The Syrian refugees of GazaMeet the refugees who fled war-torn Syria for the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip.

By Creede Newton   |   photos by Lara Aburamadan

Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo

Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo, 35, left Aleppo in 2012 when bombs began falling on his city. [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

On a bustling Gaza street lined with restaurants, juice vendors and shawarma stands, one facade immediately catches the eye: A large, modernist black cube sits atop the entrance to Syriana - Arabic for ‘our Syria’.

“The rest should be here soon,” says Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo, the visibly tired chef and proprietor of the restaurant, as he sits down for his first break of the day. It is early afternoon and he has been here since early morning.

The 35-year-old Syrian left Aleppo in 2012 when the bombs of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began falling onto the city in an attempt to stamp out the then-nascent armed resistance to his rule.

He travelled to Turkey and then to Egypt, enduring a 44-hour voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. As a seasoned chef with his own restaurant in Aleppo and a degree in mechanical engineering, Hamdeo felt confident that he would find work in Egypt.

He did. It was mostly informal employment - cooking and decorating hotels. But after two months, a Syrian who had eaten in his restaurant back in Aleppo offered him work as a chef in Cairo. A second opportunity came along to open a restaurant in Poland. Both options were tempting, but as he pondered over each one, a third emerged: a job in Gaza.

He immediately and resolutely refused. But when a Palestinian acquaintance urged him to visit, he tentatively obliged. Hamdeo fell in love with the seaside enclave. “It reminded me of Syria,” he says.

Now, three years after he first travelled through the dark, damp tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza, which are constantly at risk of collapse or flooding by the Egyptian military, his life has changed considerably: He has survived Israel’s 2014 attack on the Gaza Strip, found love with a Palestinian journalist who had interviewed him shortly after his arrival, and successfully opened his own restaurant.

In spite of this, Hamdeo feels he has to leave, and it is now or never. He reads the news and hears that relations between Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and Egypt are deteriorating; he sees growing tensions with Israel and believes further trouble is looming. He is, simply, tired of war.

And he is not the only one; there are currently 54 families with at least one member who is a Syrian of non-Palestinian descent living in the besieged enclave; there are 22 families who are entirely Syrian. All want to escape.

As Hamdeo speaks, other Syrian refugees arrive and take a seat at the table.

Soon, there are six: five men and a woman. They all know each other and catch up on each other’s news and wellbeing.

“We’ve spoken to many journalists,” Hamdeo explains. “People always ask us why we came here, like it was our choice. We didn’t want to leave Syria.”

At the mere mention of their homeland, the refugees begin reminiscing. Smiling and laughing, they recall the food, the streets and the families they left behind. Each insists that the food at Syriana is impeccable: tasting it is like a ticket to Damascus, they say.

The waiter delivering these flawless recreations of Syrian cuisine beams and joins in with the collective recollection as he places the plates on the table.

“He’s one of us,” Hamdeo says.

Anas, the Syrian pastry chef

Anas’ passion is baking pastries, a craft he only got the chance to nurture in Gaza [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

Syriana’s 22-year-old waiter, Anas Abu Ajeena, is from the Muhajereen neighbourhood of Damascus. Aside from accomplishing the impressive feat of travelling from Syria to Gaza - via Lebanon and Egypt - in 20 days, Abu Ajeena is able to make waiting tables look fun.

He arrives at the restaurant in the morning to help with the day’s food preparation, and usually finishes at four or five in the afternoon. His smile never leaves his face, the others say.

But while his countenance suggests waiting is his passion, that is not the case. “When I finish here, I go to my friend’s cafe and bake sweets,” he says, the corners of his lips bending ever so slightly to form a smile.

A few days later at the Honeybee cafe, Abu Ajeena explains that he “always wanted to bake pastries”, but he only got the chance in Gaza.

The menu boasts an impressive selection: Belgian waffles, apple pies, cakes made from Oreos and Kit-Kat bars, and Abu Ajeena’s personal favourite, the cinnamon bun.

His inspiration, he says, “was the food my mum, sister and grandmother prepared in Syria”.

“When they would bake, I would hang around the kitchen and watch,” he explains. A keen chemistry student at school, he observed how the process of baking was much like science.

Along with his passion for baking, Abu Ajeena is also interested in psychology. He studied the subject at university for less than a month before fleeing Syria in the summer of 2013. At that time, armed groups were ramping up their fight against the government forces, who had been violently cracking down on dissent for two years. The army was tightening security in response.

Abu Ajeena’s happy demeanour belies his experiences.

“There were regime spies in my neighbourhood and checkpoints were everywhere. I participated in the demonstrations [for democracy] early on, but I quickly realised that both sides were wrong,” he says.

Still, even though he had stopped protesting, he was marked by the government.

