Gaza Survivors’ Heart-Wrenching Exodus to Egypt

Seeking refuge from Israel’s genocide in Gaza, some Palestinians have made the perilous journey to Egypt. Torn between the desperate need for safety and the uncertain future that awaits them back home, some of them shared their stories with us.

Displaced Palestinians walk next to the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, on February 16, 2024, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images)

Before October 7, Marah al-Satari was a typical twenty-two-year-old. She was eager to complete her last semester at the now bombed-out al-Azhar University in the north of the besieged Gaza Strip, where she was studying mass communications. After graduation, she planned to become a journalist.

Now, however, she is living in limbo in the Egyptian capital of Cairo and taking care of eight of her orphaned siblings and cousins, ages five to fourteen, after her parents, uncles, and aunts were killed in Israel’s eight-month-long bombardment of Gaza. Israel has massacred nearly forty thousand Palestinians and has completely devastated the small enclave, one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

Marah al-Satari (Jaclynn Ashly)

Many human rights observers say Israel’s unprecedented aggression in Gaza amounts to genocide — supported and facilitated by the United States.

As many as one hundred thousand Palestinians have escaped the indiscriminate killings in Gaza into Egypt through the Rafah crossing — the only exit out of Gaza not bordered by Israel and the single route out of the territory for civilians fleeing the war. Last month, however, Israel seized control of the Palestinian side of the crossing as it began its deadly ground invasion into Rafah.

Since then, the Rafah crossing — also a crucial lifeline for humanitarian aid entering Gaza — has been sealed; no Palestinians are currently allowed through.

While Palestinians who have managed to cross into Egypt are safe from the nightmarish death and destruction facing their families left behind in Gaza, they have been reduced to a life of poverty with no legal documentation in the country. Most are now entirely reliant on charity to survive, while the specter of the war back home has haunted them.

Satari (top left) with her now-orphaned siblings and cousins. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“I never imagined I would ever be in a situation like this,” Satari says, her solemn eyes glued to the ground at a café in Cairo; she glances up at her younger siblings and cousins giggling and chasing each other around outside. “I was a student and now suddenly I am a mother. I used to come home and find my mother cooking food for us and laying our clothes out after a wash. Now it’s me doing this for eight children.”

Horror and Carnage

In a split second, Satari’s life as she knew it was changed forever. It was October 25, just a few weeks into the war. She was on her way to her uncle’s house, located beside her family’s home in Khan Younis, to join the rest of her family who were preparing for dinner. Suddenly, a series of soul-shaking explosions ripped through the neighborhood.

“All I saw was fire, glass, and dust,” Satari tells me, recounting this life-altering event in a flat voice. “Our entire block got carpet bombed by the Israelis, twelve buildings in total.” When she finally returned to consciousness, Satari rushed to the site of her uncle’s home, which had been reduced to rubble.

“I was in denial,” Satari says. “I couldn’t process that all these dead bodies were those of my family and neighbors. My mind couldn’t accept what had just happened.”

Around one hundred people from her neighborhood were killed in the airstrikes that night, Satari says. Thirty-two of those were Satari’s family members, including her mother, her small sister and brother, her two uncles, and their wives and children. The family members who were spared were outside of the house at the time, purchasing bread or collecting sweets at the supermarket to bring for dinner.

Satari’s father had also disappeared around the same time; he is presumed to have been killed.

Satari’s strong and emotionless demeanor abruptly cracks when she speaks about her slain mother, who was thirty-nine. She breaks down in tears, her face scrunching and her throat tightening. “I tried to call her and wake her up,” Satari says, remembering when she saw her mother’s lifeless body. “But she never answered me.”

Overnight, Satari and her eighteen-year-old brother Mahmoud became the main caretakers for their nine small siblings and cousins, now orphans from the war. Her fourteen-year-old brother Rafat was suffering from acute kidney disease, and accessing care for him became increasingly difficult to access as hospitals were overwhelmed with wounded patients.

Satari shows a photo on her mobile phone of her brother Rafat, whose kidney disease worsened significantly when he was orphaned and wound up in a tent in Rafah. (Jaclynn Ashly)

For several weeks, they sought refuge in Satari’s family’s home, despite it being badly damaged by the secondary impact of the airstrikes. The windows were shattered, doors were wrecked, and deep cracks split the walls. Every night, they huddled together in the kitchen, the section of the house farthest from the windows.

