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.
“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.