Social Justice

'Helpless' UK residents call for Home Office to help get families out of Gaza: 'We feel betrayed'

The Big Issue speaks to Palestinian families who have loved ones trapped in Gaza about why the UK needs to step up and help

gaza

Scenes in Gaza of people queuing for food and water and of destroyed infrastructure. On the right is an image of Ahmed with his nieces. Images: Supplied

Ahmed knew he had to get his family out of Palestine when his six-year-old nephew saw his father killed in a zone flagged as safe by the Israeli military.

He has 15 family members trapped in Gaza. Their homes are destroyed. Every day is a mission to survive.

“I face daily frustration, depression and mental health issues,” Ahmed, 32, says. “I thought I was a strong person, but this is taking a serious toll. I feel helpless.”

Ahmed and his nephews and nieces on a visit back home to Gaza in 2022. Image: Supplied

Ahmed has lived in the UK for seven years, including while he was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge and now as an academic at the University of Dundee.

He wants to be reunited with his family and to ensure their safety in the UK until they can return to Gaza. The Home Office has stopped this.

His only option is to raise thousands of pounds, like hundreds of other Palestinian families, to pay a company in Egypt to facilitate their evacuation.

Campaigners are calling for a Ukraine-style family visa scheme to reunite Palestinians with family in the UK. The Home Office has said it has no plans to set this up.

A petition launched by the campaign has reached more than 85,000 signatures but they have just days to get it to 100,000 so it is debated in parliament.

Read Ahmed’s story: My cousin was killed in front of his six-year-old son. I need to get my family out of Gaza

A spokesperson from the Gaza Families Reunited campaign, a grassroots collective of Palestinians and migrant rights advocates, says: “We all have a right to family unity. But the UK government’s reluctance to create a Gaza Family Scheme is endangering the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and keeping families apart.

“Existing routes for Palestinians in Gaza seeking to join family in the UK are insufficient and not working. We know that people have died while waiting for the Home Office to decide whether they can reunite with their loved ones in the UK. This is unconscionable.”

Roba, 31, who is from Gaza but has been living in the UK for nine years. She is now a citizen. Image: Supplied

Roba, a British citizen from Palestine, says: “People always wanted to stay in Gaza, but with how violent this war is and the destruction it has caused, leaving is the only option.”

She felt a deep sense of helplessness when her family was in Gaza. There were days when they lost communication and she did not know whether they were alive.

“It was hell on earth,” Roba, 31, says. “There was continuous bombardment everywhere in each place of displacement. They were facing horrors, continuous bombing and shortage of food, water, medicine, everything.”

Read Roba’s story: My family faced hell on earth in Gaza. Leaving was their only option for survival

Hala, a company in Egypt, is charging $5,000 for the evacuation of a person over the age of 16 and $2,500 for a child.

People queuing for goods in Gaza. Image: Mohammed

Roba faced an ethical dilemma paying a company which she believes is profiting from genocide, but she had no choice.

“In December, we lost my uncle and all of his family,” she says. “That was devastating. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to my family. Most of the people killed are civilians. Leaving was their only option for survival.”

Roba speaks to The Big Issue from Egypt, where her family are safe but in limbo. They do not want to stay in Egypt illegally, but going back to Gaza is impossible.

“The scale of destruction in Gaza will take years to reverse,” Roba says. “As a temporary solution, I really want them to be with me in the UK and for everyone to have some stability before they can go back to Gaza and rebuild their life from scratch.”

A letter signed by almost 60 charities, law firms and organisations was sent to the home secretary, James Cleverly, last week calling for a family scheme for Palestinians. 

Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousef recently backed the campaign.

The spokesperson for the Gaza Families Reunited campaign added: “The British Government has previously offered sanctuary to Ukrainian families fleeing persecution. All we are asking is that the same opportunity is afforded to Palestinians fleeing bombardment and starvation and seeking to reunite with their loved ones.

“We believe the UK government has a moral obligation to create a Gaza Family Scheme to enable Palestinians in the UK to bring their loved ones to safety until it is safe to return.”

Mohammed, 24, was about to start his final year of medical school when his life was turned upside down by war. Image: Supplied

Mohammed is a 24-year-old currently displaced in Rafah. He sends voice messages to The Big Issue because there is not a strong enough internet connection for a call. 

