Zafarul Islam Khan: Palestinian Diaspora in India

By Zafarul Islam Khan

NEW DELHI — Believe it or not, the Palestinian diaspora has now reached India.
Abu Ali, 47, originally from Gaza, came to India from Egypt on 18 June 2006 on a three-weeks visa.

Finding himself in a country where he knows no one, not even the language or culture, he started walking Bombay streets aimlessly.

Finally someone advised him to go to the Indian capital which has a Palestinian embassy.

Thus Abu Ali took the next train and arrived in Delhi on 5 July 2006.

He went straight to the Palestinian embassy with great hopes that he will find help there in an alien country.

To his surprise, all help was denied and he was told to go to the office of the UNHCR.

Facing the insensitive attitude of the embassy officials, he started shouting in the lobby.

The ambassador came down from his first floor office and told him, "we do not meet the likes of you," according to Abu Ali.

The ambassador, he claims, ordered him to leave.

When Abu Ali refused to obey the order, embassy officials hit him, tore his shirt and threw him outside the building.

Abu Ali could not believe himself. Soon he recovered his senses and went to the UNHCR office where he was asked to fill a form.

Months later he was interviewed by UN officers.

More months passed before he was officially recognized as a "refugee" and given the necessary certificate allowing him to live in India while the UNHCR approached countries ready to accommodate refugees.

Today Abu Ali lives in a one-room flat on the top floor of a building in an area where no one knows him.

He is not allowed to work in India while the pittance he receives from UNHCR does not support him for a week.

His frustration took him time and again to the Palestinian embassy hoping to find some solace and help in getting a visa to some other country.

But all help was denied and today, he claims, he is not allowed even to enter the embassy building.


Abu Ali’s problems in India were just a small chapter in a book of ordeal.

He went to Egypt in the seventies to study. He started working as a taxi driver and married in Egypt.

In 1997 he secured a permit to visit Gaza with his family. Deep down he had made up his mind that he would stay in Gaza as an illegal resident and will never return to Egypt again.

When he reached the Israeli-controlled Palestinian checkpoint after crossing the Egyptian point in Rafah, he was shocked to find that the Israelis were ready to allow his family to enter Gaza but not him, although all had similar entry passes.

He shouted, cried and prayed to the Israelis to have mercy on him.

While his pregnant wife was allowed he had to return to the Egyptian point where he was told that since he did not have a return visa, he could not enter Egypt.

Abu Ali was thrown into the checkpoint’s detention center for a few days until an Egyptian officer had mercy on him and let him flee back to Cairo.

With difficulty he obtained a tourist visa in order to stay in Egypt. Soon that visa was changed into the "annual tourist visa" which is obtained by cashing US$ 1800 every year through a bank in Egypt.

This continued till 2001 when Egyptian immigration officials told him that his tourist visa could no longer be extended and that he must leave Egypt.

Since 2001, Abu Ali entered Egyptian prisons a number of times and for varying periods until 15 September 2005 when Israel was made to withdraw from Gaza and Hamas blasted the barbed wires on the Gaza-Egyptian borders.

Abu Ali tried to sneak into Gaza twice and twice he was caught by Egyptian patrols and sent back to Sinai.

Finally on 9 October of the same year he again managed to reach Rafah and tried to sneak into Gaza in the dead of the night.

An Egyptian border patrol spotted him and fired at his legs. He was promptly arrested and sent to a military court which jailed him for a month with a fine of 2000 Egyptian pounds.

This was a very lenient verdict in such cases, says Abu Ali, who has not to this day seen his son who was born in Gaza ten years ago.

After serving the prison term he was sent to the Interior Ministry detention center in Lazoghly locality of Cairo where the officials ordered his expulsion from the country.

His relatives started to go round foreign embassies in Cairo hoping to secure just any visa for him.

None responded positively. In the end the Sudanese embassy gave him one month’s tourist visa.

A police party took him in hand-cuffs to Aswan by train and from there to Wadi Halfa on the Sudanese borders by boat on the Nile.

But the Sudanese officials on the border checkpost declined to accept the visa, saying that he had no visa to return to Egypt or any other visa to go to any other country when his one-month tourist visa expires, which means he would remain in Sudan.

We do not want Egypt to export its problems to us, they told him.

A hand-cuffed Abu Ali was taken back all the way to Cairo where he was lodged in Qanater prison.

There he met an Indian called "John" who advised him to try for an Indian tourist visa.

Again his relatives made rounds of the Indian embassy and were successful to secure him a three-weeks visa.

Again, he was hand-cuffed and taken to the door of an Emirates airways plane which brought him to Bombay.

Similar Tales

The story of another Palestinian refugee in India is stranger than Abu Ali’s.

Mohammad Iraqi is a young man belonging to a Palestinian family living in Libya.

His father, who belonged to Al-Tireh in the Palestinian areas occupied by Israel in 1948, fled to Gaza before it too was occupied in 1967.

From there he went to Cairo to work in the Egyptian radio station as Hebrew announcer.

Later he went to Libya to work with the Libya information ministry and the Libyan news agency as a Hebrew translator.

He was among the Palestinian families uprooted by Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi in the wake of the Oslo Accords when he dramatically expelled the Palestinians living in Libya and ordered them to go to Gaza since it had been liberated according to Oslo.

The storm subsided after some time and the Palestinians started living in peace in Libya.

During these times of Internet and email, one of his sons, Mohammad, an agricultural engineer, started interacting with his relatives back in what is now Israel.

He fell in love with his cousin, who was teaching psychology, and they decided to marry.

This was the most difficult decision in Mohammad’s life.

With her Israeli passport his would-be wife can freely travel all over the world and even to some parts of the Arab world but his refugee passport allows him to live just in the issuing country.

Yet, the couple decided to ignore all these hard facts.

Mohammad went to Tunisia where the marriage took place in a circuitous way.

They decided to come to India to live for some time until a Western country allows them in.

They approached UNHCR and were accepted as genuine refugees.

With over a year in India, a jobless life has started to pinch them as all savings have been spent and even gold back home has been sold to support them in India.

The Palestinian refugees in India are part of a larger community of refugees who have made India their home at present.

According to UNHCR figures, there are 9212 Afghans, 1800 Burmese, 154 Somalis, 34 Iraqis and 72 other refugees recognized by the UNHCR while there are many others whose cases are being studied.

While sought after western countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand accept other nationalities, no one seems to be interested in Palestinians.

(; Sep 24, 2007)

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