Interview with late Antranig Bakerjian
by Leila Tarazi and Nora Carmi
- What was the definition of "refugee"?
When the UN started there was no concrete definition of who is a
refugee. Ideas developed later but at no point did any official definition
recognize or include the political rights of the Palestinian. How can
one categorize suffering? Under no circumstances can we categorize human
- What was the condition of refugees, the real situation when you
joined the work?
The people that we worked with were those who had brought their suffering
as well as memories of a country they had left behind, villages, homes,
vineyards, a community they belonged to, and organizations they had
established. In fact, a life story. They were the second wave of refugees
- about 300,000 people who had fled their country before the British
mandate ended. (The British army actually moved out on May 13, 1948
instead of on May 15.) The first wave made their way to Lebanon and
Egypt, they were the well-to-do and more privileged. We had to bring
relief and hope to the thousands of refugees who fled to Jordan. What
became evident in the 1948 expulsion was the spirit of patriotism and
compassion, as witnessed through the support given by kin - in Ramallah
for example, through the "welcoming committees."
- Did you consider the problem and the assistance as temporary?
Did you ever imagine the situation would last so long?
Nobody expected the situation to be a prolonged, dragging one. Even
after the 1967 occupation, I didn't imagine it would last another five
years. The general feeling was that the Arabs would get even with Israel.
It was this hope that enabled the people in the camps to endure it all.
In the past 20 years, I have often asked myself: 'Till when?
This was the time when we preached endurance through words that became
operational tools - words like Allah kabir: God is great, and Bifrijhah
Allah: God will ease it, will solve it.
Some people think that UNRWA's existence and the refugees' dependence
on rations hindered, or reduced the urgency of finding a solution to
the Palestinian problem. Please comment.
The long history of UNRWA passed through five-year phases and each one
was different. At times only lip-service was being offered, or UNRWA
would act as a tranquilizer. In the first five years there was no real
relief given. Later, the agency did bring about considerable change.
Out of a budget of $250 million for the 3 years 1952-1955, only $50
million was earmarked for relief. $200 million was to be used to develop
a rehabilitation plan that would shape the future of the Middle East,
by building dams on the Yarmouk and Euphrates rivers, and by creating
the Eastern Ghor Canal, and other projects. This all helped to divert
world attention away from the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.
Later stages were visibly more positive. A sort of miracle happened
due to political events in the Arab world. For one, with the new UNRWA
Director Henry Labouise, the investigations about which refugees were
entitled to ration cards in the camps was eased, and replaced by a policy
that all children should receive services and food. Human beings that
were suffering should not be used as pawns for political gains. This
had a great effect on the morale of the refugees. Also, there was a
problem of idle youth. There were 500,000 young, idle and uneducated
youth loitering in the camps. Vocational training schools were established,
the first being in Kalandia in 1953. The importance of developing skills
became clear, especially as the economy of the Middle East was to depend
on oil, and job opportunities in the Gulf that were opening up.
Between the years 1960-1965, vocational training for refugees was expanded
eight-fold. Progress in actual living conditions became evident when
tents were replaced by 16,000 housing units. Displaced refugees everywhere
need "compassion and not charity." They need empowerment to retain their
dignity as human beings. Programs like summer youth camps and activities
for the elderly helped promote community service and voluntary commitment.
Teamwork became the pattern and model of dealing with the problem in
a humane way.
This is how we dealt with the immediate human suffering, but the real
solution to the problem had to be a political one.
- Can you think of any particularly poignant stories that you came
across during your years of service?
The long suffering of the Palestinian refugee waiting for a just solution
that never came. The influx of refugees into Arab countries put an added
burden on the host countries and created dissent and friction in many
instances. One such case is the heartrending experiences in Jordan in
September 1970. The enormity of the need there brought to light the
deep bonds between the people of the West Bank camps and their kin across
the river. UNRWA ran to the assistance of the refugees in East Jordan.
All forces were rallied and provisions were trucked to the periphery
of some Jordanian camps. Households in the West Bank camps baked a batch
of bread, school-going children brought 2 hard boiled eggs to school
to be sent to feed a child in Jordan. Typically, trucks would reach
their destination with reduced loads, but if even 50% of the original
provisions were distributed, it was an achievement.
(Antranig Bakerjian recounted this next part with tears in his eyes.)
After one such truck load arrived at one camp, a woman who was being
offered bread started pulling and tearing her hair and in tears, she
screamed, "I will never taste bread again, for my son died of hunger."
This was an expression of anger and broken-heartedness at the injustices
committed by humankind.
The history of the Palestinian refugees reads like a series of calculated
political steps taken by the "powers" in order to divert attention from
their right to their land. Never once were the Palestinians given political
protection under the UN. UNRWA was never a branch of the secretariat,
which explains why attempts to show to the full the human side of the
- What from your point of view is the solution, if any? How do you foresee the future?
The Arab/Israeli conflict had its roots in 1897. Decisions made then were designed to be implemented by political schemes and the Zionists spared nothing to achieve these, aided by their allies, friends, and by some governments.
The future of the Palestinian refugee depends on:
The State of Israel correcting its historic wrongdoing by deeds of redemption toward the inhabitants they drove away from their land.
The Arab world fully accepting that a just peace with Israel is possible under international auspices - meaning the implementation of UN resolutions.
The Agoump, the Armenian Center, in 1948 after a jewish bomb
Antranig Bakerdjian, Jack Zakarian and Dikran Bakerdjian