“We are queuing for bread – little bread to be honest,” he says. “We are queuing for water which is not humanly clean to drink. There are shortages in everything. It takes 10 times the effort to get our basic needs.

“We’re searching for wood for my mum to cook on a wood fire due to scarcity of cooking gas. Just imagine how bad and stressful these events look. Rafah is supposed to be a safe place but we hear bombardments all around and we are terrified.”

Last July was the first time Mohammed left Gaza. He spent two months in the UK after being selected for a medical elective programme by the University of Oxford. He returned to Gaza with the passion to complete his final year in medical school and return to the UK to finish his training, before opening up his own clinic in Gaza.

Mohammed could only save a medical book from his home, half burnt. Image: Supplied

But three weeks after he returned home, after 7 October, he went from dreaming to searching for ways to survive.

“We are living in a true crisis but I hope for a way out for me and my family and to start anew. Gaza is completely wiped out,” he says. “There are no universities, no hospitals. There is no life. It’s chaos. It’s mad and beyond belief.”

Through fundraising, Mohammed and his brother have been able to pay for their permits and hope to be in Egypt in a matter of days, but he still needs to get the rest of his family out.

“It was Eid this week, an Islamic occasion which occurs after Ramadan,” he says. “I never thought such an occasion would happen in such a situation. Eid has started but still, we are being killed. We are being bombed. 

“The sounds of bombardments and war are so terrifying. Just imagine now we are displaced from our houses. My house is completely burned.”

Read Mohammed’s story: I used to dream of being a doctor in the UK. Now I’m searching for ways to survive in Palestine

Mohammed’s cousin was killed in November. He is the father of six children. “Today when I looked into their eyes, I just saw misery, sorrow and sadness,” Mohammed says. “These are children who don’t have their father. I don’t know how they will manage to live their lives.”

More than 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, of which approximately 70% are women and children, according to local authorities. Around 1.7 million people have been displaced.

It followed the attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas militants, when 1,200 people were killed and 250 people taken hostage.

Kamena Dorling, director of policy at the Helen Bamber Foundation which signed the letter backing a family visa scheme for Palestinians, says: “As with calls we have made for the protection of Ukrainians after Russia’s invasion, and of Afghans needing to flee the Taliban, in October we urged the UK government to put in place emergency pathways for those seeking refuge from the conflict in Israel and Palestine. 

“Establishing routes to reach the UK safely is an essential component of an international system of refugee protection. 

“The government did not do so and instead we have seen Palestinians die whilst trying to reunite with family members in the UK using the existing family reunion scheme because of administrative barriers. 

“We now need urgent action to enable Palestinians trapped in Gaza to travel and to remain in the UK while the humanitarian crisis is ongoing, with the right to return when it is safe to do so.”

Mohammed’s family home, destroyed. Image: Supplied

Hundreds of Palestinians have set up fundraisers to save money for their evacuation. GoFundMe says there have been more than 76,000 donations and 500 funds around the crisis which use the words ‘evacuate’ or ‘evacuation’.

A government spokesperson says: “We are working around the clock to get British Nationals, who want to leave, out of Gaza. We have a team on the ground in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing providing consular assistance.

“We currently have no plans to establish a separate route for Palestinians to come to the UK. However, any dependants of British citizens who need a visa can apply for one.”

The Palestinian families say they are hurt by the response.

Rami, who is a British citizen based in Scotland, says: “I tried to see if the British government could do something similar to what they did with British Ukrainians. We were shocked. We feel betrayed. It made us question why we are in this country. We have been living here and paying taxes, but we’re not treated like other citizens.”

Read Rami’s story: I lost 200 members of my family to war in Gaza. I feel betrayed by the UK government

He has paid to get his immediate family into Egypt but he still has family in Palestine.

“I’m really worried about them,” Rami says. “I’m in touch with them every day trying to see what they are up to. That’s why we will continue calling for a ceasefire, because that’s the only way to make sure they are safe.

“It has been six months now. They have accepted their fate. They just live day by day. They don’t really think about tomorrow, because they are now only in survival mode.”

Sign the petition calling for a Ukraine-style family visa scheme for Palestinians here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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