Syrian refugees stranded in Gaza ‘prison’ for a decade

Syrian refugees Lina Moustafa Hassoun and her son Nawras Deeb pose with their expired Syrian passports in a house in Gaza City on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
Syrian refugees Lina Moustafa Hassoun and her son Nawras Deeb pose with their expired Syrian passports in a house in Gaza City on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 14 December 2021

Syrian refugees stranded in Gaza ‘prison’ for a decade

Syrian refugees Lina Moustafa Hassoun and her son Nawras Deeb pose with their expired Syrian passports in a house in Gaza City on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
  • More than half of Gaza’s roughly two million population are descended from Palestinian refugees who fled their homes when Israel was created in 1948, and who today depend on United Nations aid

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Nearly 10 years after Imad Al-Hisso fled the civil war in Syria, he remains trapped in Gaza, a place he calls “a prison,” with no clear path to return home.
Gaza may seem an unlikely destination for those fleeing conflict.
The coastal Palestinian territory has been blockaded by Israel since 2007 when Hamas Islamists took power, and access to the enclave is tightly controlled by the Jewish state and Egypt.
But after being advised by a friend that he could live safely in the strip, Hisso along with dozens of other Syrians slipped into Gaza through tunnels dug under Egyptian land.
“After the events began in Syria, I fled to Gaza in the hope of a better life,” he said, adding that he believed he would able to retrace his steps when the time came to leave.
He now lives in Rafah, southern Gaza, in a small house without a kitchen or furniture and with expired Syrian identity papers that he cannot renew.
To get new documents he would have to return to war-torn Syria, but he can’t get out of Gaza the same way he arrived.
The Egyptian army began destroying some underground tunnels in 2012, then demolished many more the following year.
Israel says Hamas uses tunnels to smuggle weapons and other materials to attack Israelis, and that the blockade is essential to contain threats.
Since Hisso left Egypt illegally, he said the authorities there would probably block him from entering and might arrest him should he attempt to leave Gaza using the Rafah crossing.
Gaza’s other entry and exit points are controlled by Israel which is officially at war with Syria and only lets Gazans transit its territory under strict conditions, such as in grave medical cases.
So Hisso finds himself trapped with no way to leave a territory wracked by poverty and unemployment.
“There is no work and no money, no access to health care or education,” said Hisso, who sometimes works laying tiles to support his five children, who also have no papers.




Syrian refugee Nawras Deeb prepares mobile videography equipment as his mother Lina Hassoun folds clothes behind in a house in Gaza City on December 5, 2021. (AFP)

“I was surprised to find that the situation in Gaza was worse than in Syria,” he said.
“Gaza is the biggest prison in the world. If you go into Gaza, you can’t get out.”

More than half of Gaza’s roughly two million population are descended from Palestinian refugees who fled their homes when Israel was created in 1948, and who today depend on United Nations aid.
The UN agency serving Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, does not consider Syrian refugees to be their responsibility and only partly helps them, Syrians said.
“UNRWA does not recognize my children, they always tell me ‘you are Syrian refugees and we are taking care of Palestinian refugees’,” said Donia Al-Minyarawi, Hasso’s wife.
“When we arrived in Gaza, we thought it was a livable place. What we saw in Gaza is beyond imaginable. The situation is really miserable,” she said, adding that she suffered from several medical conditions she could not afford to treat.
Lina Moustafa Hassoun, 52, also arrived illegally in Gaza via a tunnel at the end of 2012 with her son Nawras, 24.
A Palestinian who formerly lived in Syria, Hassoun said she came to visit her sister and intended to stay for a month.
But mother and son were stranded when the tunnel they came through was closed. Their travel documents have also since expired.
“Life in Gaza is very difficult, it is impossible to travel and work. There is no stability there (in Syria) or here,” she told AFP.
Nawras films videos for another Syrian refugee, Warif Qassem, a chef who gives cooking lessons via his channel on YouTube.
Together with other Syrian refugees in Gaza, Qassem, 41, founded an association to advocate with Palestinian authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Last year, UNHCR extricated nine Syrian families from Gaza through the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv.
Qassem said he was grateful for Gazans’ hospitality and appreciated their cuisine, but said their situation was complicated.
“We do our best to get around the challenges,” he said.


WHO praises Bahrain’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic

WHO praises Bahrain’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic
Updated 5 sec ago

WHO praises Bahrain’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic

WHO praises Bahrain’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic
  • National task force, 24-hour war room, and multilingual media campaign was key, says health body
  • Free testing and vaccines kept virus at bay

RIYADH: Bahrain’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic was built on active collaboration between various sectors in the Gulf state, according to a new WHO report.

