Gazans seeking to escape war are increasingly crowdfunding to flee to Egypt

Anas Al Borno was lying on a flimsy mattress with his wife and children in a Rafah refugee camp in January when a relative texted with a rare piece of good news. For the first time since Oct. 7, Al Borno and his family were eligible to cross into Egypt.

The main travel agency that arranges such crossings had changed its rules, allowing Palestinians without foreign passports through the land border. But there was a catch — the price to get out for Al Borno and his family was at least $18,000, far more than he could afford.

“I didn’t have any money,” said Al Borno, 36, whose livelihood had been shattered after his small manufacturing business was bombed early in the war. “I had no options; how could I live? How could I eat? How could I travel, me and my family?”

His lifeline came in the form of a stranger 8,000 miles away — a Jewish graphic designer from California who launched a crowdfunding campaign that ultimately raised most of the money needed for Al Borno’s wife and children to cross the border a month later.

Left, Anas Al Borno with his wife, Yasmine, and children Yazan, Abdel Rahman and Julia before the war. Right, his company's Gaza City warehouse after it was bombed in the fall.
Left, Anas Al Borno with his wife, Yasmine, and children Yazan, Abdel Rahman and Julia before the war. Right, his company’s Gaza City warehouse after it was bombed in the fall.Courtesy Anas al Borno

“This is my only hope in life — to get out of this war,” said Al Borno, who stayed behind and continued raising money for himself and other family members to flee. He now spends much of his day communicating with the hundreds of people who have donated.

“I feel that they are my closest friends,” he said.

After more than six months of Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip, which health officials there say has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians and destroyed the vast majority of its buildings, many Gazans like Al Borno are desperate to flee. Thousands have turned to crowdfunding platforms to raise money to cross into Egypt — often the only way out — supported by a growing cadre of strangers abroad helping them clear financial hurdles.

On GoFundMe alone, the most popular platform, more than 12,000 active campaigns for Palestinians in Gaza, largely for evacuation, have launched since Oct. 7. They have raised over $75 million, according to a company spokesperson. 

Even for the families who have benefitted from crowdfunding campaigns, though, getting out of Gaza is anything but a straight shot.

‘Calculated risk’

On the southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip, the Rafah border is the only land crossing out of the enclave that does not go to Israel, opening into a militarized zone of Egypt’s Sinai Desert. After Israel imposed a blockade on the territory in 2007, it became Gazans’ main access to the outside world. Israeli-controlled crossings were far more difficult to cross or were sealed shut. 

But entering Egypt was never simple. Before the war, human rights groups documented bureaucratic hurdles like long delays for crucial visa paperwork and unexplained denials that left Palestinians waiting months or years for permits to cross. Sporadic border closures and mistreatment by border officials were a regular part of the experience.

A network of travel agencies and black market middlemen have long acted as expediters in a process known as “tanseeq,” the Arabic word for coordination. For a fee, they use connections with Egyptian authorities to speed up paperwork processes and get Palestinians’ names on the approved list of travelers used by border officials.

Their prices skyrocketed after Oct. 7, when Egypt further restricted who could cross. While there are no official numbers on what coordinators charge, more than a dozen locals familiar with the process reported that pre-war prices were typically $500-$1,000 per person. Since the war began, many fleeing families have reported paying around $7,000 per person — more than twice the average annual income of a family in Gaza. 

As the war dragged on, the number of Palestinians desperate to flee rose and Rafah’s population swelled fourfold. The cramped bordertown has been designated a “safe zone” by the Israeli military since December, but has been hit repeatedly by airstrikes in recent months.

To raise the funds to cross the border, many in Gaza turned to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe. Until late January, travel agencies, considered the more reputable coordinators, provided services only to Palestinians who had immediate family with foreign passports. That left the majority of Gazans with the black market as their only option. Stories of fleeing families scammed out of thousands circulated widely, eight people told NBC News, leaving many hesitant to use the black market.

Travel agencies opened applications to all Palestinians in late January. Soon after, Israel announced it was planning a ground offensive on Rafah, prompting a rush of people like Al Borno to begin raising money to pay the soaring fees. But that was no easy task. Most travel agencies and middlemen require payment in U.S. dollars in cash. And fundraising platform rules often require a bank account from the U.S. or Europe to launch a campaign.

GoFundMe requires a bank account from one of 19 supported countries, which do not include Egypt, Israel or the Palestinian territories. Many Palestinians unable to launch their own campaigns turned to social media, like Instagram and TikTok, posting about their experiences and asking for help.

Despite patchy internet access throughout the territory, their messages got out. Many were shared widely, triggering a swell of online organizing from people around the world to help them raise money.

People in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, the U.K. and elsewhere began to sponsor campaigns on behalf of families they had never met who were stranded in Rafah. Among them was Caroline Kuspa, a 35-year-old graphic designer in Santa Cruz, California, who connected with Al Borno on Instagram after he began posting videos seeking help.

Al Borno sent her an Instagram DM after she liked one of his stories in February. She responded and the pair began trading messages. Several weeks later, Kuspa offered to launch a GoFundMe after meeting his family on video calls and reviewing relevant documentation.

Launching the campaign was a “calculated risk,” Kuspa said. “I was given a chance to make a life-changing difference for individuals who were part of a group of people I’ve been thinking about and worrying about every day for months.”

Palestinians seek safety in Rafah
Palestinians keep warm by a campfire by a makeshift tent in Rafah at the Egyptian border on Feb. 27.Abed Zagout / Anadolu via Getty Images file

That risk has paid off. She and Al Borno have raised more than $46,000 and, with the help of relatives abroad, evacuated five of his family members, including his elderly mother and 3-year-old daughter, who has a serious health condition.

NBC News found that GoFundMe had a significant spike in campaigns launched after travel agencies expanded eligibility for their services.

While many of those fundraising stay in Rafah, some venture farther into the war zone chasing cell service. Abdullah Alqatrawi, 24, has traveled as many as 28 miles to more dangerous areas in the Palestinian enclave, dodging airstrikes by hitching rides on trucks, to check his GoFundMe and post more videos.

“My way of collecting donations is to shoot films and share them on Instagram, explaining my suffering,” he said.

Alqatrawi, a recent college graduate, received a significant uptick in donations last month after one of his Instagram videos was watched more than 85,000 times. He has raised over $15,000 through a campaign managed by people in Belgium and was able to evacuate his mother and four younger siblings to Egypt last week. He remained behind with his father and one brother.