In search of dignity

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Iraqi and Palestinian refugees discuss the moral pain they suffer despite having their rights protected, writes Serene Assir from Malmo.

Beneath a sun exploding with brilliance, scores of people heed the call of stall owners calling out the names and prices of their produce in Arabic, and gather at the local outdoor fruit and vegetable market to stock up for the rest of the week. At the market, the majority of buyers are Iraqis with a scattering of Palestinians. “You’ll find Lebanese too,” says one Iraqi from Baghdad. “But I suppose that, because of the terrible situation in Iraq, the majority of new arrivals are Iraqis.”

The setting is the southern Swedish coastal city of Malmo, up to 25 per cent of whose population is Muslim. In the past year, Sweden has received 20,000 Iraqi refugees — the highest number in any industrialised country. The US, by contrast, has promised to receive 7,000 in addition to the current 2,000 residing in its territory. Sweden which is reputed for its relatively liberal policy towards refugees and asylum-seekers, has called for other European countries to take their share. It remains unclear, however, just how far the EU will respond, or whether the refugees will bear the brunt of even tighter border controls.

Of course, the number of Iraqis that have managed to make it into Sweden — and indeed the rest of Europe — is by no means comparable to the estimated two million who are currently seeking refuge in Iraq’s neighbouring countries which on the whole lack the economic capacity to take care of refugees and have no legal responsibility to do so. A further two million have become internally displaced by the invasion Iraq and its ensuing occupation.

For those Iraqis who manage to enter Sweden, the immediate sense of safety and relief is overwhelming. “On one level, I feel lucky that I have found safety at last,” says Bassem, an Iraqi economist from Baghdad who has been living in Malmo for five months. “The situation in Baghdad was terrible, insurmountable, when I left. I knew I would not survive if I remained there, particularly as the educated classes are among the most heavily targeted by the occupation and those Iraqis who are supporting it.”

However, as is the case with Palestinians arriving in the West today, this euphoria is soon replaced by a sense of dislocation and sadness. “I find it incredibly difficult not to be working. I am a professional. Now, I am being told that until my papers come through, I cannot work. I do not live a dignified life; and I know that I never will, unless the occupation ends and I can return to Iraq — which is my home after all,” said Bassem.

Fadi, a Palestinian from the northern West Bank village of Jayyous, concurs. “I am happy to be here; I am happy to be learning a new language, and to be safe from the constant worry of being arrested, jailed or killed by the Israelis,” he said. “On the other hand, it is painful for me to think that what I thought might just be an exciting journey to safety and dignity has also essentially turned into exile.”

Even for refugees who have long sought asylum in Sweden, the memory of home remains strong — stronger perhaps than it is for people who are economic migrants in search of better living standards. “I have been here for five years, and I am now a Swedish citizen,” said Damia Alamin, an Iraqi from Baghdad, who lives and works in Malmo. “But the war is on my mind every day. My brother was kidnapped three months ago, and we have been asked for a $150,000 ransom. I don’t know who kidnapped him — some say the police, some say criminals. But the point is, there is nothing I can do; and nobody is willing to help me.”

Safe or not, those arriving in Sweden from Iraq and Palestine today are deeply angered by their forced exile because of foreign troops occupying their nations. “If things were different in Palestine,” said Fadi, “I would never have come to Sweden. They might have respect for us here as refugees — of that I have little doubt — but I don’t want to be a refugee, period. As it is, though, I have little choice.”

Nor is the feeling alleviated amongst many of the second generation Palestinians. Karolyn El-Jaleb, who is half-Swedish, half-Palestinian, says that the fact that there is a continued occupation in Palestine means that she cannot live her life fully. “I always feel inside me that I, and my freedom as a human being, are not complete. For this reason, however happy I might be, I have never been able to make as many real friends among the Swedes as I have among other immigrants — whether Palestinian, Iraqi or Bosnian,” she explained.

“Maybe if Palestine were free, I would still choose to live here, which is, after all, where I have grown up. But I would be a free person, and it would be a consequence of a free choice. As things stand, however, the fact that I am a refugee kills me inside.”
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