“I didn’t feel comfortable there, spies were asking about me. I felt leaving was the best option to keep myself and my family safe,” Abu Ajeena says.

So he fled.

Gaza may have given him the opportunity to develop his skills, but he says there is no future in pastry-making or anything else here for him.

He wants to leave, but knows it is not possible, even though he still has a valid Syrian passport. That could get him out of Gaza and into Egypt. However, he fears that he would then be deported back to Damascus by the Egyptian authorities, as Syria and Egypt have quietly warmed relations as part of their shared fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Abu Ajeena never completed his compulsory military service, but the possibility of being enlisted should he return is just one of the many undesirable fates he could face.

Since 2011, the Assad government and aligned armed groups have disappeared more than 65,000 Syrians. According to a 2015 Amnesty International report, “large numbers of peaceful opponents of the government, including demonstrators, political activists, human rights defenders, media workers, doctors and humanitarian aid workers” comprise the majority of the disappeared.

Today, he still fears for his family’s safety. “When I arrived [in Gaza], I didn’t talk to them for four months. Now it’s about once every week,” he says.

“But I don’t say where I am, or what I’m doing.”

Syrian intelligence could be listening in on the calls, he explains, adding: “I don’t feel comfortable talking on the phone.”

He clearly misses his family.

In Gaza, he lives in a room in a flat provided by a friend’s father, though he doesn’t spend much time there. It doesn’t feel like home, he says.

He prefers to work, and those hours spent perfecting his craft have paid off: He serves up a cinnamon bun of soft, buttery perfection.

“If I weren’t in Gaza, it could be even better,” he says, explaining that some of the ingredients he’d like to use aren’t available due to the nearly 10-year-long Israeli siege of the Strip.

“It’s the same for our waffles. There’s a certain technique for perfecting the Belgian waffle that isn’t possible here.”

Just the mention of it inspires him, and Abu Ajeena is soon back in the kitchen preparing one.

Once he’s done, he carefully tops it with whipped cream and syrup. “It’d be better if I made it in Belgium,” he says.

Even after three years in Gaza, he says leaving is always on his mind. He knows he can’t go back to Syria, but like many Syrians, he hopes for the chance to live in Europe.

“Everything would be better if I were in Belgium,” he says with a smile.

Majdal al-Aktar Abu Abed, the cinematic Syrian

Majdal al-Aktar Abu Abed’s dream was to be an actor, but pressure from his family forced him into their trading business instead [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

Forty-six-year-old Majdal al-Aktar Abu Abed is a bit of a scene stealer. His laugh, loud and boisterous, seemed to lift the spirits of the other Syrians gathered at Syriana. His presence making the conversation flow a little more freely, the smiles appear a little more readily.

Now, in his modest, sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment in the southern city of Rafah, he is welcoming and talks enthusiastically about his previous life in Syria, his time in Gaza and his favourite films.

Soon after the Damascene married his wife Manal, a Palestinian refugee in Syria, the couple found out they were expecting a child.

Manal wanted to give birth in her homeland, so she travelled back to Gaza through Egypt. It was 2012. The government of Mohamed Morsi was in power in Egypt and the Rafah border crossing was open, meaning Manal could cross easily into the Strip.

Abu Abed expected his wife to return to Syria with their son, but it wasn’t to be. The Syrian revolution was heating up, and Abu Abed comes from a large Sunni family of traders. The Assad government suspected him of providing financial support to the opposition.

“I never gave them money, but that didn’t matter. People from the regime were searching for me,” he says. “I felt the responsibility to be with my wife and child and pressure to leave for my own safety.”

So Abu Abed joined Manal and their newborn son, Abed, in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border.

Abu Abed and Manal have two sons. “In Syria, it’s common for boys to have long hair,” he says. “But I also read that it isn’t good to put children in a uniform. They should be able to dress and act in whatever way makes them comfortable” [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

Soon, the family added another member, Essam, who is now a year old. The joy Abu Abed takes in his children is obvious and regularly accompanied by that deep laugh that makes the creases around his bright blue-green eyes just a little more pronounced.

One of the upsides of being unemployed, he says, is that he gets to spend a lot of time with his children – football, games and roughhousing are everyday activities. “I know we will make it through this difficult time,” he says. “And until we do, at least I have more time with my family.”

When Abu Abed speaks, his words are accompanied by deliberate, measured hand gestures that seem to float in the air like the smoke from his cigarette. The overall impression is of a man more suited to a bygone era of the silver screen than the less than elegant circumstances in which he finds himself.

His dream was to be an actor. “I love Al Pacino, he’s got something special,” he says, adding that he’s seen the actor’s seminal mobster flick, The Godfather, more than 40 times. “And Michael Douglas; he was amazing in Wall Street.”

