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Exorbitant fees get Gazans out with no help from Ottawa

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The comforting sound of giggling grandchildren has chased away the cloud of anxiety that has loomed over Mohammed and Intisar Nofal's home for the past seven months.

Since Israel launched a war on Gaza last October in retaliation for the Hamas attacks, the retired couple has been determined to get their son Amjad, 43, and his family out of the devastated region. They were only able to do so after taking matters into their hands by travelling to Egypt and paying exorbitant fees.

Of the Nofal’s seven children, all live in Canada except for Amjad, who remained in northern Gaza. Amjad was a teacher and the caretaker of the family farm where he lived with his wife and four children.

"We really feel like the government is not going to do anything. We were desperate and running out of time," said Mohammed, 74, in an interview with CTV National News at his home in Burlington, Ont. His daughter, Wesam, sat beside to helped translate from Arabic to English.

"We know the ins and outs of Egypt and heard about a system of fees," Mohammed said.

"I would call them bribes," Wesam clarifies.

A system of 'bribes’

Wesam explained that her parents flew to Cairo in February and contacted a company called "Hala" that offers "travel co-ordination" services from Gaza. The company charged US$5,000 per adult or teenager, and US$1,000 per child. Hala’s services included getting their names on an approved list at Rafah Gate, the main border crossing in southern Gaza controlled by Egypt on one side and Israel on the other.

She said her parents paid US$28,000 (approximately $38,000) in fees to Hala to get Amjad’s family to safety.

Around the same time in February, Immigration Minister Marc Miller called the containment of Palestinians in Gaza "the largest hostage taking" in the world.

His comments came after a meeting with Israel's ambassador to Canada where Miller asked Iddo Moed for help in getting Canadians out of Gaza.

Control of Rafah Gate

On Monday, Miller acknowledged "that Canada has not, nor will ever control the comings and goings at Rafah Gate," even as he announced that Ottawa would increase the number of temporary resident visas to Gazans with relatives in Canada. The cap has now been increased to 5,000, up from the previous 1,000-visa limit announced in January.

However, the Nofals frustration with Global Affairs Canada (GAC) began months earlier.

In October, during the early days of the war, consular officials told Mohammed that his grandchildren were eligible for evacuation flights. Then GAC rescinded the offer blaming a bureaucratic error that misidentified his grandchildren as living in Israel. A victim of false hope, Nofal then sued in federal court, alleging discrimination to force the government to rescue his family.

In addition to the lawsuit, they also lobbied members of Parliament, participated in demonstrations, and applied for special visas. But there was no progress until they reached out to the Egyptian brokerage for help.

It took more than a month after the Nofals paid the fees in February for their son's name to be put on the exit list. In that time, mass starvation turned into widespread famine. Gazans were shot by Israeli forces as they crowded around a convoy of trucks carrying food and water.

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (Jehad Alshrafi / AP Photo)

Amjad told his sister he saw desperate people pry bags of flour from the hands of injured civilians.

"He told me if you want to see hell that’s created by humans, go to Gaza,” Wesam said after her brother told her the images seared in his memory.

While they waited for their son, Mohammad was hospitalized for a stroke while Intisar was hospitalized for a panic attack. Then the news came that Amjad, his wife Hayat and their children, ages seven to 17, were approved to cross the tightly controlled border on March 25 just as Israel increased its threats to send ground forces into Rafah, where 1.2 million displaced Gazans were seeking refuge.

Hala staff put Amjad’s family of two adults, two teens and two children onto a shuttle bus and transported them from Rafah to Cairo where his mother was waiting with outstretched arms

Intisar, 66, was so happy to see her son alive, she fainted after embracing him.

Now that they were out of Gaza, Amjad’s family could complete the final stages of the temporary visa process and get vetted by immigration officials. It would take six more weeks before Canada issued them temporary visas so the group could travel to Ontario.

"We had so many people help us -- Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim friends. Maybe Canada can start a sponsorship program to help Gazans," Wesam said. 

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