Chile: Palestinian refugees arrive to warm welcome

The first group of 38 refugees - 23 of them children - have arrived in the Chilean capital Santiago. They were greeted by government leaders and members of the 500,000-strong Palestinian community.

Santiago, 8 April (AKI) - Chile has given a warm welcome to the first group of Palestinian refugees to arrive in the country.

Thirty-eight Palestinians, previously stuck in no-man's land between Syria and Iraq, arrived in the country's capital, Santiago, after a 40-hour journey on Sunday.

The refugees, which include 23 children, were greeted at Santiago's airport by around 500 Chileans, many of them of Palestinian descent who waved Palestinian flags in their honour.

The group is the first of 117 refugees to be accepted by the Chilean government after a plea from the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) last year.

Fabio Varoli, head of the regional office of the UNHCR's Latin America Programme told Adnkronos International (AKI) the refugees had lived in the refugee camp of al-Tanf, after surviving violence and hardship in war-torn Iraq.

"They lived in a desert area, about 400 metres long, inside tents, where temperatures reached minus 10 to minus 15 degrees celsius in the winter, or 40 to 50 degrees celsius in the summer," Varoli told AKI.

The al-Tanf camp, located on a strip of land between Syria and Iraq, held 300 people in 2006 and now has 700 refugees.

Varoli, an Italian from the historic city of Pisa, travelled to the camp last year to help select who would be eligible for the programme.

"When they arrived to Chile, I was waiting at the door of the airplane to greet them, many of them remembered me, it was very moving," he told AKI. "They were smiling and very happy.

"There is a profound sense of gratitude to Chile for their solidarity with the refugees."

Upon their arrival, the refugees were transferred to the city of La Calera, 118 kilometres north of Santiago, where mayor Roberto Chahuan, himself the grandchild of Palestinian immigrants, welcomed them in front of 1,000 cheering supporters.

The mayor organised a lunch while a band played typical Chilean music and performed the country's national dance, the Cueca.

The Palestinian Authority's ambassador in Chile, Mai al-Kaila, and Chile's interior minister, Felipe Harboe, were also there to greet the newcomers.

"It was like a Latin-American postcard," spokesman for the Vicaria de Pastoral Social (VPS), Alberto Pando, told AKI.

VPS is a Catholic aid agency based in the capital Santiago that works with UNHCR to help refugees.-

"It has been so exciting for them (the Palestinians), there has been so much love, so much joy," said Pando.

The Palestinians travelled from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to Paris in a commercial airline, and after an eight hour layover they flew to Chile.

"Kids could be seen playing in the escalators at the airports, because many of them were born in refugee camps and thus had never seen one," Pando told AKI.

All of the refugees are Sunni Muslims and were received at the airport by an imam from a local mosque. He prayed with the refugees and also offered them advice.

Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, is reportedly sympathetic to refugees because she was one herself.

She and her family sought asylum in Australia during the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet from 1973 until 1990.

According to Pando, when Bachelet studied in the German capital of Berlin, a Palestinian taught her how to say "refugee" in German.

A second group of Palestinian refugees is expected to arrive in Chile in two weeks.