For over a decade, the Gaza Strip — controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas, blockaded by its neighbors, difficult to leave — has amounted to an experiment in human isolation.
Now there is a new escape route. Egypt suddenly opened its border with Gaza in May 2018, and, facing increasingly unbearable living conditions, tens of thousands of Gazans are believed to have crossed that border and scattered across the world, in the latest chapter in a mass exodus of migrants out of the troubled Middle East.
"I didn't find my future here," says Zeid al Kurdi, 25, at the Gaza-Egypt border with just a backpack and small rolling suitcase.
He grew up in a refugee camp and, like most Gazans, relied on United Nations food rations. His family's house was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in 2008, during the first of three wars that Hamas and Israel have fought, and his father went broke paying off a loan to rebuild it.
Kurdi had a plan: He went to university, earned a bachelor's degree in English and French, and was sure his language skills would land him a job with an international aid organization working in Gaza. But some aid groups have scaled back their activities in Gaza. The U.S. recently cut all aid money to Gaza and donor countries are spread thin, aiding other Mideast hot spots. He couldn't find work.
Kurdi tried to get a visa to the U.S. — "you know, the land of opportunity," he says — but his application was rejected. So his family collected enough money for him to fly from Cairo to Abu Dhabi to look for work.
"It's really bad for me to leave them," he says of his brothers, who came to the border to see him off, "and also really bad to leave my mother and father. But it is necessary to seek a better future."
Gaza is a core focus of the White House's new multibillion-dollar proposal to enhance the quality of life for Palestinians. But the U.S. says the proposal cannot be implemented without a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Youth like Kurdi cannot afford to wait.
He departed through Gaza's main portal to the world, a black iron gate on the Egyptian border.
In recent years, this gate has been open only a couple of days every few months, as Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade to contain Hamas and keep militants from getting out. Egypt tightened its border after the 2013 overthrow of the country's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and as it battled militants near Gaza in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
In May 2018, the border gate was opened to "alleviate the burdens of the brothers in the Gaza Strip," as Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi tweeted. Days earlier, as the U.S. inaugurated its new embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli troops fatally shot 59 Palestinians and wounded more than 2,700 during protests and violence along the Israeli fence with Gaza.
The Egyptian border crossing has remained open, teeming with young men like Kurdi, waiting for Hamas authorities to call their names over a scratchy loudspeaker to board a bus and cross. Absent official emigration statistics, experts in Gaza estimate 35,000 to 40,000 Gazans have left since mid-2018.
"It's: 'Let me get out of Gaza and I'll figure it out,' " says Caitlin Procter, a Harvard University research fellow studying migration out of Gaza. "It speaks to the level of desperation."
Procter knows of more than 10 newlywed couples who are waiting to have children — bucking Gaza's conservative tradition — until they can leave Gaza and reach someplace where they can ensure their kids a better life.
Conditions have gone from bad to worse since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. The group refuses to recognize Israel, which considers it a terrorist group and blockades Gaza.
More pressure comes from the Palestinian Authority, which has cut civil servants' salaries in Gaza in an effort to squeeze Hamas and regain control of the territory, exacerbating an already devastated economy. Two out of every three youth in Gaza are unemployed, according to the World Bank, while electricity is spotty and most tap water is unpotable.
So when Egypt opened its border gate, it was a window of opportunity.
Those who leave are mostly young Palestinian men in their 20s, many of them from poor families and refugee camps, says Gaza-based Al-Azhar University political science professor Mukhaimar Abu Sada, whose four nephews and son have moved abroad in the past year.
"Most of them are college graduates, poor, no jobs," says Abu Sada. "You cannot get married. You cannot rent a house. You cannot start a new life here."
Some fly to the Gulf. Others have family ties in Egypt and settle there, or fly to Turkey, where it's easy and relatively cheap to get a visa. Some take Turkish smuggling boats to Greece. Some have drowned along the way. Many make their way deeper into Europe; Belgium and Norway are popular destinations.
Hamas has arrested and interrogated critics and beaten protesters in Gaza, and Abu Sada says some Palestinians who make it to Europe seek asylum, claiming they faced harassment at home.
So far this year, Palestinians are the third-largest group after Afghans and Syrians to take the smuggling route across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, the International Organization for Migration tells NPR. At least 1,046 Palestinians have taken the sea route so far this year, as did 1,433 Palestinians last year. As recently as 2015, more than 6,000 Palestinians took the same route, according to IOM figures.
