Evacuated Palestinians Wish for an ID and a New Life

Thursday 3, September 2009 Humenné, Slovakia, 3 September 2009 – Caught between the terrors of the past and the hopes of the future, a group of 98 evacuated Palestinian refugees are trying to get used to life in the transit centre of Humenné in eastern Slovakia. When the Slovak Government […]

Thursday 3, September 2009

Humenné, Slovakia, 3 September 2009 – Caught between the terrors of the past and the hopes of the future, a group of 98 evacuated Palestinian refugees are trying to get used to life in the transit centre of Humenné in eastern Slovakia. When the Slovak Government offered to accommodate them for up to six months until their final resettlement could be arranged, UNHCR was able to extract them from untenable situation in the Al Waleed desert camp in Iraq on 26 August.

The most striking change among the refugees is the smiles, says Igor Ciobanu, UNHCR Protection Officer who works with the group. “They were very tense upon arrival a few days ago, and now look.” And indeed, there are the enthusiastic smiles on the faces of the playing children, the subdued smiles of the women always on the move, flashing from under their headscarves and the open and wide smiles of the man, sitting in groups in the shadows of the birch trees.

Of all things he wishes for his future, the most important one for Yaser* is an ID card! The community leader and father of three explains why. “For 40 years of my life, I had no personal documents that would have allowed me to travel. I feel when I’ll get an ID card, I’ll become someone.”

Years in the desert camp

Born to a Palestinian refugee family in Baghdad, Yaser considered Iraq his home country. But after the war, the Iraqi population suddenly turned against their Palestinian neighbours. Yaser remembers when the persecution started four years ago. “There were killings and kidnappings and the raping of our women. Children were beaten up in the schools. My own son has been kidnapped on his way back from the school; it is a miracle that he can be with us now. We had no other choice, but to run for our lives.”

The Palestinians ended up in a tented camp in the desert, not being able to stay in Iraq and not allowed to leave. Now Yaser’s family proudly shows the two sunlit rooms allocated to them on the ground floor of the Centre so his younger son can easily access in his wheelchair.

For the first time, Yaser says, the Palestinians feel they have a future. “.All what we want is a peaceful place to live, a chance to work and to be able to take care of ourselves. You can write it down, that these are the wishes of my family, of the others from the group and of the one and half thousand refugees that remained behind us at the Al-Waleed Camp in Iraq.” UNHCR is currently negotiating with a number of governments for the final resettlement of the group.

After a week in Humenné a sense of normality has emerged and the Palestinians are dealing with everyday issues. One of the first things many of the families wanted to do after they have moved into their rooms was to get in touch with the relatives left behind, to share with them the good news about arriving safely to Slovakia. However, they learned that many things which ordinary people take for granted, are out of reach for refugees, even if they have the necessary money. Without proper ID cards and passports they were not able to buy SIM cards for mobile phones in Slovakia. Peter Kresak, Head of UNHCR National Office in Slovakia has a hard time convincing one of the mobile phone service providers to allow the purchase of pre-paid cards for the Palestinians.

There are other minor, yet important, things to take care of. The refugees would like to have reading materials. There are donations of Arabic and English language books for the Centre in the pipeline, but until they materialise, the library of the Centre will remain meagre.

Food, healthcare, books…

And it is not just books that are missing. Whole systems supporting the stay of the group in the Centre had to be established, like providing healthcare and food, language classes, social activities, as well as setting up the regime of permits to leave the Centre. UNHCR, the Slovak authorities and by other organisations and volunteers are working to provide for those needs and assist the Palestinian refugees while in Humenné.

The young folk are settling in most easily. The boys opt for sports in the mild sun of the Slovak late-summer. The girls prefer chatting in the shadow of the building. Sisters Khadidja* and Aysha* 18 and 20, mulled the future. “I am dreaming of going to university” – confessed the younger Khadidja. “I know that it will not be easy, and I will have to work a lot to get the money I need for it, but I would be a good student of social sciences.” Her sister planned for shorter term. “I would like to join a humanitarian organization.”

The coming months will also be used to prepare the group for their final transfer to a safe third country ready to provide them with fair chances for a new life.

For UNHCR this is a reassuring fact, even knowing that there are so many more refugees left behind at the Al-Waleed Camp in Iraq, and in other countless camps in the world, waiting for their own turns for starting a decent life.

By Zoltan Toth

UNHCR Budapest

* Names have been changed for protection reasons