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Palestinian families coping well with resettlement in Iceland

Telling the Human Story, 29 June 2009

© UNHCR/H.Mathisen
Sawsan in her new home in Iceland. The Akranes community has rallied around the newcomers.

AKRANES, Iceland, June 29 (UNHCR) Last September, UNHCR reported about the resettlement to Iceland of a group of vulnerable Palestinian women and their children from a harsh desert camp near Iraq's border with Syria.

The fortunes of Iceland have nosedived since the arrival of the group of 29, with its economy battered by the global financial crisis. But the Palestinian women are still happy to be in the rugged little island nation in the North Atlantic, as UNHCR Senior External Relations Officer Hanne Mathisen found out during a recent visit to the small fishing port of Akranes.

They were attending language classes four days a week and were able to converse with their new friends in one of only about 20 countries to accept refugees for resettlement. The Palestinians hope the economic crisis will not keep them out of work for too long. But they are thankful to be safe and that their children have access to a decent education and a brighter future.

One of the women that Hanne met in Akranes was 42-year-old Sawsan, who spent "a year of desperation" in the Al Waleed camp after fleeing Baghdad in 2007 with her son Yehya, who is now aged five years.


This is her tale: "I woke up one morning and my husband was gone. We looked for him everywhere, for seven months, fearing he was dead or had been kidnapped. It turns out he had abandoned us and fled to safety in a neighbouring country.

"The militia started to pay me unfriendly visits, threatening me to leave our house and saying that if I didn't they would kidnap my son. They stole all our furniture. I went to the police for help, but when they came to see me at the house, they beat me. What had I done wrong? I had lived here all my life, enjoyed respect and peace.

"We lacked everything food, water, electricity, money. One day my son and I came very close to being hit by a road bomb. There was blood everywhere. I looked down at myself was I still in one piece, was I still alive? I was close to having a nervous breakdown. I decided to leave."

Al Waleed

"We slept with our clothes and gloves on under layers of blankets in the freezing cold tent. I didn't dare to light a fire; many tents had burnt down. Our toilet was a simple bucket. We could only have a bath once a month. My son then four was chronically ill. I was afraid his head was damaged from all the violence he had witnessed. He was angry all the time.

© UNHCR/M.Sidky
Children try to find ways to amuse themselves in Al Waleed camp, where Sawsan and her children lived before resettlement to Iceland.

"For a year I prayed to God to save my son. I told myself: ´I am a man, we will survive.' Then a lady from UNHCR came to interview me. For many hours, he listened. And then I got the news about Iceland. I had heard about Iceland at school and seen programmes on TV, but I had not really paid attention."


"Iceland is my second country, after Palestine. I was met at the airport by two of my Icelandic support families from the Red Cross project, while the other two support families waited at my new home, with sandwiches at one o'clock in the morning!

"Now, after language class my support families take me out to the movies, teach me to use the computer. We shop I love the flea markets or we cook falafel. No one looks at me with a bad eye. The other day a woman even came up to me at the supermarket and gave me a hug. My son loves to go to kindergarten. He has totally changed. He is happy, he listens to me he has even started to smile.

"The Icelandic government, the Akranes municipality and the Red Cross have given us everything we need. House, furniture, salary, food and clothes. What Iceland did for us is truly humanitarian. I have found care and peace at last. And now the sun is even shining. I keep asking myself: Am I dreaming?"




UNHCR country pages


An alternative for those who cannot go home, made possible by UNHCR and governments.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

This gallery highlights the history of UNHCR's efforts to help some of the world's most disenfranchised people to find a place called home, whether through repatriation, resettlement or local integration.

After decades of hospitality after World War II, as the global political climate changed and the number of people cared for by UNHCR swelled from around one million in 1951, to more than 27 million people in the mid-1990s, the welcome mat for refugees was largely withdrawn.

Voluntary repatriation has become both the preferred and only practical solution for today's refugees. In fact, the great majority of them choose to return to their former homes, though for those who cannot do so for various reasons, resettlement in countries like the United States and Australia, and local integration within regions where they first sought asylum, remain important options.

This gallery sees Rwandans returning home after the 1994 genocide; returnees to Kosovo receiving reintegration assistance; Guatemalans obtaining land titles in Mexico; and Afghans flocking home in 2003 after decades in exile.

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Peaceful days and a safe environment is probably more than these Palestinian and Sudanese refugees expected when they were stuck in a desert camp in Iraq. Now they are recovering at a special transit centre in the Romanian city of Timisoara while their applications for resettlement in a third country are processed.

Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

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