story building in Nuseirat in the middle of Gaza with family members on each floor. There were several airstrikes nearby; the shrapnel caused heavy damage to one of his brother’s apartments. At one point, more than 70 family members were staying in the building; Iyad’s immediate family occupied just one cramped room.

When the Israeli army ordered them to evacuate, they moved to a shelter in Rafah. They decided to leave one month into the war due to the scarcity of food, medicine, formula and diapers. “There’s the war and there’s the war when you have babies,” Iyad said. Supplies would be impossible to find for days or weeks, and then would reappear at five or six times the price. A pack of diapers that cost 50 shekels ($13) before the war now cost nearly $100. The twins had red spots all over their bodies and were constantly sick, but there were no creams or medications available.

Once approved, the payment for permits must be remitted in cash, in U.S. currency, at an office in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. This presented a further challenge because Egypt is in the grips of a foreign currency crunch. To make the payment, Iyad had to ask a friend living in Jordan to physically take the $15,000 in cash to Egypt. Another friend is lending them his apartment in the Cairo suburb of Maadi while he is traveling. Iyad is fortunate to be on a consultancy contract for at least a couple of months. He also wants to help freelancers work remotely and connect Palestinian talents in Egypt with employers.

“We don’t have time to mourn things. I try to keep myself busy all the time,” he said. “It’s the only way to get into survival mode.”

In addition to the daily struggles of building a new life, displaced Palestinians are dealing with the ongoing emotional trauma of the war. Lama Bouchema, a U.K.-based psychotherapist with extensive experience in counseling refugees and asylum seekers, is one of 20 mental health professionals offering free online counseling to Gazans in Palestine and Egypt. She became involved after reaching out to the organizer of an Instagram initiative to provide cash aid for Gazans and asking how she could help. Her volunteer work, she said, “grew from a place of frustration — seeing what is happening in Gaza and feeling so helpless.” Bouchema has taken on three patients who suffer from anxiety, depression and PTSD symptoms. “I try to normalize their responses” to this abnormal trauma, she said.

Gazans in Egypt have not even begun to come to terms with the shock of losing everything — homes, jobs, family and friends. Meanwhile they are watching the situation in Gaza become more dire by the day and feel the world has abandoned them. Bouchema said: “I think they feel like, who is going to pick us up?”

For Palestinians, whose history over the past 75 years is defined by the dispossession and exile that followed the Nakba, losing everything hits particularly hard. Asma was born and raised in Jordan, lived in the UAE and studied in Sudan. Her husband also grew up abroad, in Tunisia, Libya and Sudan. In 1997, four years after the first Oslo Accord and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank, they realized a lifelong dream: They moved to Gaza, where they bought a home and raised a family. After each of Israel’s military incursions they repaired any damage to their home and continued to live their lives. Those were minor issues compared with the feeling of being eternally displaced from one’s homeland. In Cairo after fleeing the current war, she said: “Now I’m living the nightmare that I was running from so many years ago.”

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