The document titled “Bahrain COVID-19 Case Studies,” highlights the country’s wide-ranging efforts to get the health crisis under control and identifies lessons learned from that response.

The world health body credits strategic partnerships between public and private entities for the positive response.

Bahrain detected its first case of the virus on Feb. 24, 2020, and caseloads have remained relatively low during the pandemic, with only short-lived surges as a result of the delta and omicron variants. The country has lost 1,495 people to the disease since the start of the pandemic, according to the information organization Our World in Data.

The study was presented by Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the health organization’s head for the eastern Mediterranean region.

“I would like to acknowledge the resilience of the health system in Bahrain throughout the pandemic, and its continued provision of essential health services for all, under a framework of accessibility, acceptability, availability, and quality,” Al-Mandhari said.

“This new report provides us with a valuable reminder: Together we can face health emergencies, and together we can build back stronger,” he said in a joint press conference with Jaleela S. Jawad Hasan, the health minister, on Tuesday.

Hasan outlined some of the strategies that had helped to keep the virus in check on the small island kingdom of 1.7 million people.

Even before the first case appeared, Hasan said, Bahrain established a national task force coupled with a round-the-clock war room, featuring representatives from various sectors. A multilingual public media campaign to spread awareness was also introduced.

The report stated that by using its existing health infrastructure, the kingdom “capitalized on and scaled up its existing resources and displayed a level of preparedness and synergy of efforts from both the top down and the bottom up.”

King Hamad’s decision to provide testing and vaccines to the public free of charge was among the positive steps in handling the crisis, stated the authors of the report.

The lessons learned from what the country has achieved provide “invaluable insights into best practices that, shared, will have far-reaching and long-lasting effects beyond Bahrain’s borders,” the report concluded.

Hasan said Bahrain was committed to its cooperation with the WHO to combat the pandemic and achieve global health goals, according to the Bahrain News Agency.

On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 40 active hospitalized cases, 15 of which were critical.

Bahrain removed most COVID-19 restrictions in February, doing away with capacity limits at indoor venues and testing and vaccination requirements for travelers heading to the kingdom.


Egypt family keeps alive tradition behind Hajj centerpiece

An embroiderer sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran onto a replica of the Kiswa. (AFP)
An embroiderer sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran onto a replica of the Kiswa. (AFP)
Updated 06 July 2022

Egypt family keeps alive tradition behind Hajj centerpiece

An embroiderer sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran onto a replica of the Kiswa. (AFP)
  • From the 13th century, Egyptian artisans made the giant cloth in sections, which authorities transported to Makkah with great ceremony

CAIRO, Egypt: Under the steady hum of a ceiling fan, Ahmed Othman weaves golden threads through black fabric, creating Qur'anic verses, a century after his grandfather’s work adorned the Kaaba in Makkah’s Grand Mosque.
A ceremonial hanging of the kiswa, huge pieces of black silk embroidered with gold patterns, over the cubic structure that is the centerpiece of the Grand Mosque symbolizes the launch of the Hajj annual pilgrimage, which starts this week.

In this file photo taken on April 4, 2021 the keys of the Kaaba (box), Islam's holiest shrine at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, and a fragment of the black-clothed Kiswa (wall) which is used to cover the Kaaba, the final one provided by Egypt (in 1961) during the administration of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, are displayed at the Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC), in the Fustat district of Old Cairo. (AFP)

Othman’s family used to be honored with the task of producing the kiswa.
His family’s creations would be despatched in a camel caravan to Islam’s holiest site in western Saudi Arabia toward which Muslims across the world turn to pray.
Now, Othman keeps the tradition alive in a small workshop, tucked above the labyrinthine Khan Al-Khalili bazaar in central Cairo, where mass-produced souvenirs line the alleys.
The area is historically home to Egypt’s traditional handicrafts, but artisans face growing challenges.

Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy (R), whose family was traditionally responsible for used to be honoured with the task of producing the Kiswa, the cloth used to cover the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, supervises as another employee (L) sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran, Islam's holy book, onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting the historic district of al-Hussein of Islamic Cairo in Egypt's capital on June 15, 2022. (AFP)

Materials, mostly imported, have become expensive, particularly as Egypt faces economic woes and a devalued currency.
Plummeting purchasing power makes high quality hand-crafted goods inaccessible to the average Egyptian, while master craftspeople find it hard to hand down their skills as young people turn to more lucrative jobs.
This wouldn’t be the case “if there was good money in the craft,” Othman sighed, hunched over one of the many tapestries that fill his workshop.
Sheets of black and brown felt are covered in verses and prayers, delicately embroidered in silver and gold.
Every stitch echoes the “sacred ritual” Othman’s grandfather was entrusted with in 1924.
“For a whole year, 10 craftsmen” would work on the kiswa that covers the Kaaba which pilgrims circumambulate, using silver thread in a lengthy labor of love.

