One of the most distressing scenes that Redwan Amayra witnessed in Syria was of a woman being shot as she carried some bread. After warplanes hit Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, last November, Amayra decided to flee.
A 60-year-old teacher employed with the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), Amayra had just registered with the Palestinian Authority’s embassy in Cairo. It is not the first time that his family has been uprooted: they were forced to leave Safed, a town in the Galilee region of historic Palestine, when it was attacked by Zionist forces in 1948.
“Painful”Amayra flew to Cairo last month, following a period of displacement within Syria. “I was born and lived in Yarmouk, like I was a Syrian citizen,” he said. “We did not feel like strangers in Syria, and we as Palestinians lived peacefully until recently. I feel extremely sad and painful to see the Syrians fighting each other. Fleeing from Yarmouk was a reminder of the Palestinian refugee problem — women, children and elderly fled, leaving everything behind them.”
For five consecutive days, Maryam Mousa — accompanied by her six-year-old son Mohammad — has been going back and forth from October Sixth, a suburb of Cairo, to the UNRWA office in the city. She has been seeking emergency assistance.
Now in her late forties, Mousa used to live in the Tadamon district of Damascus. She, too, fled to Egypt last month and belongs to a Palestinian family uprooted from Safed in 1948.
Mousa’s sister and her husband had already fled Syria and moved to October Sixth. Mousa’s own husband is a Syrian policeman and has remained in that country. “What should we do?” she asked. “Wait until we are killed? We have been forced to flee; life over there is no longer bearable.”
“I ask for God’s mercy and protection,” she said. “We Palestinians should get some relief once and for all, following decades of displacement from one place to another.”
“Turned into beggars”In downtown Cairo, Samir Talla, a 46-year-old Palestinian refugee in Syria, was on his way to meet with a Egyptian doctors’ union, intending to request help for his four children.
His family of five are now living in a three-room rented apartment in the Cairo suburb of Faisal, along with 13 other relatives.
“I would not have been able to come over to here without the help of my brother-in-law, who had rented this apartment earlier,” he said.
“My house in the Damascus suburb of Khan al-Shaih was shelled right after I left. For the past couple of months, we have been turned into beggars. We get some food items like potatoes and tomatoes from charities here in Cairo.”
He stated that his children need about 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($140) per month for medicine and other basic necessities. “As you see, the eldest of my children is 13 years old. I cannot afford to give them medicine. Back in Syria, I worked in the private sector and as fighting continued over there, I lost all my savings.”
NegotiationsEach day, the Palestinian Authority’s embassy in Cairo receives about twenty Palestinian refugees from Syria.
“We here in the embassy try to ensure them whatever help we can afford,” said Ragheb Shahin, a spokesman for the embassy. “We have distributed an urgent one-time payment of 500 Egyptian pounds for every single refugee.
“Also, we have obtained approval from the Egyptian foreign ministry for temporary residency permits for Palestinian refugees that would allow them to register at government schools or receive treatment at government-run hospitals or clinics.”
Shahin added that UNRWA has offered additional help to Palestinian refugees who have left Syria. This includes providing 100 Egyptian pounds per month to each refugee student.
UNRWA has had an office in Cairo for decades. Yet the agency has not provided the same level of services to Palestinian refugees in Egypt as it has in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Manal Arnous, head of Cairo’s UNRWA office, said that it had been in “constant contact” with the Egyptian government in an effort to extend its operations across the country “at least for the moment, so that we can provide assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.” He added: “The Egyptian government has contended that any UNRWA operation in Egypt would affect the Palestinian people’s right to return to historical Palestine.”
Once UNRWA secures an endorsement from Egypt to expand its operations, it will work in tandem with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Arnous explained. That agency has already been providing assistance to Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria.
Mohammad Dairy, a representative of the UNHCR, confirmed that negotiations are taking place with the Egyptian authorities on relieving the plight of these refugees. “We hope that a political settlement will be implemented inside Syria,” he said, “so that all these refugees will go back to their country in safety and dignity.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect that the age of Samir Talla’s eldest son is 13, not 14, that the name of the UNHCR representative is Mohammad Dairy and that the name of the Damascus suburb where many Palestinians fled is Khan al-Sheih.