NOEL KING, HOST:
Life is getting harder and harder in the Gaza Strip. Public services are crumbling. The economy is in collapse. Most of Gaza is blockaded by Israel and Egypt. But over the last year, Egypt has been giving more Gazans the choice to leave the Strip - and they are. NPR's Daniel Estrin met some of them.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Gaza's main portal to the world is a black iron gate on the Egyptian border. For years, it's been mostly closed. Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade to contain Hamas and keep militants from crossing their borders. To offer relief for Gaza's 2 million residents, Egypt opened its border last spring. And since then, tens of thousands of Palestinians - some estimate around 35,000 - have left.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Men in their 20s wait at the border for Hamas authorities to call their names so they can cross. I meet a 25-year-old with a backpack and a small carry-on suitcase.
ZEID AL KURDI: I have no opportunity here. I decided to leave Gaza.
ESTRIN: Zeid Al Kurdi has a typical story. His family's poor. His house was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike during the first of three wars that Hamas and Israel have fought. His dad went broke paying off a loan to rebuild their house. Kurdi went to college, got a B.A. in English and French. And he was sure his language skills would land him a job.
KURDI: I tried to apply for international organizations here.
ESTRIN: One of the many aid organizations trying to help Gaza. But he couldn't find a job because aid groups are scaling back their work here. The U.S. has cut all humanitarian aid to Gaza. When he couldn't find work, Kurdi applied for a visa to the U.S.
KURDI: I would like to travel to America, you know, the land of opportunity.
ESTRIN: But his application was rejected, so he plans to fly from Cairo to Abu Dhabi to look for work. His family's at the border to see him off.
KURDI: As you see, these are my brothers. It's really bad for me to leave them and also really bad to leave my mother and my father. But it is necessary for me to seek a better future because I didn't find my future here.
ESTRIN: Gazans have seen conditions go from bad to worse since Hamas took over in 2007. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, and Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and blockades Gaza. More pressure comes from the Palestinian Authority. It wants to regain control, so it's cut money to Gaza. The economy's collapsed. Youth unemployment is above 70%. And there's a humanitarian crisis. Electricity is spotty. Tap water is undrinkable. A recent White House proposal for investment in Gaza still seems like a distant prospect. Many Gazans aren't waiting around.
MUKHAIMAR ABU SADA: Four of my nephews have left Gaza over the past year. I have also to admit that my son, he left Gaza to the U.S. I want him to be in the U.S.
ESTRIN: Gaza political science professor Mukhaimar Abu Sada.
ABU SADA: I can tell you many, many other stories about people I know. Most of them are college graduates - poor, no jobs. You cannot get married. You cannot rent a house. You cannot start a new life here.
ESTRIN: Many fly from Egypt to Turkey, where it's easy to get a visa. Then they take boats for Europe. Some have drowned along the way. Abu Sada says some who make it to Europe seek asylum, claiming they were harassed by Hamas. Hamas has arrested critics and beaten protesters in Gaza. Two of his nephews made it to Belgium.
ABU SADA: It was a journey of death, so to speak. It took them days and days to get out from Turkey to Greece and from Greece to Belgium, intercepted by border police many times, were returned back. But they kept trying until they got there.
ESTRIN: Hamas sees the open border as a positive step for Gaza. Egypt lets only a few hundred Gazans cross a day. Hamas manages a long waiting list. Pay a bribe, and you can get bumped higher up the list.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)
SIHAM SHAMALAKH: Hi, Daniel.
ESTRIN: I visited an English translator waiting months for her turn to leave, Siham Shamalakh.
Wow, what a nice place.
SHAMALAKH: Yeah, I'm selling it. I'm leaving.
ESTRIN: She's moving to Egypt with her two sons because she's had enough. In late March, she was home when Israeli airstrikes hit a Hamas security building around the corner - retaliation for Palestinian rocket fire.
SHAMALAKH: I show you from here. They targeted that building, six heavy strikes. I really panicked.
ESTRIN: She slept in the living room, away from the windows, for a week. She takes me to her bedroom balcony and points to a building across the street. She was told a Hamas-affiliated group recently moved in there.
SHAMALAKH: Two months ago.
ESTRIN: What did you think when that happened?
SHAMALAKH: I said, it's over. This building is going to be targeted. This is the main thing. I don't want to sleep. I'm afraid from the bombings and the missiles, whether from the Israelis or from Hamas. I know that I have a nice apartment, and life in Gaza is nice when it's peaceful. But when the escalation comes, I change my mind. I say, no, I want to get the hell out of here.
ESTRIN: Gaza's flight includes talented English speakers like her and medical staff. I visited Gaza's main hospital, and doctors are leaving at a time they've been needed most. The World Health Organization says Israeli soldiers shot more than 7,000 Gazans during a year of protests and violence at the Israeli fence. Nurse Mohammed al-Ktaty names some surgeons who have left Gaza.
MOHAMMED AL-KTATY: Dr. Khader Sabra, orthopedic surgeon; Mohannad el-Haddad, general surgery; Mahmoud Obeid, orthopedic surgery; Mohammed El-Haj, cardiac surgery.
ESTRIN: So that's - you've counted at least four surgeons who left this past year.
AL-KTATY: We have a cardiac surgeon, have experience - good experience. When he leave our country, this department was closed.
ESTRIN: No heart surgeon.
AL-KTATY: No heart surgeon, no - because he left.
ESTRIN: Doctors' salaries have plummeted, and many med students are looking for better-paying jobs abroad. Many young people say they'd stay if there were decent work, even with all the other hardships. It hurts to leave their families, their culture, their home.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Over loudspeaker, foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Some who left for Europe have returned. I met one at the border, Khalil Abu Ibrahim.
KHALIL ABU IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: He says he took his wife and kids to Austria, but he couldn't keep up with the cost of living. So they're back in Gaza. And he's finally found a way to make some good money using his experience. He collects a fee helping other young Palestinians apply for visas to escape. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER'S "RAPHAEL")
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