Chaker Khazaal: “My journey from refugee to citizen”

A Palestinian writer, social media strategist and Huffington Post contributor, Chaker Khazaal grew up in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp during the Lebanese Civil War. In an email interview, published in the Portuguese weekly EXPRESSO, he told me how he managed to find a new home in Canada and what are the expectations of thousands of people now trying to escape bloody conflicts in Syria and in other countries. (Read more…)

Chaker Khazaal © All Rights Reserved

Chaker Khazaal: “There are four generations of Palestinian refugees”
© All Rights Reserved

Let us begin with your family background.

I was a third generation Palestinian refugee. I was born in Lebanon in 1987. Both my parents were born in Lebanon too. My grandparents were the ones who left Palestine in May 1948 and came to Lebanon. I inherited the refugee status from them.

You were born in a refugee camp during the Lebanese civil war [1975-1990]. How was your life in Bourj El Barajneh

Life for a refugee is a challenge: you live with very little (little water, little electricity, no access to jobs). We all know that, so Margarida I am not going to elaborate on that. You and I, and many people, know that a refugee’s life suck. It brings pain, uncertainty, fear and so many other horrific feelings. My life in Bourj El Barajneh had that.

I mean when you see your neighbor’s son without a job because Palestinians can’t work in Lebanon in many sectors, you get scared as a child and you start to worry about the future. You start dreaming of leaving, for the sake of living. But the refugee camp also had its many fun moments.

I loved the close relationships between people; after all, there were 20,000 people living in Bourj El Barajneh, and now there are over 25,000 in the 1 KM2 camp due to the Syrian refugee crisis. We celebrated birthdays, weddings, graduation parties, and other occasions.

During Eid [holiday after Ramadan and Al Hajj], we wore good clothes in celebration of the occasion. During easter, my grandfather would color eggs and bring it to us. Like I said in one of my Huffington Post articles, “refugees are ordinary people living in extra ordinary circumstances.”

Palestinian refugees, who fled the Yarmuk refugee camp in Syria where they were previously residing due to the ongoing conflict, peer through holes made in their tent as they prepare to move to new houses built by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Helweh, near the southern Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, January 2014. © Mahmoud Zayyat | AFP | Getty Images)

Palestinian refugees, who fled the Yarmuk refugee camp in Syria where they were previously residing due to the ongoing war, peer through holes made in their tent as they prepare to move to new houses built by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Helweh, near the southern Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, January 2014
© Mahmoud Zayyat | AFP | Getty Images)

What news do you have of the Palestinian refugees in Syria? Do you have relatives and friends there? 

Well I don’t need to share with you news about Palestinian refugees in Syria, I think we all know about the situation of the people of Syria. It is heart breaking to see the people of Syria losing their country. Syria was one of the very few places in the world that I as a refugee can visit without visa. I knew that because we always went there to visit some family.

I know about Palestinian refugees in Syria that prior to the conflict in 2011, they lived with access to all social services.

Syria treated Palestinian refugees in Syria better than Palestinian were treated any elsewhere. I experienced it at first hand when we used to visit my mother’s family in Aleppo.

My aunt’s son worked as a dentist, and they were able to own property (they had an amazing apartment that was our summer gateway). On the contrary, a refugee in Lebanon is not allowed to own property, and was denied access to public schools, hospitals, or right to employment.

Now, my family in Syria is all over the place. My aunt is in Texas. Her son finally made it to Sweden. Her daughter just made it to Turkey. They are all displaced. They lost everything. I had many friends in Syria as well. Some remain in Damascus. The majority are all over the place. This breaks my heart.

You have been visiting refugee camps in the Middle East. What is your mission there? 

Well, I grew up in a refugee camp, so I have family and friends there. That’s why I visit. I also get inspired by so many stories to write my books and articles that raise awareness about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

There are four generations of Palestinians refugees, without any rights. As the world is now focused on Syrian refugees, the displaced Palestinians should not forgotten. They should be included in a solution our world works towards.

It is horrible what is going on. Overcrowded camps with electrical wires killing many people, horrible conditions, and on top of that, no economic empowerment. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have no access to jobs as I said, so it is hard to make a living.

The president of the State of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, has done little to alleviate the dire circumstances of his displaced people. In 2014, he told a group of visiting Israelis that he did not wish to change Israel’s nature by “drowning it with millions of [Palestinian] refugees.”

