Ahmad, a young merchant living in the Egyptian city of El-Arish, was nursing a recent heartbreak.
Less than a month ago, he asked for an Egyptian woman’s hand in marriage. He was rejected, he said, because he is a Palestinian carrying a refugee travel document.
Yet his family have resided in Egypt for the better part of a century.
Ahmad’s family is originally from al-Maghar in central Palestine. They were forced out when the village was ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces in May 1948, the month the state of Israel was declared.
The family were among the estimated 11,600 Palestinians who fled to Egypt that year. There the authorities issued them refugee travel documents but not citizenship.
Unlike refugees who ended up in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Palestinians who fled to Egypt did not have access to relief services from UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, as Egypt prevented it from operating in the country.
Ahmad and his family have to renew their travel documents every three years. Their tenuous status leaves them feeling vulnerable.
“We face many problems,” Ahmad told The Electronic Intifada. “We are discriminated against when we have to present [our documents] to the Egyptian police or army on the road, and we are made to feel like settlers in Egypt with no rights.”
Their refugee status makes it difficult to travel outside the country.
Ahmad said that he and his family members have been prevented from performing the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, and thus fulfilling their religious duty.
“Three years ago, we were banned from attending pilgrimage. My mother and brother tried to travel this year to perform their pilgrimage, and the Egyptian authorities prevented them from doing so because they carry Palestinian travel documents,” Ahmad said.
“There are many complications when it comes to travel.”
That is not the only limitation borne from their refugee status.
“We are barred from owning property on Egyptian soil,” Ahmad said. “We have sidestepped this problem by registering our property under the names of relatives who hold Egyptian nationality, or reliable friends.”
But even when Ahmad wanted to set up natural gas service at his apartment, he said, “I had to register it under the name of one of our relatives who holds Egyptian citizenship.”
Subsequent waves of mass displacement of Palestinians by Israel have swelled the number of refugees in Egypt over the years. There were some 160,000 Palestinian refugees residing in the country as of 2014.
Israel has prevented Palestinian refugees from exercising their right of return from the lands and properties from which they were expelled.
Marwan Mustafa’s grandfather came from Gaza to work in Egypt in 1962. Five years later, he was joined by the rest of his family in the wake of Israel’s seizure of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights.
Mustafa, a 29-year-old journalist, said Palestinian refugees in Egypt enjoyed better treatment during the years of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s tenure, starting in 1952, is considered a “golden age” for Palestinians in the country.
“My father used to repeat a saying that Palestinians would hear in universities: Enroll the Palestinian, and if there is space left, enroll the Egyptian.”
Such treatment deteriorated after Nasser’s death in 1970. Palestinian refugees were cut off from public services such as education and healthcare after a Palestinian faction in Cyprus assassinated Yusuf al-Sibai – an Egyptian writer and culture minister who supported President Anwar Sadat’s normalization with Israel – in Cyprus in 1978.
A law enacted in 1981 restricted the participation of Palestinian refugees and other foreigners in the workforce through a regime of permits and quotas.
Palestinian refugees also have to pay extra fees for university education, and are banned from studying medicine, pharmacy, journalism, political science and economics.
Restrictions to access to jobs in the private sector force many Palestinian refugees in Egypt to work as truck or taxi drivers or as day laborers and street vendors.
The fee to renew travel documents and residency rights has increased over the years, causing an additional economic burden for refugees. Residency may be revoked if a Palestinian spends more than six months outside Egypt.
Palestinian refugees can obtain a Palestinian Authority passport from the body’s embassy in Egypt. But it’s next to useless.
“When I tried to apply for a visa to go to Turkey, the Turkish embassy asked for an online application because I was residing in Egypt,” Ahmad said.
But when he started the online application process, he was told to apply directly through the embassy because he doesn’t hold citizenship.
“When I went to the embassy another time, they asked me again for an online application because in their view, I should be treated like an Egyptian.”
It was yet another disappointment for the stateless young man. With restrictions on his ability to pursue a career and improve his situation, he is not marriage material. Unable even to travel, despair is a more likely companion, as for many in his position.
“I was stuck in a loop and in the end I did not apply for a visa.”