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Baghdad Palestinians hope for passage through India


Baghdad Palestinians hope for passage through India

Some 200 Palestinian refugees who fled Iraq in 2006 say they are struggling with an alien tongue and culture in India, and hope to find a solution elsewhere.
3 January 2008 Also available in:
A Palestinian child gets comfortable in Delhi. Language problems in Delhi force many Palestinians to stay home.

DELHI, India, January 3 (UNHCR) - "Incredible India" may have drawn millions of visitors to the Indian subcontinent in one of the most successful tourism campaigns ever, but a small group of visitors is hoping that the country is more a transit point than a destination in itself.

Some 200 Palestinian refugees from Iraq started arriving in India in March 2006. Under the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, they had received protection and assistance and enjoyed a relatively high standard of treatment that some segments of the Iraqi population considered unfair.

Soon after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Palestinians were targeted with forced eviction, death threats and killings in Baghdad. Many sought refuge in neighbouring Jordan and Syria but became stranded in desolate border camps.

A handful eventually went back to Iraq, only to flee again amid heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions after an attack on a Shia mosque in the city of Samarra in early 2006.

"My husband and I used to work for the government in Iraq. Our children were studying and life was good," said Khawala, a 55-year-old Palestinian refugee. "But after the [2003] war, everything changed. There were militias and fighting between Sunni and Shias. They began to differentiate between the nationalities - who's Iraqi, who's Palestinian. Many people were killed and my family was targeted by militias who wanted us to leave."

Her son Alar was the first to leave after surviving two months of torture in a Baghdad jail. "When I got out [of jail], I received threatening letters and bullets in the mail," he said. "I escaped to Syria but couldn't stay there because I had a fake passport. The smuggler said he would take us far away. I thought India was a transit point. I never expected to stay."

Others say they were tricked and abandoned in India. Nonetheless, they found the country to be safe from forced return, and asked their families to join them when the situation in Baghdad deteriorated.

Today, Alar's family of eight lives in a two-room flat in a low-income area deep in South Delhi. Khawala is the sole breadwinner, a community services worker at a crèche for children at the Kishengarh Centre for Palestinian Refugees. "Indian people are nice but they stare because I wear the veil," she said. "My sons can't work here because of the language problem. Hindi is hard to learn. There's no future here and it affects our mental state."

The UN refugee agency provides a monthly subsistence allowance to these families and education subsidies for their children. It also funds the Kishengarh Centre, which offers English classes and recreational activities. Hindi-language classes have been put on hold due to a lack of interest: "Why learn Hindi when we are going to the West?" asks a refugee at the centre.

Unfortunately, with more than 2 million Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and dim prospects for repatriation, the comparatively small Baghdad Palestinian group is not necessarily the top priority for resettlement countries.

In September, Brazil accepted some 100 Palestinians stranded for over four years in Jordan's Ruweished camp. Another 2,000 are still languishing in two desert camps near Iraq's border with Syria. Some 13,000 Palestinian refugees remain in Baghdad, where they face intimidation, forced evictions and attacks.

"Back in Baghdad, I worked in a restaurant and was an Arabic scholar," said Mwofak in his run-down apartment in Delhi. "In India, we live in poverty. It's hard because of the different language, culture and traditions."

His list of problems is long: "We can only afford one meal a day. My brother is in a wheelchair and can't go out. My wife has a brain clot. My son fell down the stairs and is just recovering. I'm diabetic and my wounds don't heal. When we go to the hospital, the process is complicated and no one understands us. At the same time, our landlord is raising the rent and trying to evict us by imposing curfews and restricting guests."

He says his wife has relatives in a European country, where they hope to be resettled. Khawala, too, is hopeful: "We're in a desperate situation; we can't go forward or back. Please help us find a solution soon."

Carol Batchelor, UNHCR's chief of mission in New Delhi, stressed that the agency "continues to advocate solutions for all refugees under our care in India, including this vulnerable population. We are actively advocating for needy cases but there are limited resettlement slots worldwide. Ultimately it's the resettlement countries that decide who to accept."

She noted that the Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Delhi are highly educated and skilled, but are running out of resources as the large majority does not work. "It may be a long time before resettlement is available to all in this group," said Batchelor. "In the meantime, it is important that they learn the local language to improve their livelihood opportunities."

There are more than 11,400 refugees under UNHCR's protection in India, most of them from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

By Vivian Tan in Delhi, India