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Palestinians seeking passage to Canada fight despair as Rafah campaign closes off their exit

Nearly 200 Palestinians have managed to escape Gaza and obtain approval to travel to Canada — but they had to pay thousands of dollars to smuggle themselves into Egypt. That avenue is now closed off, due to the military campaign Israel launched in Rafah this week.

Nearly 200 people have escaped Gaza and have been approved to come to Canada

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital in Rafah, Gaza, Friday, May 10, 2024.

Nearly 200 Palestinians have managed to escape Gaza and obtain approval to travel to Canada — but they had to pay thousands of dollars to smuggle themselves into Egypt.

That avenue is now closed off, due to the Israeli military campaign underway in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

On Monday, Hamas announced that it had agreed to a ceasefire deal brokered by Egypt and Qatar. Israel rejected the deal — which it said contained elements it could not accept — and began its incursion into Rafah, where more than a million Gazans have sought shelter from the war.

Among them are the members of Hazim Almasri's family, who have been travelling from Gaza City to Deir el Balah, a town neighbouring Khan Younis, since October.

"We were always stressed and very sad and always worried," said Almasri, a resident of Kitchener, Ont. He is still waiting on word from the Canadian government on whether he'll be allowed to bring his siblings and their families to Canada.

The Al Masris' home in Gaza City was hit by an airstrike strike during the war.

Prior to the war, Almasri had plans to fly to Gaza this month for a family reunion. The eruption of hostilities on Oct. 7 put an end to those plans and started him thinking about getting his loved ones out instead.

In January, the Canadian government announced a new program — the Special Measures for Extended Families of Palestinian Canadians in Gaza — meant to allow relations of Palestinian-Canadians in the war zone to move here temporarily to escape the conflict.

"The day they announced the program, it was a celebration in my house and the kids in Gaza. They were crying from happiness," Almasri said.

But the program depends on the governments of Israel and Egypt approving individuals for travel through the Rafah crossing into the latter country, once they are placed on a list by Canada.

Canada has submitted multiple lists of approved candidates for the program to Israel and Egypt, but — for reasons that have not been disclosed — all of those names have been rejected to date. Now, the incursion launched by Israel this week into Rafah has made any further movement into Cairo impossible.

Almasri said he has raised enough money to get some of his family members out, but others, like his brother Nael, are still stuck on the Gaza side.

Nael Almasri recently met with a freelancer working for CBC News in Deir El Balah. He said he and his family finally found a small apartment to rent after being constantly on the move since October. Now they're waiting for their applications to come to Canada to be approved.

"They bombed the house beside us and 18 people were martyred," he said. "It was terrifying for the entire family."

Nael Al Masri (right) sits with an unidentified neighbour in his home in Deir el Balah.

In January, Hazim Almasri filed applications for his three siblings and their families to get them out of Gaza through the program. Two of the three have received codes from the Canadian government — the first step in the application process, which allows them to apply for a visa. But Nael and his family have yet to receive anything from Canada.

"The purpose of applying to this program is to save our souls from death," said Nael. "We were hopeful and happy and the kids were happy, but then … the process is slow."

He said he's lost all hope of escaping the war.

"Right now, I feel like it doesn't really matter to me… Open the border, close the border, either way I'm stuck in the Gaza Strip," he said.

Hope isn't the only thing the Almasri family has lost. About a week ago, their uncle, who had made it across the border to Cairo, died after undergoing surgery to amputate an infected leg.

Mike Morris, Green Party member of Parliament for Kitchener South, said he knows Immigration Minister Marc Miller is in a "difficult" position — but he needs to maintain diplomatic channels to get as many people out of Gaza as possible.

"Everything about this program, as you know, has been broken from the start," said Morris. "So, we want to see him continue to prioritize all diplomatic channels to do better by families like Hazim's and so many others across the country."

In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the department is very concerned about the plight of people in Gaza and is aware that some are exiting Gaza "on their own."

The department says it does not recommend the use of such people-smuggling services and continues to call for Egypt and Israel to approve applicants for exit.

IRCC said that as of April 29, 179 people have completed the process and have been approved to come to Canada. None were evacuated from Gaza through official channels.


Yasmine Hassan


Yasmine Hassan is a producer filing stories on the Middle East for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She has worked for the national broadcaster in Toronto, London, Montreal and New Brunswick. Her work previously appeared in VICE and Al Jazeera. If you have a story idea, send news tips in English or Arabic to yasmine.hassan@cbc.ca.

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