Publicly, Hamas has stayed quiet about the migrant phenomenon. It sees the open Egyptian border as a sign of warming ties between Egypt and Gaza's Hamas rulers, as it seeks aid and a long-term truce arrangement with Israel and Egypt that would ease restrictions on Gaza.
"I don't deny that there are some who want to go out and leave," says Hamas official Ghazi Hamad. "We are struggling to ease the life of people ... every day, looking here and there, looking for options."
Egypt allows in only a few hundred Gaza travelers a day, so Hamas maintains a months-long waiting list. Those who pay for "coordination" — a bribe believed to be pocketed by authorities on both sides of the border — get bumped higher up the list.
The last straw for Siham Shamalakh, an English translator and mother of two, was the Israeli airstrikes in March that hit a Hamas security building around the corner from her well-appointed Gaza City apartment. She slept in the living room, away from windows, for a week and signed up for the waiting list to leave for Egypt.
Across from her bedroom balcony is a building that she and her neighbors believe a Hamas-affiliated group recently moved into — on account of the sudden appearance of guards and police officers in the street and new air conditioning units installed on a previously empty floor of the building.
She is convinced it, too, will be targeted in an Israeli airstrike someday.
"I don't want to sleep [while] I'm afraid from the bombings and the missiles, whether from the Israelis or from Hamas," she says. "I know that I have a nice apartment, and life in Gaza is nice when it's peaceful. But when the escalation comes, I change my mind. I say, no, I want to get the hell out of here."
Gaza's flight also includes doctors and surgeons.
At Gaza's main hospital, three of its five gastrointestinal specialists left for Canada, Ukraine and the Gulf, and about a fifth of the physiotherapists and the lone cardiac surgeon have gone abroad in the past year, according to hospital staff. Doctors' salaries have plummeted because of the Palestinian Authority's cuts for civil servant salaries and further salary cuts by the cash-strapped Hamas. Many medical students are looking for better-paying jobs abroad. Some doctors have traveled abroad for training, and it is unclear whether they will ever return.
The disappearance of doctors comes just as they are needed most. Hospitals have been overwhelmed, treating more than 7,000 Gazans who, according to the World Health Organization, were shot by Israeli soldiers during a year of protests at the Israeli fence.
Hamas authorities have begun to restrict doctors leaving Gaza, approving travel only for those they are certain will return, according to a Gaza-based doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity because Hamas did not make the travel restrictions public, and he did not want to fall afoul of authorities.
Many young people say they'd stay in Gaza if there were decent work, even with all the other hardships. It hurts, they say, to leave their families, their culture, their home.
Among their parents' generation, many choose to stay. Older Palestinians have long-established families and careers in Gaza. University academics have stable salaries, and some entrepreneurs are investing in new ventures, like a historic home turned café-restaurant and a fancy new wedding hall on the Mediterranean shore for Gaza's booming wedding industry.
And some of the Gazan migrants who've left for Europe have returned.
In search of better work, Khalil Abu Ibrahim took his wife and kids in boats across the Mediterranean last year, from Turkey to Greece and then Austria. But he couldn't keep up with the cost of living, and he and his family have returned to Gaza.
Now he has found a way to make a decent living in Gaza. Using his experience as a migrant, he collects a fee for helping other young Palestinians apply for visas to escape.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Life is getting harder and harder in the Gaza Strip. Public services are crumbling. The economy is in collapse. Most of Gaza is blockaded by Israel and Egypt. But over the last year, Egypt has been giving more Gazans the choice to leave the Strip - and they are. NPR's Daniel Estrin met some of them.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Gaza's main portal to the world is a black iron gate on the Egyptian border. For years, it's been mostly closed. Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade to contain Hamas and keep militants from crossing their borders. To offer relief for Gaza's 2 million residents, Egypt opened its border last spring. And since then, tens of thousands of Palestinians - some estimate around 35,000 - have left.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Men in their 20s wait at the border for Hamas authorities to call their names so they can cross. I meet a 25-year-old with a backpack and a small carry-on suitcase.
ZEID AL KURDI: I have no opportunity here. I decided to leave Gaza.
ESTRIN: Zeid Al Kurdi has a typical story. His family's poor. His house was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike during the first of three wars that Hamas and Israel have fought. His dad went broke paying off a loan to rebuild their house. Kurdi went to college, got a B.A. in English and French. And he was sure his language skills would land him a job.
KURDI: I tried to apply for international organizations here.
ESTRIN: One of the many aid organizations trying to help Gaza. But he couldn't find a job because aid groups are scaling back their work here. The U.S. has cut all humanitarian aid to Gaza. When he couldn't find work, Kurdi applied for a visa to the U.S.
