IFJ Safety Fund Testimonies: Sarhan Abukalloub, Palestine

Sarhan Abukalloub (37) is a journalist and documentary film-maker born and raised in Gaza, Palestine. His work as a journalist in the small and besieged Palestinian region left him facing several threats and abuses such as arbitrary detentions and physical attacks that forced him to flee. In an interview with the IFJ, he explains his story and how the IFJ Safety Fund helped him to get asylum in Belgium and start a new and safe life.

Sarhan Abukalloub’s journalism career has never been easy. At its earlier stages, he launched his own blog called From Gaza to Gaza, in which he reported on the critical everyday issues people had to face in Gaza. His publications on this blog got him into trouble several times and the Hamas authorities arrested him four times over his work. The blog was finally forcibly shut down. However, this was just the beginning of a harassment campaign against his work as a journalist.

After the closure of his blog, Sarhan started to produce documentaries on Gaza’s main issues. The first one was called “Gaza singing for peace”, a programme that the authorities also disliked.

The problems with the government continued with this film because they claimed that I was spreading normalisation [in relations with Israel] and I was moving towards Christianity because some songs of the films were about Christianity. That's why I was arrested, together with some singers of the choir”, he explains.

Two more documentaries came after: Electrical Gaza, which reported on the problems of electricity supply in Gaza and Life in Gaza, which showed the daily lifestyle in the region. The fourth documentary, Team Gaza, a documentary about football, was the one that set the fire with the authorities and forced Sarhan to finally flee the country.

We told stories about different football players in Gaza, including one who was previously a militant in Hamas’ troops”, says Sarhan. The film crew was arrested when they tried to record the football training camps of Hamas, which were kept secret and were charged with betrayal and disclosing military secrets. Authorities also confiscated his money.

From Egyptian tunnels to Belgium

Given his critical situation and fear of being condemned to a long period in prison, Sarhan decided to flee the country while he had been released on a permit from prison for Ramadan. He paid around €20,000 to be smuggled through underground tunnels to Egypt and started a long journey to ask for asylum in Europe. That’s when the IFJ appeared to help him out.

Upon his arrival in Belgium, Sarhan was arrested and locked up in a detention centre near Zaventem. Belgian authorities wanted to deport him to Spain, the country where Sarhan planned at first to go to and had a visa for. However, he refused this option after the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, part of the military wing of Hamas, discovered his intentions and issued a death threat against him, instructing its military operatives to find him in Spain and take revenge.

IFJ gave him legal, medical and financial support during the whole process.

Jeremy Dear (IFJ Deputy General Secretary) wrote to several newspapers to report about my situation at that time. He started to visit me every week and to bring me the medications and vitamins I needed –Sarhan suffers from chronic hypertension-. He called my family and reassured them because at that time I could not get in touch with them. He gave me money. We were always in close contact”, Sarhan says.

After a lengthy court procedure that held Sarhan for over 40 days in the detention centre, the Belgian justice granted Sarhan asylum protection.

A new life in Belgium

“Sarhan is a classic example of a journalist who flees but is denied asylum and locked up and faces deportation back to the very country they have fled and to the same dangers” explains Jeremy Dear.” We are proud to have been able to prevent this unjust deportation and help provide the resources for Sarhan to start a new life. Many more journalists need such help – and only thanks to the Safety Fund can we provide it”.

The Safety Fund helped Sarhan find a place to live in Bruges, covered three months’ rent and the deposit, purchase the vitamins and medicines he needs and help him to continue with his career as a documentary film-maker.

I am now in a safe and good country and feel grateful to the IFJ for all its support. I am happy here. Regarding my professional work, I still need some logistics, support, equipment to continue working. Besides this, it is impossible for me to go back to Palestine with my family. But I can work in the European spots where some Palestinians are stuck and I will work with an organisation in Gaza”, he concludes.

The IFJ’s Safety Fund is a lifeline for journalists in need or under threat. Since its creation in 1992, it has helped hundreds of journalists by offering financial assistance in a range of emergency cases such as threats, violence and threats thereof, prosecution, settlement in exile and illness.

The IFJ Safety Fund can only continue to assist journalists with YOUR ongoing support.

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