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.
“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.