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Feras Saedam at home in Nanaimo, B.C., reflecting on his past. Photo by Aaron Hinks

A citizen of nowhere

For stateless Palestinians like Feras Saedam, life can be one long identity-card crisis. Occasionally there’s a happy ending.

By Feras Saedam

My dream of living in a safe country, the dream of all refugees, has finally come true. I have spent the majority of my nearly four decades as a Palestinian refugee — a stateless person, surviving without the rights of a regular citizen, always worried, always unwanted. Now, for the first time in my life, I am acknowledged. I have a card identifying me as a permanent resident of Canada. In fact, since my arrival in Canada a year and a half ago, I have obtained all kinds of ID cards: a driver’s licence, a health card, a university student card and others — all of them evidence that I am a recognized human being. Getting here, however, has been a long and arduous journey.

The Palestinian Exodus

In 1947, the United Nations put in place a resolution that would lead to the creation of the State of Israel, a decision with far-reaching consequences for Palestinians. Seemingly overnight, a section of historical Palestine became Israeli territory and, as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homeland. Some migrated to West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. The majority sought refuge in the surrounding countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. A smaller group fled to Iraq, including my grandparents and my father, then age 2.

The Iraqi authorities placed them in an abandoned camp, formerly a British military base, near Basra, a city in southern Iraq. The refugees were left to endure inhumane conditions. By December 1949 even the United Nations’ General Assembly deemed it necessary to establish a humanitarian body called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to provide aid to Palestinian refugees.

Concerned Arab countries offered Palestinian refugees a way around their stateless legal situation by issuing temporary residence permits and travel documents. Should a Palestinian refugee choose to travel outside his or her host country, the documents categorized that person as Palestinian-Syrian, Palestinian-Iraqi, Palestinian-Lebanese and so forth. While this offered certain flexibility in movement, the refugees were never granted citizenship or permanent residency within any given Arab country. This, presumably, was to support the case for the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland.

Even the refugees’ children, like me (born in Damascus, Syria, in 1976), were denied citizenship in their countries of birth. Most Arab countries even went so far as to establish intelligence agencies in order to manage and maintain control over Palestinian refugee camps. Most of these countries prohibited Palestinian refugees from owning property and obtaining certain classes of driver’s licences. Some even forbade them from assuming civil professions. In his 1996 novel The Text of the Refugee, then one of the few to tackle the topic, Mohammed Al Asaad illustrates the struggles of Palestinian refugees. He tells of a time when Palestinians in Basra, Iraq, were called “monkeys with tails” — a strange racial slur intended to portray us as a second-class people, Arabs without a land. Though I never heard this slur directly, I certainly experienced the interminable abuses and discrimination encouraged by its sentiment.

Syrian but not Syrian

In 1978, after difficult political negotiations for unity failed, Iraq and Syria suspended their relations indefinitely. The right wing, led by Vice President Saddam Hussein, and the left wing, led by Syrian President Hafez Al Assad, became public enemies. Travel between the two countries became nearly impossible.

At the time, we were living in Iraq. My mother was 24 years old with two children: my brother was a year old and I was about two. To visit her mother (my grandmother) in Syria, we travelled by taxi to the border where we were stopped and promptly denied entry. She learned that the border authorities were instructed to deny entry to any Palestinian refugee without a special permission from both the Syrian intelligence and the immigration agencies. Our travel documents were not enough.

She appealed the decision, hoping to be approved to enter Syria on the basis of her Palestinian-Syrian origins, or at the very least, because she was a woman travelling alone with two small children. As there were no hotels at the border, we slept for two nights in a border office waiting room pending the Syrian authorities’ decision. They rejected the appeal and so my grandmother made her way to the border to spend some time with her daughter and grandchildren. After a tearful exchange of gifts, their meeting ended with only the distant hope that they might be reunited again during more peaceful times.

Fifteen years of hiding

In 1984, the conflict between Iran and Iraq intensified, and the Iraqi authorities began forcing Palestinian refugees to join the military. My father decided we should flee to
Syria. Circumventing the suspended travel relations between Syria and Iraq, my father took us through Cyprus into Syria where we settled in Damascus. Our travel documents expired within the first year. For the next 14 years, we lived illegally in Syria, surviving without the basic documents one needs to build a life. We couldn’t legally obtain jobs, cars or apartments. Leaving Syria to find a job was also impossible without the proper permissions and travel documents. Even if we were able to obtain them, as Palestinian refugees, we would not be granted work visas in any of the Arab countries.