Arab actors have also left their mark. “For me, Omar al-Sharif is irreplaceable,” he says, referring to the legendary Egyptian actor.

But pressure from his family forced him to put his dreams aside. “We’re a large family, and there were no actors. I studied business because that’s what my father wanted,” he says, his brow furrowing. So, Abu Abed ended up selling construction materials for a living.

His eyes seem to lose a little of their glimmer as he reflects on his family’s situation. “When we came here, it was better than Syria, but after two weeks, we realised that we had gone from one bad situation to another.”

During the last war, a house was bombed less than 20 metres away from Abu Abed’s apartment. “Our window was blown away. Glass exploded all over the living room,” he says, showing the jerry-rigged sealing that now keeps the glass in place.

“One war, then another; we don’t know when the next war will come,” he adds, glancing towards the two young children happily playing nearby.

They scuttle back and forth between the living room and their bedroom. Their mother, Manal, says her main concern for now is simply making sure that they have a happy, if not an exactly normal, childhood.

“They take up all my time,” she says smiling, before following them into their room.

Abu Abed and Manal reject the societal norms that would seek to force their sons into some limited notion of masculinity. Their long, light brown hair is tied with brightly coloured bands. It is an uncommon sight in the Gaza Strip. But Abu Abed has thought carefully about his approach to parenting.

“In Syria, it’s common for boys to have long hair,” he says. “But I also read that it isn’t good to put children in a uniform. They should be able to dress and act in whatever way makes them comfortable,” he adds as Abed sneaks up behind him to hit him over the head with a toy.

After 15 minutes of wrestling in response, the three-year-old goes to play with his mother, and Abu Abed settles back into his chair.

“We can’t stay here,” he says, suddenly. He’d love to go to Norway, but would be thrilled to live anywhere in Europe.

“My children need a home where life is possible. Life isn’t possible here,” he reflects.

Nabil Abu Nahad, the tattooed Palestinian refugee from Syria

Nabil Abu Nahad was born in Syria, but is of Palestinian descent. He says that back in Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in Syria where he was born and raised, it was a dream to return to Gaza [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

On a dark winter evening in the west of Gaza City, Nabil Abu Nahad, 43, opens the door to his home with an inviting “welcome, welcome”, in keeping with Palestinian custom. Though he was born in Syria, he is of Palestinian descent. He was one of 526,744 Palestinian refugees in Syria, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, prior to the onset of the war.

Now, his family is one of 214 households comprised of Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria to Gaza. They are, in effect, two-time refugees.

His family was forced out of their village, Barbara, in 1948, during what Palestinians call the Nakba.

Less than 20km from his current home in Gaza City, the modern-day Israeli towns of Mavki’im and Talmei Yaffe sit on the remains of Barbara, an agricultural village dating back to the Roman Empire.

Abu Nahad “always wanted” to come to Palestine. “It was like a dream for me, this is my home. I heard stories about it; we spoke of it every day in Yarmouk,” he says, referring to the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus where Abu Nahad was born, raised and lived until he fled the war.

Abu Nahad’s longing for his homeland is etched onto his skin. As he serves thick, spiced Arabic coffee, a small, self-administered tattoo reading “Palestine” in Arabic can be seen on his left hand.

“I did it back in [Yarmouk], it was normal there,” he says, looking down at the hand, nostalgic for his former life.

Abu Nahad says he was “lucky to escape” Yarmouk when he did. Its conquest by ISIL in April 2015, after years of siege imposed by the Assad government brought another level of misery to the embattled camp. The population dwindled from around 160,000 people before the war to the roughly 18,000 that currently remain there.

He took his wife, Maisun, 36, and three children, Shahid, Malak, and Wadia, aged between eight and 12, to the airport in Damascus. They waited for two days before the authorities allowed them to board a flight to Cairo.

Abu Nahad travelled to Gaza with his his wife, Maisun, and their three children, Shahid, Malak, and Wadia who are aged between eight and 12 [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

In Egypt, Abu Nahad says he spoke to officials at Palestine’s diplomatic mission about travelling to Gaza.

In retrospect, he doesn’t consider their recommendation to have been very diplomatic: “They told me to take the tunnels because sorting things out to pass the border legally would take too long.”

So the family gathered what little belongings they could, and took the subterranean passageways into Gaza. “We thought, ‘If we’re going to die, we’ll die together,’” he says, describing their sense of desperation.

Not much has changed since then. Abu Nahad moved in with his family, who he says received them “coldly”. They had painted a rosier picture of life in Gaza than the reality he encountered, he says.

