In Gaza City, a father waited and hoped for a visa to see his kids in Ireland again. Then came the bombs.

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The house collapsed on a Sunday when the bombs fell on Gaza City.

It had been the family home, where Abdullah Musleh kept his plants next to framed photographs of his kids on a wooden shelf near the kitchen.

“My husband loved plants,” said Nada, his wife, on Saturday.

It was where their youngest daughter took her first steps and fumbled her first words, looking out of its vast windows, and in later years, would cuddle in the living room with her fluffy kitten.

It was where their son had a room all for himself for the first time, and where their middle daughter woke up ahead of her first day of school. The house was everything, said Nada.

Abdullah didn’t want to leave it even as the city came down around him, she says. “He took a pillow out of the rubbles and slept there for a week.”

Bombs destroyed his tiny gift shop near the house, too. A Roya News camera crew caught Abdullah pacing on a sea of rubble.

He crouches on the ruins, weeping and unable to look towards the camera. “I’ve been waiting for almost two years to be granted a visa to see my wife and kids,” he says, in Arabic.

I have no one, he says. “I applied for a visa but was rejected, and here I am, waiting. They’re all in Ireland.”

Abdullah reluctantly left the city last week, said Nada, who lives at the moment in Tralee. Last Friday, the Israeli government told Gazans in the north of the enclave, including those in Gaza City, to move to the south as it prepared for a ground offensive.

“He’s in a shelter now,” said Nada.

Stephen Kirwan, partner and solicitor at the law firm KOD Lyons, who represents the family, says he has sent a letter to the Minister for Justice stressing what is at stake in this case. “And we await a response.”

Kirwan says he is hoping that the government will approve visa waivers for Palestinians, just as Israeli citizens don’t need visas to travel here.

“So, anyone who’s, you know, subject of violence who has an Israeli passport can come,” he said by phone on Monday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not directly respond to queries asking whether it would issue a visa for Abdullah and whether it plans to grant visa waivers and temporary protection – as is offered to Ukrainians – to Gazans who have family in Ireland.

It’s working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs, they said, “To ensure a coordinated national response to this volatile and evolving situation.”

Red tape to reunions

Nada, a PhD student at the University of Limerick, says she applied to bring her husband over to join the family in January 2022. About three months later, they got a rejection letter.

The Department of Justice gave all sorts of reasons for not granting the visa, says Nada, like how the family didn’t have strong ties to their country of birth.

The department questioned their financial stability, too, she says.

Nada has a student Stamp 2, which means that if Abdullah were to join her, he wouldn’t have the right to work. But they had submitted a ton of evidence to cover all of that, she says. How much they had in their bank accounts, her contract with the UNICEF office in Palestine – and that they had the house there.

Non-EU immigrants can apply for family members to come and live with them under the Department of Justice’s family reunification policy.

But the steep cost makes that route only accessible to better-off immigrants. A sponsor has to prove they have a suitable house and make at least €30,000 a year to bring their partner. Bringing parents over costs a lot more.

Also, not all non-EU residents can apply to bring family that way. Students doing undergraduate or master’s courses aren’t eligible, says the policy document.

On 16 October, the Department of Justice’s Irish Immigration website showed that it had, up to then, issued appeal decisions on join family applications in Nada’s category that were received on 19 August 2022.

“It’s unacceptable if you put in an appeal and you have to wait nearly a year and a half to get a decision,” said Kirwan. “It’s absolute madness.”

“The offices processing these appeals are simply under-resourced”, he said, “and there’s no point blaming the civil servants working there”.

In the appeal application, Nada says they wrote that if Abdullah doesn’t qualify to reunite with his family, he would like a 90-day visit visa.

“Just for him to be able to see the children,” said Nada, crying. “Because I don’t think we’re welcome in Ireland.”

Israeli citizens can travel and stay here visa-free for up to 90 days. No need to apply, no need to appeal, no need to wait and worry.

A way out

While waiting on the appeal decision, Abdullah’s passport expired. They don’t think renewing it is on the cards. “He has to send it to West Bank. It has to go through Israel,” said Nada. With the conflict deepening, she said, nothing comes back to Gaza.

“It’s another symptom of chronic visa delays creating a needless extra obstacle for his client”, said Kirwan. “It is shocking.”

If the department grants the visa, Kirwan needs to apply for a travel document for Abdullah separately, and that can take time too, he said.

Nada is also worried that Egyptian authorities wouldn’t let her husband pass the Rafah Crossing from southern Gaza to Egypt to get out, she said.

A spokesperson for the Egyptian embassy in Dublin has not yet responded to a query sent on Monday asking what its government’s position on that is.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not respond to a query asking if it would issue a travel document for people in similar situations so they can reach safety.

The shapes of loss

In the years that Abdullah stayed in the house in Gaza alone, he has missed four Eids and two Ramadans with his family.

“Just like your Christmas and Easters,” said Nada.

When his older son sat his Leaving Cert exam, and his daughter her Junior Cert, he was not there to give them a hug.

Nada is in the third year of her PhD, she says. “And I have to carry all the burden by myself.”

Their small daughter, Joud, is autistic. No one understands her like Abdullah, said Nada.

She used to spend hours talking to her dad on her small tablet. “She can’t communicate very well with other people because of her autism,” said Nada. Since the bombings started, communication with Abdullah has been erratic.

Joud asks about her dad and her three-and-a-half-year-old cat in Gaza, says Nada. The pet was killed in the explosion.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected on 18 October 2023 at 9:28am to remove a section saying Nada is considered a Category B visa sponsor, and discussing the implications of that.

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