In the heart of Istanbul’s Aksaray district, groups of Palestinians meet at the Hamada restaurant for lunch and dinner. The restaurant serves Gaza-style shawarma with tahini, onions and smashed sumac, all wrapped in taboo bread. On their menu, this sandwich is called “Gaza shawarma”.
The restaurant, run by a Palestinian from Gaza, is open until midnight, and the atmosphere is lively as Palestinians meet other Palestinians who have migrated to Turkey, whether for work, study or tourism .
For some Palestinians, this is the first time they have met other young people from Gaza or the West Bank. And although they are all in Istanbul now, their journeys here were different.
While Palestinians from the West Bank can fly to Turkey from Ramon Airport in Israel (newly opened in August 2022 for Palestinians), Palestinians from Gaza must first travel to Egypt through the Rafah checkpoint. From there they fly to Turkey via Cairo airport.
Despite the difficulty of either trip, many Palestinians in Gaza say that Turkey is the best and easiest destination for them, as they can actually obtain tourist visas and work accommodation with relative ease.
The conversations that take place in Hamada can then be pressing: discussions about Israeli checkpoints, mutual difficulties, the Israeli siege of Gaza. And, of course, they also talk about their dreams and hopes for their future, which for many is why they came to Turkey in the first place.
“Unfortunately, Gazans think Turkey is a dream country for them,” says Rageh Nassar, head of a nonprofit organization in Turkey called Palestinian Community of Istanbul. “The conditions in Gaza are very difficult, but in Turkey they are also difficult.”
Many Palestinians from Gaza who have come to Turkey now understand the difficulty of starting a life in the country, and they find that it is not the “dream country” they had anticipated.
“There is no prospect for the future”
The Electronic Intifada interviewed 83 Palestinians from Gaza to Istanbul (63 men and 20 women), and 78 said they wanted to travel beyond Turkey. Of these, 68 said they had no objection to undocumented migration. Moreover, 20 of them had come to Turkey on a scholarship and did not want to return to Gaza.
For example, Haitham al-Ashkar, 34, has been in Istanbul since May 2018, when he left Gaza to look for work.
After earning a degree in accounting from Al-Azhar University, he searched for work for six years in Gaza and found nothing. Currently, he says it is not an option to return to Gaza because the economic conditions there are so dire.
“For four years I worked as an accountant in Arab companies and restaurants [in Istanbul],” he said. “I got a good salary from the Turks, about $350 [per month] because I became proficient in Turkish.
Yet in June 2022, conditions worsened for al-Ashkar and many other Arab residents of Turkey when Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announcement that Turkey would not allow visa renewals or residence permits for visitors who obtained a tourist visa after February 2022.
“Unfortunately, I had a tourist residence,” al-Ashkar says, “and the general migration department in Istanbul refused to renew my residence, like many.”
The Turkish government, in June 2022, even banned foreigners from living in certain areas of Istanbul and other Turkish cities. This measure is for foreigners not to “exceed 10% of a city’s population” in Turkey.
The list of restricted areas includes a staggering 1,169 neighborhoods in 58 cities across Turkey.
The majority of Palestinians from Gaza in Turkey reside in Istanbul, particularly in areas such as Esenyurt, Fatih, Sirinevler and Avcilar, say Palestinian residents of Istanbul.
“Conditions are getting worse here, there is no prospect for the future,” al-Ashkar says, “and the need to seek asylum in Europe has become a humanitarian duty for me, even though it is illegal. “.
Turkey as a step towards Europe
Nasser Maher Rahma, 33, lives in the Avcilar district of Istanbul, and he has spent the past four years in Turkey thinking about how he might cope. But any hope of migration seems impossible given his medical situation.
In February 2014, while working as a photojournalist, he shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier during protests east of Gaza City.
The injury caused his bones and muscles to disintegrate. He worked for two years as a photojournalist in Gaza, but his injury made mobility difficult.
He traveled to Turkey in 2019 to seek office work and possibly receive medical treatment, such as surgery or a bone implant, for his injury.
Upon his arrival in Turkey, he tried to cross the land border with Greece with a group of Palestinians, but they were stopped by the Turkish authorities and spent two days in prison. Rahma was fined but not deported.
