From Gaza’s sinking boat to the Tahini Sea

By Khaled Diab

Amer and Saleh from felt “condemned to failure”, so they decided to escape to . Sadly, their aborted endeavour ended in narrowly averted death.

In Gaza, the sea holds the allure of escape from this  maximum-security prison. Photo: ©Khaled Diab
In Gaza, the sea holds the allure of escape from this maximum-security prison.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Amer and Saleh have been inseparable friends since childhood, so it was only natural that when Amer decided to escape the destitution and despair of Gaza for the promised continent of Europe Saleh would join him. The two young narrowly avoided death on the Mediterranean, only to be spent a stint in Egyptian prison before being deported back to Gaza, where they pass the days broke, in debt and without hope.

How did you come up with the idea of smuggling yourselves out of Gaza and into Europe?

Amer: It was my idea – after I had looked a lot for legitimate ways to get out of the country.

What made you want to leave the country?

Amer: I finished university, business management. There's no work and, you know, there's the and all the problems we're in. Even benefits, when we go to apply for them, you only receive benefits for three months every five years. The benefits are from UNRWA and the government.

I thought a lot about starting a small business, like a mini-market. But, no, there are no successful business in this place. There's no capital. And if you open up a mini-market and want to sell, who are you going to sell to? Workers. But the workers have no work. There's no cement or supplies. All this makes a difference.

There's a shortage of goods and prices are high. So, there was no room to do anything. I had a small amount of money. I was looking for a Schengen visa or something to get me out of here, and then apply for asylum in Sweden or . But you need powerful connections to get a visa.

There are no embassies in Gaza and you need a permit to get out. This made it impossible. At the same time, my family would suggest that I get engaged or married. But how am I supposed to ask for a girl's hand in marriage? My father works but his income is modest… My father works to feed us, and that's all he can afford.

Saleh: My background is almost the same as Amer's. Amer thought about opening a small business and opened a mini-market. I thought the same, and opened one up too. My shop is still open but life is horrid. There is no life; people are not living.

Having a business is useless. You end up in debt to suppliers and merchants, and your customers are in debt to you. People owe you money but you can't collect it because they don't have it. People in the camps have very low incomes and a lot of needs. They're the living dead. The only thing that is sheltering their dignities are the walls around them. And many people don't have that. Since the war, many are still stuck in tents.

There's no cement to build and, even if there was, there's no money for them to even think about reconstructing. Someone's home was bombed because his son ran out on to the street or was wearing a black shirt – you know, for petty reasons. But his house vanished and now he's on the street, without an income or family.

Once you came up with the idea of fleeing, how did you research it?

Saleh: We asked around a lot. We spoke to people who had gone or had tried.

Amer: We'd been monitoring this for some time on the internet and other sources.

How did you determine the credibility of a particular smuggler?

Amer: We investigated who succeeded and asked people who have tried. What motivated us to find the money and pay it in total confidence was that an earlier boat made it. This gave us extra impetus.

Were you not afraid to lose the cash you'd raised?

Amer: Like I said, the fact that a ship made it before, motivated us to the extent that we were willing to get into debt to go. I borrowed some money from my father and my maternal uncle. I only had $500 saved up. My mother had a ring which she sold.

How much did it cost you in total?

Amer: $3,500 each. You go from here to Alexandria and from Alexandria to . In , I paid $2,000. The local smugglers here delivered us to the smugglers in . In Egypt, they requested the rest of the amount.

Why is it more expensive to get out of Gaza, then to go through Egypt and onwards to Italy?

Amer: I didn't leave officially. I went through a tunnel. I escaped at the end of the tunnel era, in August of last year. I wanted to go from Gaza to Egypt officially, without paying the $2,000 and then find me a smuggler in Egypt. But the coordination fees for leaving officially were about $1,700 and they also asked for a bank transfer, so I put my trust in God and went for the more guaranteed option.

At the time, there were still a few tunnels that had not been destroyed. I crossed through a tunnel between Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah. Then, some people picked us up and took us by bus to Arish. We were a mess after the tunnel and so we looked like farmers. We also left at 5am, so there was no-one about. I saw nobody on the road to Arish. They would sometimes go off-road or into the desert to avoid police checkpoints. They knew all the alternative routes. We arrived in Arish and the smuggler rented a chalet for the 12 of us. We faced our first problem. We had an agreement that the $3,500 also included food and drink, everything. We were surprised when we were told that we'd have to pay for food and drink.

When we were in Gaza, the smuggler gave us the impression that Italy was only a few short miles away. The advantages they promised us decreased constantly. But I only had $200 in my pocket which were supposed to last me till I reached Italy, where I would find a solution.

We faced some complications. We spent three days in Alexandria and a day on a farm in Rashid. It was really messed up. It was our first time in Egypt.

We went down to the beach in Alexandria at about 3am. There were about 300 of us. It was two loads. There were people from Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Djibouti and Iraq. We were taken from one boat to another in the middle of the water, until we reached the larger craft that was supposed to take us to Italy. But it didn't take us to Italy. We reached about half way through Egypt's territorial waters when we were intercepted by an Egyptian vessel.

Saleh: We were only an hour and a half away from international waters.

Amer: We were transferred to prison, where we spent about 23 days.

Saleh: The boat we were in was stopped, but the other one managed to get away and sank. We learnt about it in prison.

Amer: There were two ships due to depart, a few days apart. Some of our friends got on the first ship. We were about to board the first boat, when they told us that it was full. We were upset about this. We were sent back and told to wait for the second ship.