We were able to register in schools and universities through our birth certificates and other documents issued by the Palestinian representation in Damascus. However, my brother, a lawyer, and I, a teacher, were unable to thrive professionally. I applied to many jobs in the Gulf area. Their embassies would not approve a Palestinian refugee, and their ministries of education would not hire me. After all, to them, I was just “a monkey with a tail.” For those long years, everything had to go through Syrian intelligence for approval.

Although we were living illegally, the Syrians knew we were there. Security agents and officers would frequently come to our place and check on us, compelling us to bribe them so as not to be arrested and expelled back to Iraq. Fifteen years of frustration, perpetual worry and fear. Fifteen years wasted.

Feras Saedam’s Palestinian refugee travel document surrounded by his Canadian identity cards. Photo by Aaron Hinks

Iraqi militia targets

By the early 2000s, Iraq and Syria resumed their diplomatic relations, and my family and I were able to move back to Baghdad. We were granted Palestinian-Iraqi temporary residence permits and, consequently, new travel documents. For a time, life was manageable. Then in 2006, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, sectarian conflict boiled over in Iraq. The Palestinians, seen to have received preferential treatment under Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, were treated mercilessly. We became targets for the militia. Many refugees were arrested for no reason, kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Some, who had lived in Iraq for as long as five decades, were ordered to leave.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbouring countries — Jordan, Turkey and Syria — would not allow Palestinians entry. The only choice for Palestinian families like mine was to purchase fake Iraqi passports to flee from Iraq into Syria. Many of them, however, were arrested in Syria soon after. My family and I had to hide and change locations repeatedly until we relented and bribed the Syrian intelligence, something we were getting used to. It was the only way for us to stay in Syria. The alternative, being deported back to Iraq, was simply too dangerous.

Appointments and more appointments

Our first interview at the Canadian embassy in Damascus was scheduled for Jan. 17, 2011. When we presented ourselves at the embassy the security guard informed us, “The visa section closed yesterday, and we do not know when it will open again. You can go to Beirut [Lebanon] or Amman [Jordan] to follow up with your application through the embassies there.” This unexpected news was a shock for us. I tried, in vain, to explain to him that we were refugees who had travelled for 10 hours from the camp, that we did not have the passports or documents required to leave the country. It was not his problem, and he could not provide us with a solution. That day was followed by a two-year wait for our next appointment with a Canadian Embassy — in Ankara, Turkey. We reached our destination illegally through smugglers.

My family and I arrived at the Canadian Embassy in Ankara early one cold morning in March 2013. A few others, who were also hopeful, stood in a line waiting for the embassy staff to begin their day’s work. My children were shivering and our attempts to warm them were futile. Once the embassy doors opened for business, our documents were verified for assurance that we had an interview appointment, and we were let in.      

The general procedure in an instance like this one is that at the end of the interview, the applicant — if approved by the visa officer and Citizenship and Immigration Canada — receives a medical examination request. But when our interview finished, we did not receive the request. Our initial hopefulness drained once again.

The visa officer, our first contact with Canada, was an empathetic man, something we later learned was common among Canadians. He explained, “It’s in your interest to wait. Because of your Palestinian nationality the security check may take over a year and the medical examination results will have expired.”

We silently left the embassy. Although he was right and we understood, our hearts filled with frustration. Endless waiting seemed to be our fate. I wondered if there was ever going to be an end to all of this. When were we going to be treated like human beings, irrespective of our stateless identity as Palestinians?

Fourteen months later, all of our documents were finally in order. We boarded a plane from Istanbul, Turkey and, several flights later, landed in Nanaimo, B.C.

Our permanent home, finally

Today, I am at last a Canadian permanent resident, with rights and freedoms that this country’s Charter promises and safeguards. I have the right to travel across this great country, reside and make a living wherever I choose — mobility rights I have long fought for. I have access to health care and many other services that some take for granted. It is difficult to adequately describe the joy I experienced when I filed my taxes for the first time in my adult life. My four children will grow up knowing their basic human rights are protected. They will go to school without ever feeling like they are nobody.

In a little over two years, we will become Canadian citizens with the possibility of working anywhere in this world. We will be able to move across political borders without humiliating security checks, interrogations and rejections. Without complicated visa procedures, we will enter those Arab countries that previously denied us from entering or working in their lands. We will be able to visit our relatives. No customs officer will ever treat us as less-than because our photos and names will be on Canadian passports. As a family, we will always be Palestinian Canadians who celebrate a day more important than our birthdays: May 29, 2014 — the day we entered this country as official landed immigrants.

Feras Saedam is an advocate for refugee issues and a freelance journalist in Nanaimo, B.C.

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