Palestinians bid goodbye to India, hello Sweden

News Stories, 11 November 2008

© UNHCR/N.Bose
Reason to Smile: Thaier and his family will remember India fondly as they start a new life in Sweden.

NEW DELHI, India, November 11 (UNHCR) More than 100 Palestinian refugees from Iraq are leaving India in the first large-scale resettlement of Palestinian refugees from outside the Middle East.

A total of 137 Palestinian refugees who fled Baghdad for India have been accepted for resettlement by Sweden. So far, 91 have left for Sweden; the rest are due to leave in the next six months. Another 10 left for Norway earlier this year.

Within the community, the mood today is noticeably different from before. Back in Iraq, like other Palestinians after the regime change of 2003, they had been targeted and persecuted. Kidnappings were routine, as were midnight knocks on the door in Palestinian homes. Their shops were torched, their homes looted and bombed. They fled terror and the first groups reached India in March 2006.

Their initial desperation was palpable. Thaier, then aged 38, made an emotional plea to UNHCR staff in New Delhi: "Give us a desert, we will make it fertile. If resettlement countries do not want to take Palestinian men, take women and children. At least I know my family will be safe and will have a future."

Two years later, he and his family have reason to smile again. "We got the news of our acceptance by Sweden on my son Salah's birthday," he said. "I want to forget the miseries and sufferings in Iraq. In Sweden, I will have a home. This will protect me and will ensure the future of my family."

His wife Nihad, 37, looked forward to a new citizenship and dreams of opening a beauty parlour. "I will call it 'Jamila'," she said. "It means a beautiful woman in Arabic." Eighteen-year-old Salah, guitar in hand, said he wanted to be a famous musician someday. His younger brother Mohammad, 11, added, "I want to be like other children in the world and be able to do my hobbies. One day, I will play football for Sweden."

Palestinians Muhanid, 25, and Bassim Ali, 42, were among the first to leave in September. "This is the end of my suffering. I feel like a human being again. I will be a citizen, I will have a country to protect me," said Muhanid before he left. "I am so, so happy. I came from death, I am going to life," added Bassim.

Ashraf, 36, his wife Gadah, 31, and their three young children are excited about leaving India, though in the short time they have been here, they have made friends whom they will miss. "My neighbour began to cry when she heard that I will be leaving soon. I felt the same. I will miss her and others I trusted them," said Gadah.

Ashraf is a baker by profession. In Sweden, he hopes to open his own bakery, selling Arabic and French bread: "I will call it 'A New Life'."

Most of the Palestinian refugees from Iraq were unable to find work in India as they spoke only Arabic. Some were employed by UNHCR's non-governmental partners. Yet all had a wish-list of places to see the Taj Mahal, Kashmir, Goa, Mysore and Mumbai.

"When we have passports and money, we will come back to see the Taj Mahal," said Thaier. Many would visit New Delhi's heritage monuments. "There are many beautiful sights the Jama Masjid, Qutab Minar. This is the culture of India, this is its history. I will always remember Indian people," said Bassim.

There is genuine appreciation for the asylum granted by India. "India received us and welcomed us. I will never forget this stage of our lives it is the first step of our new life. We'll take good memories," said Ashraf.

In New Delhi, all refugees have access to primary health care, free of charge at government hospitals, some of which are very good. Safana, 28, said, "My daughter was born prematurely at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The doctors were excellent. Had she been born in Iraq, she would not be alive."

Refugee children are welcome in government schools and most refugees have access to work in India's vast informal labour sector.

In India, Palestinian refugees from Baghdad numbering 165 are among a total of 11,400 refugees under UNHCR's protection and assistance. The bulk of them (8,500) are Afghan. There are also approximately 2,000 refugees from Myanmar and some 900 refugees with nationalities such as Somali, Iranian, Sudanese and Palestinians from Baghdad.

What the Palestinians lacked in India was a sense of belonging. Perhaps more than any other community, they long for a homeland, a country to call their own. Resettlement gives them that opportunity. "We dream of Sweden. How will people receive us? We will be good citizens and will do our best there," said Ashraf, echoing the sentiments of all those who are being resettled now.

By Nayana Bose in New Delhi, India