It was a stroke of fate. I thanked God that I didn't board it.

Saleh: When I found out, I prayed out of gratitude.

But we mourned the loss of some of our friends who were onboard. We had some friends from Egypt who were fleeing conscription. Reading the names of those who drowned was really hard. It was a shock to us in prison.

Although it sank before we departed, the smugglers didn't inform us. They claimed that it had arrived in Italy and the young people were happy and enjoying themselves.

Do you recall the dates?

The first ship was on 7 September 2014 and we departed on about 11 September. We then spent 23 days in prison and were transferred to Arish.

How were you treated in prison?

You might know what Egyptian prisons are like. I've never been to prison in Gaza. See my misfortune: I go to jail in Egypt. They treated us like dirt. They didn't hit us but insults can sometimes be worse than being struck. They used the vilest language against us and were very harsh.

We had to survive on cheese triangles and dry bread. After three days, the Palestinian embassy arrived and began to send us food. They began to punish us in other ways, like depriving us of the toilets.

To be honest, the Palestinian embassy did what it could but it had no power to do anything except arrange our meals and deportation back to Gaza. My family thought that the ship we were on was the one that had sunk. It was like a wake at home. They were weeping for us.

It's weird that we were held for 23 days. Every day, they told us that we would be transferred to the public prosecutor and from there deported. The embassy did its best to expedite our deportation. But there were those without passports or identity documents. I had a temporary passport. That was one reason for the delay. Another was stubbornness from the officers because we were Palestinians. But there were some officers who were sympathetic. Some were upset for us and came to soothe us with some kind words. But the majority were unkind.

We dealt both with the army and the police. The army captured us first and their treatment was a lot more refined. They told us to be patient and expressed understanding that our circumstances were tough. Even the general came to speak with us, and arranged meals for us. The army made us feel we were humans. The police treated us like animals.

How did your families react when they saw you?

They organised a huge party and my father slaughtered a sheep. The debt and money lost were not important. They believed their son was dead and suddenly they find him alive.

Had they not tried to stop you?

Yes, they had tried to stop us from leaving. They told us it was dangerous. But we had insisted. Like I said before, the smugglers had led us to think that Italy was a short hop away and that everything was arranged and would run smoothly. They persuaded us that we would ride on a seaworthy ship where we would have space to sit and we'd receive decent food. They turned the sea into tehina for us [They promised us the moon].

And do you still have the debt you clocked up to pay for the trip?

I haven't repaid a penny of it. The people we owe money to are understanding. They're in the same boat as we are. Some were waiting to see if my journey went well, they would then send their own children.

I swear to you, if they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs.

How do you feel now that you've been home for several months?

We feel down.

Saleh: Our troubles have been doubled.

You fled shortly after the war. Did the war influence your decision?

Amer: Of course. Every couple of years, you face a war. Every year, you're at risk of death. Death is inevitable. But for you to wait for death, then you live in terror. For you to sit and wait for death, that is incredibly hard.

Saleh: Every home in Gaza, has someone who died, was injured or imprisoned.

Amer: This is no life. You're not married. You don't have work. In short, why are you alive? This led us to the conclusion that we have to emigrate. But after we were deported from Egypt, our passports were cancelled and we're not allowed to apply for another passport for five years, we don't know what to do.

And were the authorities here sympathetic?

Saleh: Yes, they know well the predicament we're in. They are here and live with us, and they can see how horrendous conditions are. They say, if you can get out, then good luck.

How do you look to the future?

We don't look to the future at all.

Amer: When I was younger, at school, people used to ask, what do you want to be when you grow up, an engineer or a doctor? Believe me, I swear, I don't recall what I wanted to become. Either I forgot or I never thought about it. Why? From when I was a child, I could see my older siblings who were graduates and unemployed.

Today, I'm looking for a craft to complement my but my family forced me to finish my education and didn't deprive me of the opportunity. Even if it would put them into debt, I had to get an education.

But I wanted to learn a craft so that I can find something to do in life. I see jobs around me require connections. Everything requires string pulling in this society, and businesses are failing. Nothing is working.

Saleh: We live every day as it comes.

Amer: We're nearly 25 and we still get pocket money from our families. How much longer must my dad support me? My father is approaching 60. One day we all have to die. My brother has his own kids whom he can barely feed. Is he going to feed me too? We're leaving it to God.

Saleh: We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time. Dealing with others brings problems. I'm sitting around, and this guy's sitting around, and that guy. We've all had it up to here. We all want to work, we want money, we want, we want, we want. If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.

Has this increased the level of violence between young people?

Amer: Of course. There are tonnes of fights. No-one feels for you, unless they're like you. For example, we've been friends for 14 or 15 years and we've never had a fight or insulted each other. Why? Because we're of the same clay. His problem is my problem. When I started a project, he started a project. When I failed, he failed. When I travelled, he travelled. When I was deported, so was he.

Saleh: We're together for the sweet and the bitter.

Amer: But when you meet someone who's better off than you and brings you to a restaurant like this, it can be embarrassing. Now, I limit my circle of friends to avoid embarrassment. It's rare to find a posh person who doesn't look down on you.

Getting started is what's tough. I wish someone would just put me on the start of the path, so that I can find my way. But you are condemned to be a failure before you can even start. And this is our problem: we have no starting point. This is not just our problem, it's the problem of the majority of young people.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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