Cairo's Palestine Hospital remains the heart of Egypt's Palestinian community 45 years on

5 min read
25 June, 2024

Amid the bustling heart of Cairo, Rafeeq Taweel steps into a robust tall building that contrasts with Heliopolis’ French-inspired architecture.

This building is a hospital, one of the many in the Egyptian capital and home to some of the region’s most prestigious medical centres.

The Palestinian nurse, however, feels a unique welcoming breeze as he enters these premises.

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The start of his shift is delayed after a long round of handshakes and kisses with colleagues who, like him, have settled in Egypt for years after fleeing towns and cities in Palestine.

This hospital is one of the few places where they are allowed to work without holding Egyptian citizenship.

These days, Rafeeq’s round of greetings before work is extended as the entrance of the hospital continues to crowd with families who have made it out of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s full-fledged response to October 7.

At this hospital, Palestinians find affordable treatment and temporary housing until they find a place to relocate, with many adding that the sense of community warms their hearts in such difficult times.

A home for displaced Palestinians from 1979 to today’s crisis

Founded in 1979 by Dr Fathi Arafat, Yasser Arafat’s brother, Cairo’s Palestine Hospital is one of the services offered by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society’s branch in Egypt.

It served as the organisation's headquarters until the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

"Dr Fathi Arafat built this place to provide services to the Palestinian community in Egypt as well as for the citizens of the Gaza Strip, who could be transported here for better treatment,” explains Rafeeq, who has worked here since 1991.

The exterior of Cairo's Palestine Hospital

Partially funded by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, medical fees for Palestinians here are cheaper than in any other Egyptian hospital, now offering a 35% reduction to any Palestinian residing in Egypt following the catastrophic events in Gaza.

Since October 7, between 120,000 and 150,000 Palestinians have entered Egypt, says Dr Mai Aref, the head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society’s branch in Egypt.

From her small office, full of Palestinian embroidery and crafts, Dr Aref coordinates the admissions of some of these Gazan families into the building.

“Every day, my phone rings several times; people call me saying that they have finished their treatment in other hospitals and now want to come here, as they have nowhere else to go,” she says.

"The Palestinian Red Crescent is the home and security net for any Palestinian that comes. It is a space to support Palestinians in all activities, be they medical, professional, or cultural"

She refers to those who, having been evacuated from Gaza via the Egyptian Ministry of Health, find no place to stay in Egypt after they recover.

In such instances, they can stay at the hospital’s temporary accommodation floor, also managed by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

“The Palestinian Red Crescent is the home and security net for any Palestinian that comes. It is a space to support Palestinians in all activities, be they medical, professional, or cultural. The name of Palestine Hospital is just a title,” she claims.

Indeed, the building does not only host medical procedures; some of its other functions are just as important.

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Preservation of traditional arts and heritage

As Rafeeq takes the elevator to the top floor on a Friday afternoon, he hears a familiar sound: the rhythmic stomping of feet, echoing like an army marching in unison — a sound he has known since he was 11 years old. 

Rafeeq leads the Palestinian Dabke group Falouga, which has been rehearsing on the sixth floor of the Palestinian Hospital in Cairo since 1984.

"One of the primary goals of establishing this group was to provide a space for Palestinians in Egypt where they could learn about their culture and heritage"

Dr Fathi Arafat dedicated the whole floor to the preservation of traditional arts and heritage, hosting crafts workshops, musical training, and a small theatre where Rafeeq has gathered for 37 years to dance Palestinian Dabke.

Like a scene paused in time, the corridor leading to the theatre still displays the same paintings and embroidery pieces that Dr Arafat hung when he founded it.

“One of the primary goals of establishing this group was to provide a space for Palestinians in Egypt where they could learn about their culture and heritage,” Rafeeq explains.

“Most of our members today were born outside of Palestine and have hardly ever been able to visit it.”

The top floor of the Palestinian Hospital in Cairo is a dedicated space for preserving Palestinian arts and heritage. It showcases a collection of paintings, embroidery, and other traditional crafts

For Saeed, one of the members of the group, those words hold deep resonance.

Twenty-one years ago, when he was still a kid, he remembers attending a Dabke performance in the very theatre where he now trains.

“At the time, I did not even know what Dabke was or what they were doing. I was a kid living in Egypt, without social media,” he recalls nostalgically, “but I felt I needed to join them.

“I saw that nothing was binding me to Palestine but this place and what I was able to do in this theatre,” adds Saeed, almost teary-eyed.

“Apart from that, I do not have any ties to Palestine.”

Since 1984, the Palestinian Dabke group Falouga has practised on the top floor of the Palestinian Hospital in Cairo. Their goal is to provide a space for Palestinians in Egypt to connect with their cultural heritage

A place in Egypt that feels like home

Be it for medical treatment, employment, or cultural preservation, Palestinians in Egypt keep returning to this iconic building, which remains the centre of their community even after 45 years.

“Despite the hardships we face as Palestinians, being in a place where your people are gathered makes you feel deeply grateful and lucky,” Dr Mai Aref expresses with tenderness.

“Being here at the Palestinian Red Crescent gave me an opportunity I could have never dreamed of.”

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Having settled in Egypt after fleeing Gaza with her family when she was little, Dr Aref confesses there were many times when she felt hopeless and longed to return to a safe Gaza.

“This place made things easier for me, allowed me to have a home in Egypt that feels like Gaza and Palestine.”

This comforting refuge holds significant value for the thousands of Palestinians displaced in Egypt.

They have been informed that the reconstruction of their homes in Gaza will require at least 16 years.

Amid such uncertainty, few places offer them hope and a sense of belonging like this hospital. 

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in Middle Eastern and North African politics and society at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, Al-Quds Al-Araby, EU Observer and others. She is based between Spain, Morocco and Egypt

Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25