Based on The Electronic Intifada interviews with Palestinians in Turkey, the perception is that it is not common for Turkey to deport Palestinians. Many also feel that Turkish police, who are deployed on the streets of Istanbul to check the documents of foreigners, especially in Arab areas, sympathize with Palestinians and are often tougher on Syrians.
Rahma tried to settle in Turkey, even though it was precarious.
“I worked the first year,” he says. “I worked in the field of real estate writing, then in the business of office tourism targeting an Arab clientele.”
During the pandemic, however, tourist work plummeted and his health deteriorated. Since then, his leg has lost an additional 2.5 centimeters of bone and he continues to lose height. The surgery is too expensive, around $10,000, and he is considering migrating again because life in Turkey is only getting harder for migrants.
“Today, I am looking for any way to migrate because my tourist residence was refused renewal,” says Rahma. “I cannot return to Gaza despite my love for it, but I want a new homeland to start again.”
Swimming in Greece
Khalid Hafez Shurab, 28, and Mustafa Khalid al-Samari had been missing for three days before their bodies were found on October 17 on the coast of the Greek island of Kos. Sakhar al-Astal is still missing.
The three men from Gaza had set out from the Turkish coast to swim to Greece – a route many choose because they lack the funds to hire a smuggler with a boat to transport them.
The Electronic Intifada spoke with Shurab on September 30 in Istanbul, and he discussed emigration to Europe due to the difficult economic conditions in Turkey.
Shurab described a desire to live in a place that he felt would respect his humanity. When he left Gaza at the end of 2020, he thought Turkey might be that place.
He found a job as a carpenter and lived with six other Gazan men in an apartment in Istanbul’s Avcilar neighborhood. Yet, after losing his job, the idea of emigration became more pressing, even to the point that he even said he would face death to emigrate.
Tragically, Shurab and other Palestinians perish at sea in a desperate attempt to reach Europe.
On July 15, 2022, 27-year-old Majid Hamid drowned after swimming with a group of friends from the Bodrum peninsula to the Greek island of Kos. Hamid’s friends in Istanbul say the approximately three-mile swim to the island of Kos from Turkey is seven hours of non-stop swimming.
A friend of Hamid’s who preferred to remain anonymous told The Electronic Intifada that “Majid was swimming and suddenly he got tired and I put him on my back and tried to keep swimming. But he died as the foam descended from his mouth. I kept swimming until we were stopped by the Greek Coast Guard. They tortured us for two days and sent us back to Turkey.
The friend describes severe beatings at the hands of Greek authorities. Specifically, the Greek authorities wanted the group to tell them how they got in and who helped them get in.
In Gaza, Hamid had worked in car interior accessories, and when he was laid off, he traveled to Turkey in 2019 to seek other job opportunities. Hamid’s family in Gaza were informed of his death when his friends were sent back to Turkey.
“Returning to Gaza is a greater risk”
Omar, 30, who chose to keep his last name confidential, says he suffered from depression in Gaza. So he traveled to Turkey in August 2019 hoping for a better life and finding work.
For a time he was successful, earning a living wage working in hotels, restaurants and factories. But when economic conditions in Turkey deteriorated, he decided to migrate elsewhere.
“It is not possible to start a family or develop our life in Turkey with the recent procedures and residences,” says Omar, “and I had no money to pay the smugglers.”
Last July, he left with a group of Palestinians to try to cross the Turkish-Greek land border, near the Turkish city of Edirne. But he was caught by Greek police, who beat him badly and handed him over to Turkish border security a week later.
“Unfortunately, we know that illegal migration is risky, but returning to Gaza is a bigger risk,” Omar says, mentioning that despite the risk, he is considering trying to migrate again.
In a survey out of 385 people between the ages of 18 and 30 conducted in the Gaza Strip by the International Committee of the Red Cross, nine out of 10 young people said they thought their lives were abnormal.
Of those surveyed, 95.6% said they had been negatively affected by the humanitarian situation in Gaza due to reduced job opportunities.
Nearly 43% believe they have no hope of finding a job in the next 15 years, and 67.5% believe there will be further Israeli escalations in the future.
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.