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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

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

When bombs started raining down on Aleppo, Syria, in 2012, the Khawan family had to flee. According to Ahmad, the husband of Najwa and father of their two children, the town was in ruins within 24 hours.

The family fled to Lebanon where they shared a small flat with Ahmad's two brothers and sisters and their children. Ahmad found sporadic work which kept them going, but he knew that in Lebanon his six-year-old son, Abdu, who was born deaf, would have little chance for help.

The family was accepted by Germany's Humanitarian Assistance Programme and resettled into the small central German town of Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges and a forest, the village has an idyllic feel.

A year on, Abdu has undergone cochlear implant surgery for the second time. He now sports two new hearing aids which, when worn together, allow him to hear 90 per cent. He has also joined a regular nursery class, where he is learning for the first time to speak - German in school and now Arabic at home. Ahmed is likewise studying German in a nearby village, and in two months he will graduate with a language certificate and start looking for work. He says that he is proud at how quickly Abdu is learning and integrating.

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

Through the Clouds to Germany: One Syrian Family's Journey

On Wednesday, Germany launched a humanitarian programme to provide temporary shelter and safety to up to 5,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. A first group of 107 flew to Hanover in the northern city of Hanover. They will attend cultural orientation courses to prepare them for life over the next two years in Germany, where they will be able to work, study and access basic services. Among the group are Ahmad and his family, including a son who is deaf and needs constant care that was not available in Lebanon. The family fled from Syria in late 2012 after life became too dangerous and too costly in the city of Aleppo, where Ahmad sold car spare parts. Photographer Elena Dorfman followed the family in Beirut as they prepared to depart for the airport and their journey to Germany.

Through the Clouds to Germany: One Syrian Family's Journey

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