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Border & Immigration

Palestinian Refugees In El Cajon

Palestinian Refugees In El Cajon


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANDY TRIMLETT: Recently, a family from Iraq prepared a traditional Middle Eastern meal of chicken, rice, and various kinds of salad in their new home in El Cajon. Jamal and Nedal Abu Al-Nasab, and three of their children, came to the U.S. earlier this year. They say they are truly grateful.

JAMAL: Life in America gave me back my ability to be a human being.


TRIMLETT: Jamal's 22-year old son, Ahmad, immediately threw himself into learning English.

AHMAD: I am searching an opportunity for work… so I am doing my best working on improving my language so I can find a job.

TRIMLETT: San Diego has been one of the primary destinations for refugees coming to the U.S. since the end of the Vietnam War, when 30-40,000 Vietnamese came to Camp Pendleton. Over the last four years, El Cajon has been the number one destination for Iraqis coming to America. But this family, despite spending their entire lives in Iraq, are not Iraqi; they are Palestinian. They are part of a group of roughly 30 Palestinian families who have come to San Diego County from Iraq over the last few months.

The journey of the Abu Al-Nasab family dates back to 1948. That year, half of the Palestinian population - over 700,000 people - lost their homes in the war surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinians took refuge in camps across the Middle East. A small group of these refugees ended up in Iraq, where Jamal was born. In 2003, when the Iraq war began, Jamal and his family were living in the heart of Baghdad.

JAMAL: Many artillery rockets and shells fell on us, on our houses. I was hit and had two broken ribs.


TRIMLETT: That's when the country was thrown into chaos.

AHMAD: No one ruled them. They started saying, "You Palestinians lived comfortably in Iraq." They had thought that Saddam Hussein had given us everything.

NEDAL: They told Palestinians to leave and that they didn't want us around. They mistreated our kids and made us suffer.

JAMAL: Then we started being targeted by rockets. I carried my brother in my arms... My brother ran after his son and got injured. Shrapnel penetrated his arm and shoulder... and while I was running carrying my brother, I found my nephew whose arm and leg were amputated.

TRIMLETT: Despite the horrible violence they lived through, the family stayed in Iraq. They simply had nowhere else to go. But in March, 2007, the family was pushed to the brink. One morning, another son of Jamal and Nedal, Muhannad, took a taxi to work.

JAMAL: He was kidnapped. He told me that your son would not be back unless you pay a ransom of $10,000. I didn't have even 10,000 dinars which equaled $5.

NEDAL: They used to contact us and threaten us. They did let us hear Mohannad's voice once. My husband went to all the people he knew and collected the money needed.

TRIMLETT: They paid the ransom and the kidnappers returned their son. But he had clearly been subjected to beatings and torture. The family decided to flee to a new refugee camp, Al-Waleed. This camp, which lay in No Man's Land in the middle of the desert on Iraq's border with Syria was filled with Palestinians fleeing persecution after the Iraq War.

NEDAL: We stayed there with no food, no drink and waited for help from others.

AHMAD: And everyone knows about the desert heat.. the desert cold.. the desert rain.. the lack of life in the desert.. the water was unsanitary… no electricity.. no sanitary toilets.. not clean air.. no one can live in it… no living creature.. let alone a human being.

NEDAL: To get water we used to stand in lines for two hours and if we didn't get a turn then we had to wait for the next day.

AHMAD: Our children in the camps were exposed to bites by snakes and scorpions. And the closest hospital was 2 hours away.

TRIMLETT: Despite the deplorable conditions of the camps, the Palestinians could not leave. The Iraqi government never allowed them to have passports, so they had no documentation that would permit them to travel. Finally, three years after their arrival in the Al-Waleed camp, Jamal and his family were granted permission to come to the US.

NEDAL: We said bye to our friends then buses took us to Baghdad airport. From there we went to Jordan then to New York then here. We were very happy to be done with the suffering thank god!

AHMAD: It was stunning it was a big deal. As a Palestinian living in Iraq I didn't know the meaning of having a goal in life or building a life, but when I came to America I learned the meaning of having a goal, the meaning of studying. I learned the importance of being educated and intellectual.

TRIMLETT: The family receives financial assistance from the U.S. government to help them get their life started here. They also receive a help from local refugee support organizations and the Arab community in San Diego. However, their government assistance expires in September. Nedal and Jamal are very nervous about what will happen to them once this money runs out. Between their health problems and the language barrier it will be very difficult to find a job, especially in this economy. But they have found some good news to report. Their son Mohannad moved to a nearby house in El Cajon. And Ahmad found a full-time job at a deli in Mira Mesa. It won't be enough to fully support the family, but it is a step in the right direction.