First group of 35 Palestinians leave Jordan for new life in Brazil

Thirty-five elated Palestinians boarded a plane at Amman's international airport on Thursday and flew off to a new life in Brazil after years of hardship in an isolated desert camp in Jordan.

UNHCR staff help a Palestinian refugee get ready to leave Ruwaished camp for Amman and a flight to Brazil.   © UNHCR/S.Malkawi

AMMAN, Jordan, September 20 (UNHCR) - Thirty-five elated Palestinians boarded a plane at Amman's international airport on Thursday and flew off to a new life in Brazil after years of hardship in an isolated desert camp in Jordan.

A departure ceremony earlier in the day from Ruweished Refugee Camp, located about 70 kilometres from Iraq, was marked with tears, smiles and dancing as the refugees bade farewell to other Palestinians who had also fled spiralling violence in Iraq four years ago and found refuge in the camp. They will be followed over the next few weeks by another 70 Palestinian refugees from Ruweished.

They will be settled in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul state. The Palestinians will receive rented accommodation, furniture and material assistance. Employment profiles are being analysed to ensure job opportunities for all, while Portuguese classes will be given.

Those leaving Ruweished on Thursday may have known little about their new homeland, but they were clearly grateful to Brazil and eager to find out more about the country and its culture.

"I am very thankful and happy that Brazil has accepted us in their country," said Hamadan. "We will work hard, learn the language and try to give something back to the Brazilians who embrace us in their country," added the cigar-puffing 62-year-old, whose only regret was that he could not take the camp cats with him.

Like most other camp residents he had arrived in Ruweished with almost nothing after fleeing persecution and violence in Baghdad. "We had nothing left in Iraq; they had taken our house, they had taken everything," said Khaled Sabiri, who fled Baghdad in May 2003 after receiving death threats from armed groups.

"When we first arrived, we were stuck in no man's land for one year and then we were later moved to Ruweished camp where we reunited with Semir, my brother, and his family," said Khaled, who used to own an electronics workshop.

Hundreds of Palestinians are stuck in terrible conditions at border camps and settlements. In desperation, some even returned to Baghdad in 2004 before the violence and attacks on Palestinians escalated and forced them back to the border. Jordan already shelters large numbers of Palestinians and wants others to share the burden.

"I got asthma from the sand. Some days the sky was all red so I would immediately run and hide from the storm. Inside the tent it was a little bit better but I was always coughing badly," said Brazil-bound Rosol, 6, recalling life at the border before her family were moved to Ruweished.

The six-year-old, who was wearing a Brazilian football strip, now has the opportunity to grow up in a safe environment with access to a decent education, but she was sad to be leaving behind her best friend, Farah. It was a bitter-sweet departure for others too.

Many of those heading to Brazil on Thursday, had feared they would never leave the desert. "Our lowest moment was last year when only 57 of the last remaining group of Palestinians were accepted to go to Canada," recalled Ikhals, wife of Khaled Sabiri.

"We had hoped that all of us would be able to go, and when that was not the case we all got so depressed and many got even physically ill. There seemed no end to our ordeal," she said, adding that one young man had died of an asthma attack after receiving the news that he would not be going to Canada. His family, however, will be going to Brazil later this year.

UNHCR officials welcomed Brazil's humanitarian resettlement of the Palestinians and Jordan's help in permitting it. "This is a small group of Palestinian refugees who have been repeatedly displaced. We are happy that, given the exceptional difficulties of their situation, a humanitarian solution has been found," said Imran Riza, UNHCR's representative in Jordan, adding that he hoped this gesture would "encourage others to also help find solutions for similarly stranded cases."

In Geneva, Philippe Lavanchy, director of UNHCR's Americas bureau, noted that Brazil had been playing a leading role right from the start of the 2004 Mexico Plan of Action, a regional resettlement programme.

"Brazil has once again shown its commitment to the plight of refugees and has reaffirmed the pioneer role it plays in the region in securing protection of those persons fleeing persecution," he said.

More than 1,750 Palestinians from Iraq remain stranded along the Iraq-Syria border in deplorable conditions. Another estimated 13,000 Palestinians continue to be targeted, harassed, threatened and killed in Baghdad.

By Abeer Etefa and Rana F. Sweis in Amman, Jordan
and Astrid van Genderen Stort in Geneva, Switzerland