“I wasn’t even able to eat,” Satari tells me, her eyes dark and expressionless. “But I would still cook for the children.”

“In that situation the only thing you can think about is that you don’t want to be left alive with missing limbs and you don’t want to be shredded into little pieces and not receive a proper burial,” Satari continues. “All of life just became about death. We were not afraid of it, but just of the way that we would die.”

In November, the Israeli army ordered the evacuation of parts of Khan Younis, forcing the orphaned family to flee to Rafah. There, they joined more than a million displaced Palestinians crowded into sprawling tent settlements. “Those days in Rafah were the hardest days of my life,” Satari says. “The only thing I could think about each day was where we would get water and food.”

Living in a tent settlement for about two months without adequate access to food, water, or medicine caused Rafat’s condition to rapidly deteriorate. He developed uncontrollable muscle spasms, seizures, and internal bleeding in his brain. “I didn’t think Rafat would make it much longer,” Satari tells me. “So, I decided to take all of us to the border [with Egypt] and plead with them to let us in.”

For several days, Satari pleaded with the Egyptian border guards, crying until they finally permitted her and her family to cross into Egypt on February 12. Satari’s brother Mahmoud, however, was denied entry — he remains in Rafah.

Rafat was rushed to a hospital in Egypt’s Sharqia Governorate, a journey that took hours. By the time he arrived, his condition was critical. The following day, Rafat died.

From Prosperity to Misery

Satari and her surviving eight siblings and cousins moved in with their uncle, who was already renting an apartment in Cairo. Like the tens of thousands of other Palestinians who made it through the Rafah crossing before it was sealed last month, they are now safe from Israel’s relentless bombings.

However, safety is not a sufficient salve for the torment of the escalating war. Many are grappling with survivor’s guilt that is compounded by being transformed into charity cases in Egypt.

Gazans in Egypt are facing a “catastrophic and humanitarian disaster,” says Raed Jarrar, a Palestinian American political advocate. “It is only better than being in a genocide. That’s the only thing that could be compared to it that’s worse.”

Unless Palestinians have foreign passports, international connections with a foreign country appealing on their behalf, or approval for medical treatment in Egypt, their only other option for escaping through the crossing is to pay an exorbitant fee to Hala Consulting and Tourism. This Egyptian company, owned by Sinai tribal leader and business tycoon Ibrahim al-Organi, has monopolized transfer services at the Rafah crossing. Organi is a close ally to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military.

Before the war, Hala charged everyone exiting Gaza through the crossing $350. But the price has increased fourteen-fold, with Palestinians being forced to pay $5,000 per adult and $2,500 for children under sixteen. In April, the company made a daily average of $2 million per day from Palestinians fleeing Gaza.

Throughout the war, Palestinians have desperately set up GoFundMe campaigns with their international contacts to raise the funds to flee. Others have used up their entire life savings paying Hala to get their loved ones across the border.

Once they arrive in Egypt, displaced Palestinians are given a forty-five-day permit, according to a Gazan currently living in Cairo. The Egyptian government has turned a blind eye to tens of thousands of Palestinians overstaying their permits during the war, but this has left Palestinians undocumented. As a result, they are denied most work opportunities and cannot open bank accounts, register their children for school, open a business, or access health insurance.

“Palestinians in Egypt are dealing with a true humanitarian catastrophe,” Jarrar tells me. “For them it is safer than being in Gaza while the genocide is taking place. But they are without legal documents, no residency, no rights, no money, they can’t work, and most of them don’t even have enough money to rent an apartment. It’s a very dire situation.”

Palestinian children are being denied an education in Egypt for the foreseeable future. “Children are dealing with a genocide in Gaza, in which schools have been bombed and children killed and injured — and throughout that process denied their right to education,” Jarrar says. “When they cross into Egypt, there are no more bombs killing them, but their right to education is almost as bad as if they were in Gaza during a genocide.”

Even Palestinians who were financially well-off in Gaza have been reduced to destitution, collecting cash assistance from the Palestinian embassy in Cairo and various charitable organizations to afford basic necessities, such as rent and food.

Abdallah Hassan Alaydy, seventy, is a retired psychiatrist. He proudly shows me photos of his once-beloved home in Zawaida, a town in the central Deir al-Balah Governorate. It was a typical upper-class Palestinian home, made from stone with an arched entrance way and palm trees lining its exterior. Now, however, his house has been destroyed.