Perhaps the worst part of Abbas’ statement is that while it expresses concern for himself and Israel, it does not in any way address how he plans to help the millions of suffering Palestinian refugees. Except for in title, Abbas seems to have all but abandoned his people.

For Palestinian refugees, I emphasise on education, employment and immigration. Education is important for every person in the world, whether a refugee or not. The right to have a job is important. This is what refugees lack. Worldwide, donations pour onto refugees; but mostly in form of means of survival. Refugees need an opportunity in life. They need to feel like contributing members of societies.

I don’t blame Lebanon, it is a small country with its own problems. But I do address Arab nations and other countries. Arab countries make it so difficult for Palestinians to even get a tourist visa. Why? These countries are already donating money to “help” Palestinian refugees (in form of traditional donations), so why not give them a second chance in life like Canada, for example, had given me?

Of all countries, the United States perhaps has the most to gain by providing a home to many Palestinians. The U.S. has been regularly spending over $130 million a year to help UNRWA maintain aid to the Palestinian refugees, and has now spent over $5 billion just to keep these people at the bare minimum standards of living.

An alleyway in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon where jumbled electricity and water cables run over cramped streets. © Caroline Anning | The Washington Post

An alleyway in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, where jumbled electricity and water cables run over cramped streets
© Caroline Anning | The Washington Post

Regarding the Palestinian refugees are you in favor of the right of return or do you propose another strategy? 

I am not going to answer anything about the right of return. I grew up being told that “your life sucks here in Lebanon BUT you have the right to return”. My life would have been wasted, like many lives are today, if they held only to a promise. The right of return to any refugee is a dream, one of those that may not come to fruition the easy way.

For me, the solution for Palestinian refugees is not a promise that is given in words and speeches. It is a practical strategy to save generations from wasting their lives in poverty and lack of opportunity. The solutions to refugees is by giving them a home. The international community can fairly absorb a number of refugees and include them in its own demographics.

This is the best method of aid for both ends: the receiving ends will have a second chance in life, and the host country would be redirecting donations into its own economy by enabling a new citizen to contribute in skills, lifestyle, and of course, taxes. We need to start shifting from traditional aid to enabling aid of providing opportunities to refugees and not closing borders in their face.

Is it possible that the wave of Syrian “migrants” will have an even more negative impact  on the situation of the Palestinians scattered in the Middle East refugee camps?

It has already happened. Many Syrian refugees coming into Lebanon (country with most refugees in the world per capita) are moving to Palestinian refugee camps. The small camps (like the one I grew up in is 1 KM2) are now hosting an influx of people.

On another hand, the Syrian crisis is requesting more funds, therefore making less resources available to the Palestinian refugees. And unfortunately, international aid follows trends. What’s happening today is more important than what happened yesterday. That is the philosophy that is driving the aid system.

Now that the Syrian crisis is happening, most of the attention is on it (which is good, since Syrians need a lot of help). But on the other hand, there had been deficits in organisations that work with other refugees, like the Palestinian ones.

The first step to change is breaking silence. This is a pattern that humanity has always followed. What we’re seeing now with millions of Syrian migrants is an urgent need that the world had dismissed. We have focused on aid in the form of donations to allow refugees to survive.

This is not what refugees need. Refugees need a sustainable form of aid like settling in a new country, start a life where they are capable of economically empowering themselves and the countries they are in. The wave of Syrian migrants is acting like a message for countries to facilitate entry for refugees in general, and of course, Palestinian ones who have been displaced since 1948.

Syrian refugee children stand outside their tents in Zahrani village, southern Lebanon, May 3, 2016 © Ali Hashisho | Reuters RTX2CNIX

Syrian refugee children stand outside their tents in Zahrani village, southern Lebanon, May 3, 2016
© Ali Hashisho | Reuters RTX2CNIX

From Lebanon you went to Canada to study, and then to live. At what extent did it mould your activism?

My journey from a refugee to a citizen is the title of my life, seriously. I always dreamt of leaving the refugee camp and immigrating somewhere where I would have rights like any other human being. I applied for a scholarship at York University, and I got the Global Leader of Tomorrow Award. I studied, I worked, and Canada became my home. It is my home country.

