by Natalie Hart
- Chile -
From the Qur’an standing on the sideboard, to the ornate Palestinian mosaic boxes decorating the room, to the anguished expressions of heavily made up Arabic soap stars filling the television screen, one could be forgiven for thinking that they were somewhere in the Middle East. We were, in fact, in La Calera – a dusty industrial town in Chile’s Quillota province, 118km from the capital Santiago – in the home of a Palestinian refugee.
The refugees who arrived from the no-man’s land between Baghdad and Damascus are doubly displaced. Basem Hamlawi, who now lives in the Villa la Pina complex in La Calera, was born in Baghdad after his parents were forced to leave Palestine during the 1948 war. Basem, in turn, fled Baghdad in 2003 after receiving warnings from an oil company colleague of a plot to kill him. His young wife and four brothers followed him two months later.
It was whilst at the Al-Tanf camp that Basem and his family saw a film promoting the UN’s Chile relocation program, presented by popular Chilean journalist and television presenter Amaro Gómez-Pablos. The film, which gave a brief glimpse into Chile’s climate, culture and economy, was the first that most of the refugees had seen of the Latin American country. “Only one of the refugees knew anything about Chile,” says Monica Chahuán, social assistant and coordinator of the La Calera resettlement program. “He had heard once on the news about the earthquakes we have here.”
This short film became the first step in a life changing relocation process for the 117 refugees selected to make the move to Latin America. The eight families located in La Calera were the first to arrive in Chile, and were received by a community waving Palestinian flags and bearing Arabic welcome banners. The town itself already has a strong Palestinian presence - even the mayor, Roberto Chahuán, is third generation Palestinian.
The refugees arrived to furnished apartments, full refrigerators and a UN subsistence grant that will last for two years. Initial accommodations were provided in Villa La Pina for a two-month settling-in period, during which time the refugees were encouraged to find their own apartments. Of the eight families in the commune, only one chose to move out after the two months.Culture shock doesn’t seem a phrase strong enough to describe the families’ first few months in Chile. “None of them could speak Spanish when they arrived. One man had started learning in order to prepare himself, but he only knew a couple of basic and mispronounced words,” says Monica. However, the integration program organized by local municipalities and the UN Refugee Agency provided Spanish classes for the new arrivals, along with guidance on other survival necessities such as the trials and tribulations of grocery shopping, and how to manoeuvre the Chilean health and education systems. The La Calera community also received cultural preparation classes, in particular at the local schools where the children were told that the new arrivals may look different and that the girls may have their heads covered. The national press has taken particular pride in the refugee community’s fast adaptation to Chilean life, with the daily newspapers hailing the new refugees’ ability to negotiate the capital’s contentious transport system, the Transantiago.
Still, some transitions are harder to make than others and September was a particularly challenging month for the refugees. The Muslim festival of Ramadan and its accompanying fast coincided with Fiestas Patrias, the Chilean independence celebrations characterized by two weeks of excessive barbeque and alcohol consumption.
“This is not Ramadan,” Basem tells me, “We fast, we go to work, we come home, pray, and then sleep. There are no celebrations.” Basem has also been unable to get halal meat in La Calera. “I haven’t eaten chicken or red meat since I have been here; I just have a freezer full of fish.” According to Monica Chahuán, the situation is the same for all the refugees, although Basem’s brother slaughters a chicken for his family to eat on special occasions.
In the apartment downstairs, former Iraqi history teacher Thamer echoes Basem’s sentiments. “Ramadan here isn’t how it used to be. There are people smoking and eating in the streets, that wouldn’t happen in Iraq – it is an offense.” Thamer now lives in La Calera with his wife and four children, and works monitoring the general welfare of children at the local school. His wife, Ahlam, has a job in the kitchen of an Arabic Club in nearby Quillota.
Five months into their time in Chile, a strong sense of community is already apparent within Villa La Pina; the refugee children sit playing in the courtyard with their Chilean counterparts and make valiant efforts at playing the traditional game of trompos. As we talk to Basem, his front door is left open and the daughter of the Chilean family next door wanders in and out, enchanted by the newest addition to the Hamlawis – baby Tabarak. At just six days old, Tabarak is the first of the new immigrants to receive full Chilean nationality, although she will be brought up reminded of her heritage. When we ask for a photo of the new baby with her mother, 18 year old Isra, Basem disappears and returns with two Palestinians scarves which he drapes proudly around his young family.
The Chilean based campaign Transforma el dolor en amor (Transform the pain into love) works to promote the refugees’ right to return to the Palestinian homeland. Despite the refugees’ obvious attachment to their nation, however, the relocation to Chile seems to be considered as a permanent move. “I have no intention of going back,” Thamer tells me, “I live in Chile now.”
About the Author
Natalie Hart is working on her BA in Arabic and Spanish at the University of Cambridge. Currently on a year abroad, she is dividing her time between journalism in Chile and studying in the Middle East. In Chile, Natalie is editor of the Valparaíso Times, and writes for the Santiago Times and the cultural magazine Revolver. She is also working on a dissertation focusing on Arabic influences in Argentine Borges’ literature.