Abdallah Hassan Alaydy (Jaclynn Ashly)

Alaydy paid $50,000 to Hala for him, his wife, his children, and his grandchildren to get out of Gaza — all of his life’s savings. His children, who held high-level jobs in Gaza as dentists, pharmacists, and an X-ray technician, are unable to work in Egypt.

“I used to be the one to give to other people,” Alaydy tells me, sitting on a couch at an apartment in Cairo. “So, it has been very difficult to now be the one doing the taking. My whole family, we all have this esteemed way of thinking about ourselves because we are doctors and pharmacists. But now we’ve become dependent on charity. The war has made everything upside down.”

Alaydy shows a photo of his home back in Gaza, which is now partially destroyed and unlivable. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“It is certainly not an easy thing for a person to transfer from prosperity to misery,” he adds.

“Better to Die in Gaza”

Amany Qadada, who is from Gaza City in the North, cradles Izzeldine, her one-year-old son, in her arms, while sitting on a bed in a small room she rents on the roof of a Cairo apartment building. She exudes a soft but strong demeanor as she recounts her journey of fleeing from one Gazan city to the next, eventually ending up in a tent settlement in Rafah.

She left Gaza on January 24 with her elderly parents and sister, paying at least $22,500 to Hala. Her husband managed to secure an exit permit for another $5,000 just three days before Israel seized the border.

Amany Qadada with her one-year-old son, Izzeldine. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“We were doing really well in Gaza,” Qadada tells me, tears blurring her eyes. “I’m a dentist and my husband is an engineer. We were on our way to buy our own house. Now life is miserable in Egypt. I feel like I am a beggar. I go to the Palestinian embassy and stand in line to take some money for rent and food. We are not used to this kind of life.”

Like all Gazans who fled from the war, Qadada is terrified that Israel will never allow her to return, a fear echoing what happened to her ancestors in 1948 during the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when some 750,000 Palestinians were permanently displaced after being expelled or fleeing from their homes during the creation of the Israeli state. This fear also hearkens back to similar events in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Despite all the difficulties in Gaza because of Israel’s blockade and wars, we still loved Gaza,” Qadada tells me, a slight smile lighting up her face. “You will never meet someone from Gaza who doesn’t love Gaza.”

“I spend most of my days now just watching the news and crying over what is happening there,” she adds. “Seeing all the destruction is overwhelming. All of Gaza has become uninhabitable. Even if Israel allows us to go back there’s nothing left to go back to.”

Some Palestinians in Egypt are regretting having left Gaza at all.

“Everyone coming from Gaza is deeply traumatized,” says Alaydy, the retired psychiatrist. “In Gaza, people were trying to just survive. They operated on pure survival instincts. But when they escape the war and are left alone, that’s when all their thoughts come to haunt them.”

Yusef, Alaydy’s twenty-three-year-old son, says dealing with survivor’s guilt has been the most tormenting part of his displacement. “We all feel really guilty about leaving Gaza,” he says. “And knowing that all of our loved ones are still being killed there. And we are here in Egypt struggling each day to find money for basic necessities.”

“Sometimes I think it would have been better to die in Gaza,” he adds. “At least we would have died together with everyone else.”

Satari rarely lifts her eyes from her phone, scrolling stonily through her social media and watching videos of the death and destruction consuming the only home she has ever known. Her small siblings and cousins, meanwhile, are constantly cackling with laughter and run from one game or joke to the next.

Misk, Marah al-Satari’s nine-year-old sister. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Yet beneath the children’s cheerfulness lies unimaginable trauma. Since escaping Gaza, they suffer from nightmares and night terrors, common afflictions among Palestinian children traumatized by war. They also become frightened by loud noises and the sounds of airplanes flying from the Cairo airport, mistaking them for explosions or Israeli drones.

Misk, Satari’s nine-year-old sister, was awakened by a nightmare the night prior to our interview. “I dreamed my father was killed by the Israelis and then they came and took Shoruq and Zain [her sister and brother],” Misk tells me, shyly fiddling with her thumbs. “The Israelis kidnapped them and tortured them; they beat them with sticks.” Misk then releases a snicker and skips back to her siblings and cousins to rejoin their game.

“These days, I am just confused,” Satari sighs, swallowing back tears. “I don’t know how to make sense of anything. I wonder sometimes whether we are alive because God just wants to torture us. And it is the dead who are the truly blessed ones. Or did God keep us alive to give us an opportunity for something better? I don’t know who is cursed and who is blessed in Gaza: the dead or the living?”