An embroiderer sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran, Islam's holy book, onto a replica of the Kiswa, the cloth used to cover the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting the historic district of al-Hussein of Islamic Cairo in Egypt's capital on June 15, 2022. (AFP)

From the 13th century, Egyptian artisans made the giant cloth in sections, which authorities transported to Makkah with great ceremony.
Celebrations would mark the processions through cities, flanked by guards and clergymen as Egyptians sprinkled rosewater from balconies above.
Othman’s grandfather, Othman Abdelhamid, was the last to supervise a fully Egyptian-made kiswa in 1926.
From 1927, manufacturing began to move to Makkah in the nascent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which would fully take over production of the kiswa in 1962.
The family went on to embroider military regalia for Egyptian and foreign dignitaries, including former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
“In addition to our work with military rank embroideries, my father started embroidering Qur'anic verses on tapestries,” and then reproducing whole sections of the kiswa.
Clients began flooding in for “exact replicas of the kiswa, down to the last detail.”

Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy, whose family was traditionally responsible for used to be honoured with the task of producing the Kiswa, the cloth used to cover the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, sews with gold thread a verse from the Holy Koran, Islam's holy book, onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting the historic district of al-Hussein of Islamic Cairo in Egypt's capital on June 15, 2022. (AFP)

Though today they offer small tableaus for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds (about $5), massive customised orders go for several thousand dollars, such as replicas of the Kaaba door, which Othman proudly claims are indistinguishable from the originals in Makkah.

But the family has not been immune to the economic turbulence that began with the coronavirus pandemic, which decimated small businesses and craftsmanship in Egypt.
Since early 2020, they have sold around “two pieces per month,” whereas before they would sell at least one tapestry a day.
Othman worries that a sense of “worldwide austerity” makes business unlikely to bounce back.
Today, there might only be a dozen or so craftsmen whose work he considers authentic, with many artisans leaving the craft for quicker cash flows.
“They can make 200 to 300 pounds a day,” ($10-$16) driving a tuktuk motorized rickshaw, or a minibus, Othman said. “They’re not going to sit on a loom breaking their backs all day.”
But still, a century and a half after his great grandfather left his native Turkey and brought the craft with him to Egypt, Othman says he has stayed loyal to techniques learnt as a child when he would duck out of school to watch his father work.
“It’s on us to uphold the craft the same way we learned it, so it’s authentic to the legacy we inherited,” he said.


Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president
Updated 05 July 2022

Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president
  • "We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15," said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune
  • He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied

ALGIERS: Algeria said Tuesday it would reopen its land border with Tunisia later this month, more than two years after it was shut at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied, who was leaving the country after attending a huge parade marking 60 years since Algeria’s independence from France.
Passengers had been blocked from crossing the border since March 2020 to stop the Covid-19 illness spreading, although cargo traffic had continued.
Being cut off from a neighbor of some 44 million people has dealt a serious blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry.
More than three million Algerians usually visit the country every year, according to local media.
Air and sea links between the two countries were restored in June 2021.


Shutting Syria aid crossing would spell ‘catastrophe’, says UN aid official

Shutting Syria aid crossing would spell ‘catastrophe’, says UN aid official
Updated 05 July 2022

Shutting Syria aid crossing would spell ‘catastrophe’, says UN aid official

Shutting Syria aid crossing would spell ‘catastrophe’, says UN aid official

BEIRUT: A closure of the last aid corridor from Turkey into northwest Syria’s rebel-held areas would spell “catastrophe” for millions of people, a UN aid official has warned.

“This is one of the most vulnerable populations anywhere in the world,” said Mark Cutts, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. “It is absolutely essential that we keep this lifeline going.”

Cutts spoke ahead of a UN Security Council vote to renew the world body’s authorization to deliver assistance through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing before its mandate expires on July 10.

More than 4,600 aid trucks, carrying mostly food, have crossed it so far this year, helping some 2.4 million people, says the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Russia, an ally of Damascus, has threatened to veto the proposal to extend the aid mechanism having already forced a reduction in the number of crossings, arguing that it violates Syria’s sovereignty.

“We know things this year are even more politicized than in previous years,” Cutts told AFP. “The tensions are very high with the war Ukraine.”

But he warned that a “failure to renew this resolution will be a catastrophe. There is no alternative currently available that can replace the scale or scope of what the UN is currently doing.”

