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Canadians set to sponsor Palestinian refugees
June 15, 2009
WINNIPEG, Man. —Some of the 336 Palestinian refugees stranded in an isolated refugee camp on the Iraq-Syria border will soon have new homes in Canada.
Through its private sponsorship program the Canadian government is making it possible for churches and other private sponsors to sponsor some of the residents living in the Al Hol refugee camp, one of three make-shift refugee camps along the border between Syria and Iraq, said Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International-Canada.
Nafziger represented the Canadian Council for Refugees on a visit to the three camps in November 2008 and highlighted the need for immediate action during a speaking tour hosted by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) refugee programs in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Colombia.
About 10 Mennonite churches in Canada have expressed interest in sponsoring families from the Al Hol camp, said Ed Wiebe, national coordinator for MCC’s refugee programs. He anticipates Mennonite churches will sponsor more than 50 individuals.
About 3,000 Palestinian refugees are trapped in the border camps, said Nafziger during her Manitoba visit. They fled killings, kidnappings, torture and death threats in Iraq, but unlike other Iraqi refugees they do not have Iraqi citizenship and not allowed to enter Syria to seek asylum.
Denied asylum and refugee rights, they are extremely vulnerable in poorly situated camps. Living conditions in the camps are difficult and unsafe. There is little security or access to medical services. The camps are in the desert where there are extreme temperatures and regular sandstorms.
“They live in extremely harsh conditions and safe resettlement cannot come quickly enough,” said Nafziger.
The families that will resettle in Canada are mostly second generation descendants of Palestinians who fled to Kuwait in 1948 following the establishment of the State of Israel. They fled to Baghdad in 1993 during the Gulf War and in 2003 tried to find safety in Syria when Palestinians in Iraq became targets for violence in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
“They are looking for a country that will give them full rights as citizens—they have not had that since 1948,” said Nafziger, explaining that many of the refugees are educated middle-class people seeking a better life for their families.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has issued an urgent appeal for the resettlement of refugees living in the three border camps. The Syrian government and the Palestine Liberation Organization are in agreement that resettlement is a practical option for Palestinian refugees living in the three camps.
Canada is responding to this appeal through its private sponsorship program—a program that started 30 years ago when MCC Canada, on behalf of Mennonite churches in Canada, negotiated a private sponsorship agreement with the government to sponsor refugees from Southeast Asia.
Canada is the only country in the world that has a private sponsorship program to assist the government in resettlement of refugees and displaced people, said Wiebe.
Each year, the Canadian government resettles approximately 7,500 refugees through government programs and an additional 3,500 through private sponsorships. Mennonite churches in Canada, through MCC, have helped more than 50,000 refugees resettle in Canada under this private sponsorship program.
Gladys Terichow is a writer for MCC