Lifelong refugees: Palestinian boat people search for a new home

After four days at sea, with no food or fuel, 175 Palestinian refugees were rescued by the Greek navy. After fleeing the horrors of war in Syria for neighboring Turkey and paying huge sums to their smugglers, who promised to bring them to Italy (not to mention ensure they had entry permits, as well as food and drink), the refugees found themselves living in the streets of Athens. 

Dreaming of reaching Europe on one hand, while facing the possibility of deportation on the other. Some of those same refugees are members of the Salaime family, from the Palestinian village Sajara, which was destroyed in 1948. My family’s village. As it made its way to the beaches of Greece, the same boat carrying the Palestinian refugees washed up on the shores of my consciousness. 

That’s it, I can no longer pretend that that the war in Syria is far removed from me or my children. Now that members of my village, along with other refugees, have escaped from Yarmouk and Al-A’idan refugee camps, there are people who will tell the story. There are photographs of the boat and there are children begging for a piece of bread, after they lost all their food at sea. 

There are the tears of a helpless mother as she faces her children. And there is the human trafficking between Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Italy. “War traffickers,” said Abu Ahmad Salaime, a 54-year-old engineer who was chosen to head the group of refugees who left Turkey in an old, rusty boat carrying 175 people. There was no single whole family on the boat. 

Everyone has been separated between Syria and Turkey. “They don’t put the entire family on one small boat in the middle of a huge sea,” said one of the survivors. And anyway “who has the money to pay the smugglers, who take between $5,000 and $10,000 per person? This is the equivalent of an entire house in a Syrian camp. So imagine, Samah, binti, what we had to do to get here. We’ll make it where we make it, and then we’ll demand family reunification. This is how everyone does it.” 

The photos and horrific stories that have been coming out of Yarmouk would shock anyone. But this is not happening here, not at our door, we’ll be okay. This mantra keeps us Palestinians in Israel calm. Two years ago, the Arabs in Israel took part in the humanitarian mission for the Syrian Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan, and then came the stories that the Jordanian authorities refused to allow Palestinians from Syria into the camps. 

I was overcome with rage by Jordan’s decision, which did not allow a Syrian-born Palestinian into the country despite being married to a Syrian woman, after claiming that according to the United Nations, a person can only be a refugee once in their life. Syria receives world support for absorbing Palestinian refugees from 1948 — this is a status that stays with you your entire life until a solution is found and the Palestinians return to their land, said the Jordanians. 

Now, when the Syrians have themselves become refugees, it has been decided that there is no “double sale.” Syrians were welcomed with open arms, while the gates slammed shut on the Palestinians. In this war, half of the Syrian people became refugees. The war, which engulfed the entire country, did not pass over the Palestinian refugees. 

The smart and lucky ones, who left before ISIS captured Yarmouk, found safety across the world — especially in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands — with friends and relatives. The joke about the new Palestinian capital established in southern Sweden no longer makes me laugh. The boat that carried several of my family members did not reach Italy, its original destination. 

After several days, the dates, raisins and drinking water disappeared. There was no bread left, which was meant solely for the children. The fuel ran out in the middle of the journey, and the person who was supposed to come from Benghazi to help them refuel never came. The Egyptian captain reached a point of desperation and could not make contact with the smugglers. 

Under pressure from the frightened passengers, he agreed to call for help from the Greek navy. After several hours, a large ship arrived with a helicopter, and pulled the boat toward the nearest Greek island. The entire ordeal lasted 10 hours. On the beaches of Greece, volunteers from the Red Cross waited for the refugees with a tent encampment. 

“Finally, food and a mattress to sleep on,” one woman told me. “Thank God, the people in this camp are really very nice. There is food, drink and medical treatment. Everything. We even had access to the internet to call our family members and tell them we were saved.” And we, Palestinians in Israel and across the world, breathed easy. The photos from the boat were published in the Facebook group dedicated to the villagers of Sajara, and we knew that the group made it to shore safely. 

Hundreds of family members rushed to “like” the photos and bless the survivors. However, it turned out that they could remain in the camp for no longer than four days. The Greeks kicked them out, since there were more boats on the way, and the group was asked to leave Greece as soon as possible.  
The refugees were thrown into the streets of Athens with some clothing, 50 euros per person and a temporary freedom of movement pass. They began to wander, in the streets and public parks or in dilapidated apartments and packed hotels, with nine people to a room for an exorbitant price. 

“Here is another industry of exploitation in a city suffering from a difficult financial crises,” says Abu Ahmad Salaime, “Everyone wants to make money off us. That’s how it is: those who have money live, and who do not get stepped on.” The churches and orphanages of Athens are full of refugees. The story of two young children whose parents drowned on one of the boats, hasn’t left me for the past few days. 

A Palestinian activist in the city, who today is a Greek citizen, said that the Palestinians in the city are collapsing under the load and the requests for help. There is no one to talk to at the Palestinian embassy in Athens, and people across the city have lost all hope. Sometimes people find food in the street, other times they don’t — everything depends on the kind heartedness of passersby. “A few days ago a truck came to the park and provided us with food bags,” says Abu Ahmad. 

“Many people ran over to the truck, but I stood to the side and watched. It pained me greatly. Of course I also wanted to eat, but I felt like my pride was being trampled on. I am an engineer and my daughters are brilliant students who are also studying engineering and computer science. Why should I be in this position? What have I done in my life? “I was very angry at my parents, who turned us into refugees in Syria, but somehow I managed. I told myself that the most important thing is to remain quiet. The most important thing is a roof, a job, a family and a livelihood. 

“And here I am, waiting for a strange man to hand me a bag of food. All of a sudden I think that my parents, who were uprooted from their land, were lucky. Despite their difficult conditions and the war, they remained with the members of their village, all of them from Palestine. They remained together, and their journey ended in an Arab country. 

The Syrians are just as miserable as us, but could speak Arabic. You know, all of a sudden I miss being surrounded by the Syrian accent. In Turkey they didn’t speak to us in Arabic, and here we’ll have to learn another language in order to receive a single can of food.” 

“I chose to flee with my father,” tells me one of his daughters. “Perhaps I will continue to study in Europe. My mother remained in the camp with three brothers and she is waiting for us to call and save her so that we will go back to being together. My sister and I had to leave because we were afraid of being kidnapped by the fighters. 

Many young women have been raped and kidnapped, and on the way from Homs we passed areas controlled by different armed groups — Nusra Front, ISIS, Al-Ahrar. Every area is controlled by a different group. We paid the rebels to allow us to pass peacefully.” 

I participated in the “return flotilla” to Jaffa, organized by the Israeli NGO Zochrot. We boarded the “Sababa” ship in Jaffa port, where we listened to an elderly man (also named Abu Ahmad) describe how he was pushed into a boat with hundreds of people without parents and food during the 1948 war. 

His boat was meant to sail to Egypt, but he found himself on the beach of Gaza, 11 years old, alone. It took him a few more years until he went back to Jaffa. I thought to myself: “What am I doing on this fake flotilla, on a boat used to sell ice cream and cold drinks, with a group of enlightened Jews who are shocked by what happened to us 67 years ago? 

The same thing is happening today to the descendants of those same refugees. Today and every day. This time around, the irony of life took its toll. I couldn’t sit in the restaurant after the tour like everyone else. I came home with pain all over my body, and spoke for hours with the survivors from the boat, only to hear their story, cry and feel their pain. 

There is only one question on my mind since then: why didn’t these damn boats, with the new-old asylum seekers, reach Acre? 

Samah Salaime is a social worker, a director of AWC (Arab Women in the Center) in Lod/Lyd and a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. 

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