KURDI: I would like to travel to America, you know, the land of opportunity.
ESTRIN: But his application was rejected, so he plans to fly from Cairo to Abu Dhabi to look for work. His family's at the border to see him off.
KURDI: As you see, these are my brothers. It's really bad for me to leave them and also really bad to leave my mother and my father. But it is necessary for me to seek a better future because I didn't find my future here.
ESTRIN: Gazans have seen conditions go from bad to worse since Hamas took over in 2007. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, and Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and blockades Gaza. More pressure comes from the Palestinian Authority. It wants to regain control, so it's cut money to Gaza. The economy's collapsed. Youth unemployment is above 70%. And there's a humanitarian crisis. Electricity is spotty. Tap water is undrinkable. A recent White House proposal for investment in Gaza still seems like a distant prospect. Many Gazans aren't waiting around.
MUKHAIMAR ABU SADA: Four of my nephews have left Gaza over the past year. I have also to admit that my son, he left Gaza to the U.S. I want him to be in the U.S.
ESTRIN: Gaza political science professor Mukhaimar Abu Sada.
ABU SADA: I can tell you many, many other stories about people I know. Most of them are college graduates - poor, no jobs. You cannot get married. You cannot rent a house. You cannot start a new life here.
ESTRIN: Many fly from Egypt to Turkey, where it's easy to get a visa. Then they take boats for Europe. Some have drowned along the way. Abu Sada says some who make it to Europe seek asylum, claiming they were harassed by Hamas. Hamas has arrested critics and beaten protesters in Gaza. Two of his nephews made it to Belgium.
ABU SADA: It was a journey of death, so to speak. It took them days and days to get out from Turkey to Greece and from Greece to Belgium, intercepted by border police many times, were returned back. But they kept trying until they got there.
ESTRIN: Hamas sees the open border as a positive step for Gaza. Egypt lets only a few hundred Gazans cross a day. Hamas manages a long waiting list. Pay a bribe, and you can get bumped higher up the list.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)
SIHAM SHAMALAKH: Hi, Daniel.
ESTRIN: I visited an English translator waiting months for her turn to leave, Siham Shamalakh.
Wow, what a nice place.
SHAMALAKH: Yeah, I'm selling it. I'm leaving.
ESTRIN: She's moving to Egypt with her two sons because she's had enough. In late March, she was home when Israeli airstrikes hit a Hamas security building around the corner - retaliation for Palestinian rocket fire.
SHAMALAKH: I show you from here. They targeted that building, six heavy strikes. I really panicked.
ESTRIN: She slept in the living room, away from the windows, for a week. She takes me to her bedroom balcony and points to a building across the street. She was told a Hamas-affiliated group recently moved in there.
SHAMALAKH: Two months ago.
ESTRIN: What did you think when that happened?
SHAMALAKH: I said, it's over. This building is going to be targeted. This is the main thing. I don't want to sleep. I'm afraid from the bombings and the missiles, whether from the Israelis or from Hamas. I know that I have a nice apartment, and life in Gaza is nice when it's peaceful. But when the escalation comes, I change my mind. I say, no, I want to get the hell out of here.
ESTRIN: Gaza's flight includes talented English speakers like her and medical staff. I visited Gaza's main hospital, and doctors are leaving at a time they've been needed most. The World Health Organization says Israeli soldiers shot more than 7,000 Gazans during a year of protests and violence at the Israeli fence. Nurse Mohammed al-Ktaty names some surgeons who have left Gaza.
MOHAMMED AL-KTATY: Dr. Khader Sabra, orthopedic surgeon; Mohannad el-Haddad, general surgery; Mahmoud Obeid, orthopedic surgery; Mohammed El-Haj, cardiac surgery.
ESTRIN: So that's - you've counted at least four surgeons who left this past year.
AL-KTATY: We have a cardiac surgeon, have experience - good experience. When he leave our country, this department was closed.
ESTRIN: No heart surgeon.
AL-KTATY: No heart surgeon, no - because he left.
ESTRIN: Doctors' salaries have plummeted, and many med students are looking for better-paying jobs abroad. Many young people say they'd stay if there were decent work, even with all the other hardships. It hurts to leave their families, their culture, their home.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Some who left for Europe have returned. I met one at the border, Khalil Abu Ibrahim.
KHALIL ABU IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: He says he took his wife and kids to Austria, but he couldn't keep up with the cost of living. So they're back in Gaza. And he's finally found a way to make some good money using his experience. He collects a fee helping other young Palestinians apply for visas to escape. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER'S "RAPHAEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.