Every refugee deserves a home, an opportunity, a second chance in life. Canada gave me that chance, I respected it, and I still do. I appreciate it, I feel proud to have a country to call my home. I wish more countries give that second chance to every refugee suffering these days.

Stephen Harper’s government allegedly refused the asylum’s application [after this interview, the authorities refuted the claim] of two little boys and their mother drowned in Turkey, exposing total insensitivity to their Canadian relatives’ guarantees that they would be financially supportive. How do you assess the Ottawa’s policies, and the ones of the rich Arab countries in the Gulf?  

I worked with a Canadian organisation called Nations United (not the United Nations) that raised awareness about many issues, including refugees. As a human being, I do not support any restrictions put on refugees from countries that can afford hosting them and giving them a second chance.

Look at most Arab countries, they do nothing for Syrian, Iraqi or Palestinian refugees when it comes to welcoming them and making them citizens who work for a better life.

As for my government of Canada, we are about to have elections [on October 19, 2015]. I am voting NDP because Tom Mulcair (running for Prime Minister) has been very sympathetic about refugees in general. I hope the party I am voting for, or any other party, see what works best for us as Canada and for other who could use our help while contributing to our economy.

Although I am not voting for him, Stephen Harper announced this month [of September 2015] his conservative party’s plans to launch a new program that would bring to Canada 10,000 refugees displaced by ISIS [the so-caleed ‘islamic state” or Daesh] from Iraq and Syria.

Harper’s plans set a model example for countries around the world who could do the same for Palestinians by providing a home, rather than spending money to keep them in run down, overcrowded camps.

As it stands, most Arab countries’ laws make it extremely difficult for refugees to obtain a work permit or visitor’s visa. Instead of helping them, these countries are cutting the last lifelines to society that these people have left.

Will the refugees’ drama be a turning point in the way foreign powers deal with Bashar al-Assad‘s regime? 

I am not at a position to answer this question. You will have to ask Syrian people. Assad is not my president and he never was. All I know is that when I was a Palestinian refugee, his country was one of the very few in the World that welcomed me and other refugees.

As for his regime, I am not qualified to speak about it or evaluate it in relation to the plight of refugees today. There is a mess going on in Syria right now. And Syrians are the ones who make the narrative of the situation.

This June 19, 2016 photo shows several Syrian refugee quarters in the foreground, and the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border, in northeast Lebanon © Hussein Malla | AP

This June 19, 2016 photo shows several Syrian refugee quarters in the foreground, and the town of Arsal, near the Syrian border, in northeast Lebanon
© Hussein Malla | AP

Why did the picture of 3-years old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler on the shores of Turkey, generate so much debate on whether to share it or not, and why did it have more impact worldwide than the picture of the Palestinian boys killed by Israel in the Gaza beach during the recent military onslaught?

In tragedy, we should not compare. Every tragedy brings pain to the people involved. I would like to break your questions into two.

The toddler found dead on Turkey’s shores is the face of the Syrian refugees’ plight. A heart breaking reminder that many people have lost their homes, and are taking deadly risks to try and start a new, safer life.

The picture of the Palestinian boys killed by Israel in Gaza beach is the face of the Palestine-Israel conflict. There are casualties among civilians happening. I will not agree to compare, this is not a debate, these are two realities happening in our world that is witnessing many tragedies. We need to stop these tragedies. We need to hold accountable every country that can help and isn’t. Less blame, more action. This is what we need.

Confessions of a Child War – Sahara, published in July, is the third book of a trilogy that was apparently inspired in your experience as a refugee. Can you explain the stories of each one?

My Confessions of a War Child books are novels that tell stories that happen in wars, in conflict, in displacement, and in despair. The books are inspired by my upbringing, the history of the nation I come from (Arabia), and events happening mainly in the Middle East.

The three books are narrated by dead people, because there have been many dying and I wanted to imortalize them and make them narrate the stories of our world. I put the sequel in novel style so that people around the world can relate to them.

You will have to read them and tell me how the fiction in them reflects a reality we are all living. From refugee situation, to revolutions, to simply love and loss, the three books cover it all.

book 1

book 2

book 3

Parts of this interview were included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on September 19, 2015

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2 thoughts on “Chaker Khazaal: “My journey from refugee to citizen”

  1. Pingback: A Guide to Navigating Life as a Refugee - Democratsnewz

  2. Pingback: A Guide to Navigating Life as a Refugee - Chaker Khazaal

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