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Friday, February 08, 2008


A Palestinian Odyssey


A Palestinian Odyssey
Published: February 07, 2008

It seems that the Palestinian odyssey is never-ending. In Homer's Iliad, Odysseus managed to return home to Ithaca. Will the Palestinians have the same fortune?
"'I long for home, long for the sight of home.
If any god has marked me out again for shipwreck,
my tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured
at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.'"
The Odyssey, Homer. Book 5, lines 229-33
Home is Palestine, not Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or Cyprus. In the past few months, there has been a wave of Palestinian asylum-seekers entering irregularly into Cyprus, facilitated by what seems to be a well-organized network of Turks in Turkey and Turkish-Cypriots in the northern part of the island. Palestinians are fleeing Iraq due to attacks and threats by groups of Iraqis, due to sectarian and ethnic divisions.
In 1948, as a result of the creation of the State of Israel, thousands of the indigenous Palestinian population became refugees either in their own homeland or in foreign lands around the world.
The Palestinian 'seekers' arriving in Cyprus are second and third generation Palestinians born in Iraq. The preface to their odyssey was written before they were even born, when their grandparents fled Palestine nearly 60 years ago, and found refuge in Iraq.
As in most other Arab countries, the Palestinians born in Iraq are not granted citizenship by the authorities. The reasoning behind this policy is that if the refugees are given citizenship, their right of return to their homeland in Palestine would be denied by Israel, as they would be considered Iraqi, not Palestinian. Palestinians living in Iraq are entitled to a special 'Iraqi-Palestinian travel document.' Health care and education is free for all in Iraq. However, upon completion of university studies, a Palestinian looking for a job, finds many government vacancies available, "only for Iraqi" applicants. Palestinians are not entitled to buy land or a house since they are not recognized citizens of Iraq. To do so, they turn to their Iraqi friends to use their names for the official documents in order to make such purchases.
The decision to flee Iraq was fear for their own lives, due to persecution of Palestinians. Most of the interviewees for this article had the financial means, and thus were able to go through the necessary procedures of paying the right people in order to reach a safe-haven. They sold most of their homes, businesses and cars at whatever prices they could, knowing that they desperately needed the money to embark on their new journey.
Two of the families, now living in Cyprus, unraveled their story, beginning with the event that triggered their departure from Iraq: one of their family members was murdered. The head of the first family is a lawyer. His wife is an accountant, and they have two children. The second was a regional manager for a telecommunications company in Baghdad. He and his wife also have two young children. Both couples recalled that in the previous years, they used to come to Cyprus as tourists, using the Iraqi-Palestinian travel document and obtaining a tourist visa upon arrival at the Larnaca International Airport. They never imagined that they would return to Cyprus illegally, and as refugees.
According to the families interviewed, the Iraqi-Palestinian travel document is no longer accepted by the neighboring Arab countries. In other words, they are not welcomed by those countries. Therefore, Palestinians resort to paying large sums of money, either to individuals working in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior or to people whose 'job' it is to forge Iraqi passports. In the case of the two families, the price of each passport was $800.
Thus, the odyssey of these two families, with four children, under the age of eight years, begins.
1. Baghdad, Iraq to Damascus, Syria - By car 751 km (467 miles)
2. Damascus, Syria to Amman, Jordan - By plane 177 km (110 miles)
3. Amman, Jordan to Istanbul, Turkey - By plane 1,185 km (736 miles)
4. Istanbul, Turkey to Occupied part of Cyprus - By plane 765 km (475 miles)
* Denied entry with Iraqi passports.
5. Occupied Cyprus to Istanbul, Turkey - By plane 765 km (475 miles)
6. Istanbul, Turkey to Outskirts of Antakya, Turkey - By car 824 km (512 miles)
7. Outskirts of Antakya, Turkey to Antakya port - On foot 2.5 hours
* Walked through valleys and mountainous area during the night to avoid being caught. As a result of the exhaustion, during the difficult journey, the travelers abandoned all their packed belongings, such as clothes, shoes, food, personal items of sentimental value, i.e. family and wedding photos.
8. Antakya, Turkey to Open seas, northern Cyprus - By boat 4 hours
* Intercepted by Turkish Coast Guard at 02.00. Escorted to Iskenderun, Turkey, where they were tried in court in a military zone, and released two days later.
9. Iskenderun, Turkey to Antakya, Turkey - by car 42 km (26 miles)
10. Antakya, Turkey to Adana, Turkey - by car 116 km (72 miles)
11. Adana, Turkey to Occupied area of northern Cyprus - by plane 270 km (168 miles)
12. Northern part of Cyprus to Larnaca, Cyprus - by car 34 km (21 miles)
Total distance between Baghdad and Larnaca: 1,005 km (624 miles)
Traveled distance from Baghdad to Larnaca: approximately 4,900 km (3,044 miles)
At the Adana airport, the distressed families were approached by a Turkish man, who did not appear to be a passenger. He ensured their entry into the northern part of Cyprus. The up-front service fee for the Turkish facilitator/human smuggler cost each family $11,000 ($3,500 per adult, and $2,000 per child). The Palestinians were instructed to follow another man, and were told not to speak to him under any circumstances. The second man led them all the way through the Adana airport passport control onto the airplane, without any questions asked by any officials.
Having arrived on the island, the two men of the families were told that they must hide in the boot of the car during the night ride to the Green Line, where the families were dropped off in no-man's land. The two families found their way to the Immigration Office in Larnaca to declare themselves as asylum-seekers. Fear and humiliation were still visible in their eyes, as they retold their experiences.
Others have had easier journeys to Cyprus, either through Turkey or by boat from Lattakia, Syria. According to the Cyprus Minister of Justice, Sophocles Sophocleous, 90 percent of the time, those entering Cyprus, have done so illegally through Turkey and the occupied northern part of the Cyprus. In most cases, after being smuggled from one side to the other, the refugees are found wandering the streets, and are then picked up by the Cypriot police.
The families interviewed have been living in Larnaca for the past year with a temporary residence permit waiting for their cases to be reviewed by the government authorities. This process may take anywhere from a few months up to a few years. A family with four members receives approximately 1,161 euros per month from the government of Cyprus in order to cover its rent and other expenses.
The Palestinian children are enrolled in Cypriot schools. They are given extra attention to help them learn the Greek language, thus encouraging their assimilation into the school and local environment. The Cyprus government is offering free language lessons for all interested Palestinian adults in order to facilitate their integration into the community.
The interviewees all expressed their gratitude to the Cyprus government and to the Cypriot people for welcoming them into their society. Cypriots understand what it means to become refugees, fleeing their homeland and starting a new life in a foreign country. The Palestinians noted their disappointment that the neighboring Arab states have not accepted them into their countries, which makes their odyssey even more difficult, knowing that they are not welcomed, even by their Arab brothers.
The biggest worry facing the Palestinians who have come to Cyprus for refuge is the unknown regarding their future. Will they be permitted to live in Cyprus or will they be resettled in another country?
Another concern is that they do not wish to stigmatize their children with the "refugee status," as they themselves have inherited it from their parents and grandparents.
Finally, when asked if it were possible to return to their homeland in Palestine, they enthusiastically replied, "Yes!" As Odysseus, they have been through many unfamiliar and dangerous encounters before reaching Cyprus. Their dignity, humbleness and strength rise above the agony they have endured since 1948. They long for home, long for the sight of Palestine.

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