The double-refugee now misses Yarmouk. He felt a greater sense of freedom and belonging there, he explains. “In Gaza, the people are very conservative. When they see my tattoos, they say it’s haram,” he says, using the Arabic word for something forbidden according to Islamic law. “When I go to the mosque, and even when I walk in the street, I have to wear long sleeves to cover them.”

He remembers the days when he didn’t have to hide his ink, including a large eagle on his right arm. Abu Nahad smiles and says that this was the reason his wife Maisun fell in love with him.

“It’s true,” she confirms, blushing.

He says that Hamas’ leaders initially made a noise about the Palestinians who had returned from Syria and recalls a meeting held by Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister, during which each family was given a few hundred dollars. “He promised us homes, drivers’ licences and jobs, but nothing ever came of it,” he adds.

Not that Abu Nahad believes anything could have. “The people here have no money, many homes have been destroyed by the wars with the Israelis, and almost no one has a job,” he says. “Haniyeh promised things they couldn’t deliver. Everyone loves to make a show to the media about our situation.”

Just to get by, the father of three takes loans from the local supermarket. But he worries that he won’t be able to pay them back. UNRWA also gives the family an allowance and basic food stuffs, but it doesn’t go far.

Abu Nahad looks frustrated and confused as he describes how the return to Palestine that he had dreamed of has left him with debts, doubts and the troubling feeling of not belonging.

“You can’t blame the Palestinians here. Their situation is so difficult,” he says. “But still, life here isn’t what I had imagined. We’re not happy, we need a solution to this problem. We need to leave.”

Maisun joins in. “It’s so hard here, I never believed it could be this difficult,” she says.

Like her husband, she grew up dreaming of returning to her ancestral homeland. “Now we’re here, borrowing money, living under warplanes. This isn’t the condition I want for my children. The best solution for us is to leave.”

Is there a way out?

Syriana’s Syrian customers describe the food Hamdeo serves as “a ticket to Damascus” [Lara Aburamadan/Al Jazeera]

But Maisun, Abu Nahad, and the other Syrian refugees in Gaza - be they of Palestinian or Syrian descent - know that this is practically impossible. As he watches the news reports showing the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees throwing their lifejackets aside as they reach European soil, after potentially deadly journey across the Mediterranean, he wonders if this wouldn’t be preferable to the fate his family now faces.

When asked if Gaza is an appropriate destination for Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria, the UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness, says: “UNRWA respects their choices and offers them services once they arrive in Gaza.”

But, he adds: “Gaza is already undergoing a humanitarian catastrophe with thousands of homes damaged and destroyed by the [2014 war] still unreconstructed or repaired. The blockade exacerbates an already inhumane situation.

“It says a lot about the options facing Palestinian refugees from Syria that they choose to go to Gaza.”

Abu Nahad is wary of the legal implications of being a Palestinian who returned to Palestine. “We are Palestinian, we are registered with UNRWA, and we returned to our home. Why would Europe let us escape?” he asks.

Gunness says the “fact that a refugee is registered with UNRWA in no way prejudices any decisions they might want to make in relation to escaping the region.”

So how can they leave?

Wafa al-Kafarna, the information, counselling and legal assistance project manager for the Gaza branch of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told Al Jazeera that it’s possible to leave if they have a valid Palestinian passport or Syrian travel documents.

“They can leave through Rafah, but the refugees say that there is an agreement between Cairo and Damascus to return them for questioning,” al-Kafarna explains, echoing Abu Ajeena’s concerns about being deported back to Syria.

Under Syrian law, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to return to their homeland as long as it is under Israeli control. In the event that they were returned to Damascus, the refugees would be questioned by the Syrian government - and that isn’t an eventuality any of them considers favourably.

Adding to the sense of stalemate is the fact that the different types of refugees have different organisations who are supposed to deal with their needs. Those who are of Palestinian descent should be assisted by UNRWA. But helping people leave the Strip isn’t part of the core competencies of a body that focuses on humanitarian assistance and education.

For the Syrians who are not of Palestinian descent, the UNHCR is the organisation that should assist them, al-Kafarna explains.

Another issue for the Syrians, as well as tens of thousands of Palestinians, is that Israel controls the population registry of the Gaza Strip. This responsibility was meant to be given to the PA under the Oslo Accords, but as of now, the matter is entirely at the discretion of Israel.

And the Israeli government has no relations with the Assad government, which means that they are, perhaps, even more stateless in Gaza than anywhere else.

Without them being on the population registry, local governmental agencies and even international organisations find it difficult to document and offer aid to the Syrians in Gaza.

Al-Kafarna says the UNHCR can circumvent the issues surrounding Syrian travel documents, and issue refugee travel documents. But representatives of the UN body did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

“Gaza is not a place ready to accept more refugees,” says al-Kafarna. “Not the people, not the organisations, not the infrastructure. These people need to find a way out of this prison.”