Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Portrait #40: Two years in...

This afternoon I was invited to translate for a football coach helping with the sports component of a summer camp currently running for Palestinian Iraqis living in this country. As one of the players explained to me, they are twice-refugees. Several decades ago their families fled Palestine for Iraq, where they'd been treated like citizens but had never become citizens. Now they've had to leave that and are refugees again. A third time seeking refuge is not allowed, he said - their next destination absolutely must be a place where they can stay. A country that they can make their home and be given full rights including citizenship.

As I, the only woman in the facility at this particular hour (the women participants were on a swimming outing), sat on a plastic chair brought out especially for me, I observed these attentive, hard-working boys. They were of all ages, but most of them were in the 18-30 years age range. Most wore shoes but not all. Their clothes were clean and tidy, but very simple and rather worn. These two dozen young men sported every type of fashion for athletic chaps imaginable, ranging from surfer dude to school geek to plain old poor taste to footballer pro. When the visiting coach asked for their attention they gave it. When he played with them they tried to keep up, but their sense of awe may have hindered their ability to focus. When the older man who was their leader gave them an instruction, he to was readily obeyed. You could feel the mutual respect flowing through the group. And when I asked for water they sped off to get me some. But they were so thirsty that they ended up drinking it all before the communal bottle reached me.

Toward the end of the visit, I caught the eye of the other female in the crowd: the daughter of one of the players. The gorgeous attentive one-year old at first hid from me in her father's chest but eventually started laughing and waving her arms at me. Her mother was off swimming with the women participants in the summer camp. They had come together as a family to take some vocational training courses and to take advantage of what her father told me was the only educational or self-improvement opportunity they'd been given in the last two years. That's how long they've lived in a camp up in the northeast of the country - a region that one would not be amiss to describe as 'the end of the world'.

Two years and three months, I think he said - he recalled their departure from Iraq by the exact date. He'd come with one brother and his wife and a few of her relatives. He has another brother who stayed in Iraq along with their aunt and grandmother. That brother could stay, he said, because his name is Shiite-sounding and their house is in a Shiite neighbourhood. As for this young 23-year old, father of two, he told me he'd had to leave because his name is Sunni-sounding. That, plus the fact that they're Palestinian, was enough for him to have lived under constant threat. When they left, he'd still been studying. He'd had one month left to complete his degree as a technician, but now he's nothing. He's considered unskilled and ignorant.

So they came. But because they're Palestinian, they were taken to a camp instead of coming to live in the city like the other refugees do. Unlike most refugees here, from their arrival they have been provided by the UN with meagre housing, food, heating fuel and a few other services. But they are confined to two camps near the border. Nobody works there or does anything significant - except wait for some country somewhere in the world to agree to take them off the UN's hands.

I asked him if he wants to come in to this country, and he said that he'd only come if he would be given a passport, be made a citizen of this country. He is tired of living in countries as a refugee. His dream is Australia. "Well," he agreed, "Our foundational dream is Palestine. Of course. But that is not possible, not even worth thinking about." I asked him if he would come live in this country if given the rights of other Palestinians here, which are in fact quite extensive. He said that two years ago, he would have accepted the offer. But after spending two years forgotten at a camp near the border, he will settle for nothing less than citizenship in a country that respects his rights and respects him as a human being.

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