UNRWA does not operate in Egypt, and only recently have some Palestinians started to receive assistance from UNHCR. Each human life is different from the next. But because Palestinians in Egypt constitute so small a group in proportion to the country’s population of 80 million, and because ties between Palestinian refugees in Egypt are weak, it is particularly the case in Egypt that finding social networks between Palestinian refugees and similarities in their stories is difficult. Perhaps the main common factors, however, are the difficulty involved in becoming regularised, and of living a life which is caught between marginalisation and integration.
“The truth is that we will never be accepted here. I was born here, and I speak the Egyptian dialect with just as much ease as the Palestinian. In fact I grew up speaking it. But we will always be marginal, and the Egyptians have a hard time understanding us,” according to Obeid. Originally from Al-Majdal, where his family was expelled in the 1948 Nakba, Obeid’s father obtained his degree in Iraq after he was expelled for a second time from Gaza in 1967. He then moved along with his mother to Egypt to join a Palestinian military squadron that was part of the Egyptian army. Deployed to Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war, he was killed there when the jeep he was riding in drove over an unexploded bomb. Mohammed was eight years old then. He is now 34.
What follows is Obeid’s story, told in his own words.
I was born in Masr El-Gedida, a suburban district of Cairo. I completed high school here. Only one other boy at school was Palestinian. I remember he and I felt strange, because we spoke exactly like all the other children did, and yet we were expected to feel different because we were Palestinian. We used to think back then, why us? Why did it have to be us?
Anyhow, once I had graduated from high school I had to come up with other options. I missed a year in the process. I couldn’t go on to university in Egypt because Palestinians were not allowed to at the time. Instead, because I had an uncle living in Pakistan, I decided to accept his offer of help and went on to study telecommunications engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore. Because it wasn’t an Arab state, I was treated just as any foreigner would be. This felt good. It was a change from Egypt. But at the same time, though Pakistanis professed to sympathise with Palestinians, sympathy was often symbolic. Still, I met my wife there, and she lives with me here in Egypt now.
I returned from Pakistan aged 27. The main reason I returned was because I had to be with my mother. My siblings were, and still are, all abroad. My sisters live in Saudi Arabia and Germany, while my brother returned to Gaza with the ultimately shattered hope of obtaining his rights. We haven’t seen my brother in almost eight years now.
I work as an IT specialist, and through the companies I work for I obtain a residence permit, which I need to renew every three years, as long as I am still working. To be honest, I don’t have any issue with the legal arrangements in Egypt. Like any other country, Egypt is free to run its legal affairs as it chooses. However, I can tell you that it feels extremely degrading, given that I was born and raised here, that I am unable to be treated as anything other than a foreigner, and a second-class foreigner at that. For this reason, I am determined to leave here as soon as I can, preferably to work in the West.
I will always visit Egypt, because I have friends here. But I cannot let my children, Ramin and Yousef, suffer the way I have. And if we stay here it is guaranteed that they will.
I think if we look at the Palestinians of Lebanon, we find far more obvious problems. They live in poverty, and are barred from many professions. They are physically marginalised by their presence in the camps. In Egypt, this is not the case. But the pressure is psychological. Egyptians were taught in school that Palestinians sold their land, that we are traitors and that our lot is of our own doing. It takes time to break the prejudices, even in daily life. Once closeness is established, it becomes easier. I have made good friends in spite of the initial mistrust. At the same time, we don’t have, as Palestinians, a strong network here, unlike the Palestinians in Lebanon or Syria. It is difficult to get to know other Palestinians, so I am led to feel isolated from both camps – the Palestinian and the Egyptian. At the end of the day, our problem relates to our paperwork. As a non-Egyptian, I cannot change that. So I just figure that it’s better just to leave.
As for Palestine, we used to visit every year up until the outbreak of the first Intifada. Then our visits became forbidden. But I remember it well. Palestine is the most beautiful piece of land on the planet – this is clear to any visitor. I visited the whole of historic Palestine, including Gaza, Haifa, Yaffa and Jerusalem. If Palestine is liberated tomorrow I would go back immediately. I would return to Al-Majdal – to the land that my grandfather owned and whose proof of ownership he showed me. I would not want to live anywhere else. That is my family’s home.
I am not, however, like many other Palestinians. I don’t talk about the Palestinian cause very much, and I don’t intend on teaching my children much about politics. I believe God put me on this Earth to live – not to die. When Adam and Eve came to Earth, did they have nationalities? No. We have made countries, not God. What I see for the future is not good though. The way Israel is behaving in the West Bank and Gaza, it tells me that Israel wants the Palestinians there to leave too. In the future, many more Palestinians will start to leave. This is especially true for Gaza, where most residents are refugees and don’t have roots in Gaza. It is only when the United States collapses as the only superpower in the world that perhaps we can start to imagine a solution.
But on the long run, I know that Palestine will return. History is always changing. Maybe it could be a country of mixed identities, and so long as everybody has equal rights I don’t think
this would be bad. This is because the other scenario is horrible, and would involve a second genocide of the Jews or of us. At the end of the day, either way it is unacceptable. The way Israel was invented means it will not last. Palestine will return. Maybe people need to start to accept this, and work towards what is good.
As for the UN – the UN is the US, so long as the Security Council has so much power and the US abuses its seat. I don’t expect help from the UN, or other nations. When it comes, I say thank you. But how can we expect help from other countries when we Palestinians are not helping ourselves? We are not united. So how can I blame the others for our disunity? It is true that Israel is responsible for sowing disunity among the Palestinians – but it is our fault that we have fallen into that trap. From the news, it seems very hard for us to regain our unity at this point. There are also other agendas, including the US, the EU, the Syrian and Iranian agendas. But I know it is weak to blame the others. The others have exploited our weaknesses and our disunity. Our unity is our responsibility to maintain. It is a given that any country in the world that has power will conspire.
So for us Palestinians, our unity should be our national goal. Maybe in the future there will be unity. Now we do not have this, but this will change, as everything in history does.
Maybe it is because of this that I don’t invest any hope in politics. I would emotionally support activists, but I would not do anything alongside them. I want to raise my children. But at the same time, I am clear on one thing: I will not accept compensation instead of my right of return. Accepting that would mean I am willing to sell Palestine. It is absurd, the idea of selling Palestine. No, I will never sell Palestine.
1) It is difficult to determine precisely how many Palestinians live in Egypt because many live here without documentation and are unregistered with any agency.
2) For those Palestinians who are not working, not only is residence unobtainable but it also becomes impossible to renew the “wathiqa,” (Palestinian travel document). For the overwhelming majority of Palestinians here, the “wathiqa” represents the only form of permanent proof of identity.