Forgotten Palestinian refugee community survives in Egypt

Palestinians who fled Palestine after war broke out in 1948 have been unable to return even after sixty-five years, and survive in a village with limited health, employment and educational opportunities.

Sixty-five years on from the Nakba, the Nile Delta’s Fadel Island, housing the largest community of 1948 refugees, struggles to survive and keep Palestine alive in Egypt
Palestinians who had fled Palestine after war broke out in 1948 had thought they would be in Egypt’s Nile Delta for just a few months, but have not been able to return even after sixty-five years, an Ahram Online report explains.

What began as a temporary asylum in an uninhabited piece of desert in Sharqiya is now known as “Gezira Fadel” or Fadel Island: a forgotten village housing the largest community of 1948 Palestinian refugees in Egypt.

Bedouin farmer Salman Salem, one of the oldest members of the community, describes how Fadel Island began as a couple of makeshift shelters “made from straw” after which people built small homes from mud. Now Fadel Island houses nearly 3,500 people.

Unlike Salem, village Mayor Mohamed El-Nahamawly was born in Fadel Island. His family was forced to abandon over 400 acres of land in Beersheba (which is now part of southern Israel) when they fled to Egypt during the Nakba (Palestinian exodus).

“People here do not call us Palestinians but rather Arabs,” El-Salmi Abu-Olan explains, estimating that there are 40,000 Palestinians in the Nile Delta governorate alone.

It takes three hours from Cairo to reach the small village, which is not written on any Egyptian map.

The rural Egyptian village lacks key facilities, the houses have straw roofs, the streets are narrow and unpaved.

“We do not have a sewage system yet,” the mayor bemoans, adding that the Fadel Island only got electricity in 1989.

Lack of access to education

Like many places in the region, reading and writing is a major issue in the village.

“The literacy rate increased from five years ago to reach 30 per cent, after the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt agreed to pay school fees as well the cost of school books for residents a couple of years ago,” says village resident Mohamed Nossair.

Unlike Egyptians, who have access to free public education, foreigners have to pay for their schooling.

However, according to the official Palestinian Embassy in Egypt website, the mission only covers school fees of 1,300 students across the whole of Sharqiya. Parents face difficulty in affording to spend all of their kids to school.

Responding to the growing problem, in 2010 the Palestinian Embassy funded a one-roomed school to fight illiteracy in the village.

The only teacher Mohamed Abdel-Hamid worries that the younger generations of refugees are becoming increasingly out of touch with their heritage.

He explains Palestinian students frequently miss out on textbooks because they have already been distributed among the Egyptian children.

“Of course university is an other issue because as a Palestinian you have to pay LE1500to popular faculties like medicine and agriculture,” continues Abu-Olan, who studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. “The student may graduate from an Egyptian university but will not get a certificate until he pays the fees.”

Limited opportunity, difficult survival

Money is constant problem. Aside from farming, the village’s main source of revenue is recycling plastic.

Waste is brought to the village; the youth then remove the plastic casings in order to sell it. Many children work in this business: some of them manage to go school in the morning while others do not bother at all.

“We can’t find jobs anymore, this is why I want to travel and work in the Gulf,” says Walid Nossair, a 26-year-old resident who tried his luck as a carpenter and builder in order to support his wife and two children.

“However, although the Gulf States receive Palestinian migrant workers, it is now much harder for Palestinians to travel and work in the Gulf if they are coming from Egypt,” Nossair claims.

Palestinians disadvantaged

Rising youth unemployment is compounded by the inequality between Egyptians and Palestinians when it comes to the price of food, in particular bread, residents explain.

Starting this July, subsidised food will only be supplied to those who have Egyptian identification cards: something Palestinian refugees do not have.

“The Ministry of Health allocated nearly LE1 million to build a clinic here but they needed a plot to build the clinic on and we do not have the right to own the land,” Mayor El-Nahamawly explains, adding that the funds were then spent on another area.

“There is even a lot of red tape surrounding marriage. We have to travel to Cairo to get permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then the Ministry of Justice after which we have to document the marriage at the capital’s notary office. The whole process costs a lot of money, why can’t we have a notary office for foreigners in Zagazig?” the mayor adds.

“We did not suffer from those problems in the past as we used to be treated the same as Egyptians,” Abu-Olan says making reference to life under former president Gamel Abdel-Nasser, when Palestinians were granted equal rights as Egyptians.

This changed in 1977 following political differences between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the then-president Anwar Sadat.  Sadat cancelled Nasser’s decrees and so Palestinians were consequently treated as foreigners.

The eternal problem separating Palestinian communities from other migrants in Egypt is lack of identification and proper travel papers.

The Palestinian-Egyptians have struggled to gain Egyptian citizenship for those with Egyptian mothers, until a protest finally resulted in a decree whereby Palestinian children of the Egyptian mothers were granted the Egyptian nationality.


The problems Fadel Island faces drew the attention of Egyptian and Palestinian activists who sought to make public the plight of the forgotten village.

Consequently on Friday 17 May, three days after the international commemoration of Nakba Day, activists are organising a convoy of medical aid and supplies for the children from Cairo.

Sixty-five years on, village residents say they are fighting to preserve their traditions.

The older members of the community still dream of one day returning to their homeland. However the villagers are in limbo and that dream is fading.

The younger generation, who speak in perfect Egyptian accents, know little about where their great-grandfathers came from.

“As long as there is life there is hope,” concludes Mayor El-Nahamawly as he walks around his village, “Right now we are living our lives normally like Egyptians, pushing for key changes, but we still have hope.”

(Source / 15.05.2013)

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