‘At last we have a home,’ say Palestinian sisters who uncovered Jewish roots

Heba and Rewa Iskandarani, who were both born in Dubai to a Palestinian refugee father and a Lebanese mother, told Arab News they were overjoyed at being given Spanish citizenship. (Supplied)
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Updated 18 November 2020

‘At last we have a home,’ say Palestinian sisters who uncovered Jewish roots

  • Refugees tell Arab News they ‘wept for joy’ after being given Spanish passports

MADRID: Two Palestinian refugee sisters who have been stateless for much of their lives have finally been given passports after discovering they have Jewish ancestry stretching back five centuries.

Heba and Rewa Iskandarani, who were both born in Dubai to a Palestinian refugee father and a Lebanese mother, told Arab News they were overjoyed at being given Spanish citizenship. “I feel like we’ve been reborn,” said Heba, 26.

The passports were approved following a move by both Spain and Portugal to open the pathway to citizenship for descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during widespread persecution in the 15th century, when up to 300,000 Jews were forced to leave.

Two years after setting out to prove their Jewish ancestry, the two sisters were awarded Spanish citizenship earlier this year at the Spanish Embassy in Abu Dhabi.

“The feeling of finally being recognized as a citizen is so liberating and empowering,” said Rewa, 20. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I can reach my full potential without the burden of being stateless.”

Heba shared her younger sister’s feelings. “Words will never describe what it feels to have a passport in my hands. I want to live with dignity and without the fear of one day ending up in a refugee camp in Lebanon,” she said.

Heba lives in Dubai but is also studying for a Ph.D. in planning at Birmingham City University in the UK, while Rewa is a finance student in the UAE.

They said being stateless had left them struggling with issues of identity. “I’ve always had big dreams, and it meant I couldn’t do a lot of things,” Heba said.

Frustrated at the restrictions they faced without citizenship, the pair began the long journey to prove their Jewish roots.

The building where the sisters' ancestors lived in Barcelona.

“My sister Heba is the one who initiated the process. I have to thank her for dealing with all the technical and legal matters,” said Rewa.

The sisters hired lawyers, got approval from the Permanent Jewish Commission in Spain, learned Spanish, and gathered documents to present to a notary in Barcelona.

With Spain’s offer of citizenship ending last year, time was critical. Rewa said preparing for the mandatory language test was the most difficult part.

“Learning a new language, and studying for tests without any guarantee that we might actually be offered citizenship, was challenging,” she added.

Giorgio Guarneri, a Barcelona immigration lawyer who worked on the case, described Heba’s initial phone call as “destiny.”

After gaining approval from a series of public authorities, including Spain’s Ministry of Justice, the sister’s file was sent to the Spanish Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the pair were given Spanish nationality.

Maryem Essadik, another lawyer who worked on the case, told Arab News that an expert genealogist had been enlisted before the sisters’ application was submitted.

Now other members of the Iskandarani family have started the same process. “I have a brother and three cousins who’ve applied for Spanish citizenship, and some others are applying for Portuguese passports,” said Heba.

Esaddik said the scheme in Portugal is similar to the Spanish system, adding: “Many Sephardim from North Africa, Turkey and Iran opt for this program because it doesn’t involve language and culture tests, which can be a significant barrier for some people.”

Now that their journey to Spanish citizenship is complete, Heba and Rewa can look back on some unforgettable moments, including a visit to the building where their ancestors lived in Barcelona.

“I couldn’t believe it because when we arrived we saw a Palestinian flag hanging from a balcony,” Heba said. “It was like a sign from God that we’d come home. We both got goosebumps.”

The sisters say they want to better understand their identity now that they have passports and can travel anywhere. They plan to visit the family hometown of Jaffa.

“I can’t wait. I’ve received many invitations to go and discover where my grandfather and my ancestors lived,” said Heba.

They are also searching for their Jewish relatives. “I’m in contact with a few of my Jewish family in Argentina. I’d love to meet them in person and discuss our history,” Heba added.

German defense minister rejects Turkey complaint over Libya weapons ship search

Updated 24 November 2020

German defense minister rejects Turkey complaint over Libya weapons ship search

  • Germany insists it acted correctly in boarding a Turkish ship to enforce arms embargo of Libya
  • Turkey summoned European diplomats to complain at the operation

BERLIN: Germany’s defense minister on Tuesday rejected Turkey’s complaints over the search of a Turkish freighter in the Mediterranean Sea by a German frigate participating in a European mission, insisting that German sailors acted correctly.
Sunday’s incident prompted Turkey to summon diplomats representing the European Union, Germany and Italy and assert that the Libya-bound freighter Rosaline-A was subjected to an “illegal” search by personnel from the German frigate Hamburg. The German ship is part of the European Union’s Irini naval mission, which is enforcing an arms embargo against Libya.
German officials say that the order to board the ship came from Irini’s headquarters in Rome and that Turkey protested while the team was on board. The search was then ended.
Turkey says the search was “unauthorized and conducted by force.”
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer backed the German crew’s actions.
“It is important to me to make really clear that the Bundeswehr soldiers behaved completely correctly,” she said during an appearance in Berlin. “They did what is asked of them in the framework of the European Irini mandate.”
“That there is this debate with the Turkish side points to one of the fundamental problems of this European mission,” Kramp-Karrenbauer added, without elaborating. “But it is very important to me to say clearly here that there are no grounds for these accusations that are now being made against the soldiers.”
This was the second incident between Turkey and naval forces from a NATO ally enforcing an arms blockade against Libya.
In June, NATO launched an investigation over an incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean, after France said one of its frigates was “lit up” three times by Turkish naval targeting radar when it tried to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of involvement in arms trafficking.
Turkey supports a UN-backed government in Tripoli against rival forces based in the country’s east. It has complained that the EU naval operation focuses its efforts too much on the Tripoli administration and turns a blind eye to weapons sent to the eastern-based forces.
In Ankara, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Irini was “flawed from the onset.”
“It is not based on firm international legal foundations,” Akar said. He renewed Turkey’s criticism of the German ship’s actions.
“The incident was against international laws and practices. It was wrong,” he said.
Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that “Turkey is still an important partner for us in NATO.” Turkey being outside the military alliance would make the situation even more difficult, she argued, and Turkish soldiers are “absolutely reliable partners” in NATO missions.
But she conceded that Turkey poses “a big challenge” because of how its domestic politics have developed and because it has its “own agenda, which is difficult to reconcile with European questions in particular.”