Syria’s humanitarian needs have reached their highest levels since the 2011 onset of a bloody conflict, that has killed nearly half a million people and forced more than half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.

About 13.4 million people across Syria were in need of assistance last year, up from 11.1 million in 2020, OCHA says.


Lebanese protests erupt as grim economic strain worsens

Lebanese protests erupt as grim economic strain worsens
Updated 05 July 2022

Lebanese protests erupt as grim economic strain worsens

Lebanese protests erupt as grim economic strain worsens

BEIRUT: The Lebanese have once again sporadically taken to the streets of Beirut and other urban areas to protest the continued strain on their living conditions, but no official nationwide movement has erupted to unify their anger.

On Tuesday, protesters closed the offices of a mobile phone operator in Tripoli, north Lebanon, and asked employees to leave their offices in protest against the rise in prices.

There are growing concerns in Tripoli as thousands of families are unable to provide their basic daily necessities.

Security reports have indicated that nighttime crime is on the rise, punctuated by random shootings in popular neighborhoods. Fears have been compounded after a majority of people in Tripoli have stopped paying their private generator subscriptions, practically living in the dark 24/7, because they can no longer afford the fees.

Many Lebanese have also given up another basic service — the internet — after bundles were priced in dollars. Caretaker Minister of Communications Johnny Korm said: “The new cell phone bill is calculated by dividing the previous bill by three and multiplying it by the Central Bank’s Sayrafa exchange rate (25,300 LBP/USD) or multiplying it by 2.5 for the Ogero service.”

Korm added: “Indeed, we expect many to stop using cellphones altogether, but it is too early to give accurate figures. Consumption has so far decreased by 8 percent since the beginning of July.”

Protesters blocked roads in Beirut, complaining about the loss of access to the public water network for the third week, and lamenting the regular power cuts that have blighted all areas due to the suspension of production plants.

Just one power station, the Deir Ammar plant, has continued operations amid a scarcity of fuel coming from Iraq, which is less than the expected quantity as Baghdad battles its own power sector struggles.

Although the Ministry of Economy said that there is enough flour to meet Lebanon’s consumption needs, citizens are still queuing at bakeries that are only selling one bundle of bread per customer in an attempt to provide bread to the largest possible number of customers.

Meanwhile, some are selling bread on the black market amid fears that wheat will not be available after Eid Al-Adha since the Central Bank is yet to open credits for wheat imports.

MP Wael Abu Faour reported: “According to the security services, organized gangs are stealing subsidized flour and selling it on the black market.”

The World Bank country classifications by income level on July 1 showed that Lebanon has become a lower-middle-income country.

“For the eleventh consecutive year, Lebanon’s real GDP per capita fell in 2021, and the country also experienced sharp exchange rate depreciation,” the report stated, as the per capita gross national income in 2021 amounted to $3,450, after it was $5,510 in 2020.

Representatives from the General Labor Union, the Forces for Change groups, the private sector and civil society bodies discussed on Tuesday “a mechanism of action to end the government’s policies of starvation and humiliation and its petty decisions to increase prices, through the deliberate killing of the Lebanese people and the financing of corruption that has been rampant for many years.”

They unanimously agreed on “the absolute rejection of any increase in prices, especially telecommunications and the internet, because it is deliberate theft to continue financing the corrupt system and its groups that are holding on to their posts and suffocating citizens.”

They further called on the Lebanese to be ready to participate in the upcoming moves to restore their rights, the most basic of which are telecommunications services and the internet.

While Lebanon’s economic deterioration worsens and politicians fail to form a government that can approve the reforms required by the International Monetary Fund, the EU’s Electoral Observation Mission — which monitored the Lebanese parliamentary elections on May 15 — issued a report that slammed several aspects of how the elections were held.

Gyorgy Holvenyi, the head of the EU team, said during a press conference in Beirut: “The conclusion in the mission’s final report is that although preparations were affected by limited financial and human resources, the election authorities delivered the May 15 parliamentary elections in the scheduled time. However, these elections were overshadowed by widespread practices of vote-buying and clientelism, which distorted the level playing field and seriously affected the voters’ choice.”

In its report, the mission noted: “The campaign was vibrant but marred by various instances of intimidation (including on social media) and cases of campaign obstruction. Besides, the legal framework for campaign finance suffers from serious shortcomings concerning transparency and accountability.”

The mission included a series of recommendations to improve the electoral process in the future. “These recommendations are setting a framework for a gradual Lebanese-led reform process,” Holvenyi emphasized, adding: “The EU stands ready to support Lebanon in implementing these recommendations to improve future election processes if deemed necessary, feasible, and useful.”