By Tarra Quismundo/inquirer.net – At the most serious moment of his life, Maher Mohammed Al Raee cracked up the room as he fumbled through the oath he had waited so long to take.
“Swear to God,” he ended his oath, improvising as he followed the judge’s words “So help me God.” He spoke better Filipino than English.
His family, along with court staff members who had seen for years how much Al Raee wanted to reach this moment, suppressed their laughter, hands covering their mouths.
It was not that they were laughing at Al Raee; they were taken by the joyfulness of the occasion. For even at that solemn moment, the man of the hour was his usual self: effortlessly funny.
For Al Raee, a jovial man with an almost permanent smile on his face, the struggle through the final few polysyllabic words—“fidelity,” “Constitution,” “reservation”—did not matter. It was what the words meant.
New Filipino citizen
In that courtroom in Las Piñas City on Jan. 25, Al Raee, a Palestinian refugee who fled his war-torn country seemingly a lifetime ago, finally became a Filipino citizen.
“You are now a Filipino citizen,” Las Piñas Regional Trial Court Judge Ismael Duldulao told Al Raee as they shook hands.
The new Filipino citizen could not help hugging the judge.
“Of course, I am crying,” the barong-clad Al Raee said, as he wiped tears off his face.
“Out of happiness, of course,” he said later in an interview, speaking in the English-Filipino mix he had acquired during his 37 years in the Philippines.
Al Raee is only the seventh refugee to be granted Filipino citizenship under the Philippines’ stringent naturalization laws.
Only four refugees from Iran and two others from Palestine have been naturalized in the Philippines, according to data from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Manila.
For the 64-year-old Al Raee, who raised four children here with his Filipino wife, Raquel, it was the culmination of a painstaking seven-year legal process and nearly four decades of waiting to become a citizen of the Philippines.
“My children are all Filipino. If I have stayed 30 years in the Philippines, of course, I am happy. I really want to become a Filipino,” Al Raee said.
Leaving behind everything they owned, Al Raee and his parents and elder sister fled Gaza Strip in 1967, amid the raging Arab-Israeli war. The family first settled in Yemen.
“We wanted to go back but we were no longer allowed,” he said.
Al Raee came to the Philippines by himself in 1980 to study, arriving when the country was still under the grip of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“Because in the Philippines, education is good,” he said, explaining why he chose the Philippines.
He left briefly, then returned in 1990, securing refugee status. He never left.
“I was supposed to take my master’s but, accidentally, I had a wife, and accidentally, I had children,” he joked.
It was only in 2010 that Al Raee started his naturalization process, having belatedly learned that it was possible.
“I didn’t think about doing it because I did not know until someone tipped me about it,” he said.
In December 2010, he filed his petition for naturalization. He won a grant in August 2014, after a trial where he had to prove that he had been residing in the Philippines, had adopted local customs and had raised his children here, according to his lawyer Ferdinand Navarro.
His oath-taking on Jan. 25 was the formalization of his citizenship grant, after a two-year probation showed that he was consistently a good Philippine resident.
These days, Palestine is far from his mind: He no longer follows news about his original home. His parents, who stayed in Yemen, have long died, while his elder sister has long been living in Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t care anymore. We left our big house there, we left our land there … But for as long as my children are safe here, that’s OK with me. No need for anything else,” he said.
“For as long as I see them (his children) in front of me when I wake up in the morning, that means more than billions for me,” he added.
The children accompanied him to the proceedings. He joked with them, kissing one, putting his arms around another and then fixing the hair of his only daughter.
He proudly introduced them to most everyone the family met: the eldest, Kalid, is 23, next is Abdullah, 22, then Sabrine, the only girl, 20, and the youngest, Ibrahim, 17.
“We are close, very close. Up now, he’s my baby because he is the youngest,” he said, referring to Ibrahim.
He told the judge: “I teach them good … I give them good education. [We’re a] very good family.”
Duldulao, who called Al Raee’s oath-taking “historic,” had a piece of advice for the new Filipino citizen: “Prove that you deserve to become a Filipino citizen, of course by obeying our laws.”
Indeed, Al Raee has been a good resident and shown love for his adoptive country by his nature and not by obligation.
In 2013, he initiated relief operations on his own in Tacloban City in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan), which devastated Eastern Visayas and left more than 3,000 people dead. He had a special affinity for the region, as his wife is a native of Leyte.
“I went there three times, we took a truck and other vehicles, we were in the ferry for 24 hours … When I came there, it reeked of the dead,” Al Raee said.
“I helped because in my mind, they’re family. My family. You just help, and that will come back to you twofold,” he said.
He said he did not coordinate with relief organizations working in the region at the time. Wherever he saw people in need, he stopped and gave food and other relief items.
In 2009, he gave rice to victims of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (international name: Ketsana) in Metro Manila.
Now, like any other Filipino citizen, Al Raee can vote and apply for a Philippine passport.
“I will get a Philippine passport … I’ll bring my family to Singapore … go on a trip … for a happy family,” he said.
Also like any other Filipino, there is one thing he wishes could soon happen in the Philippines.
“First of all, the traffic. The President has already done well in cleaning up drugs and corruption. I am already happy for that,” he said.
The UNHCR underscored the import of the citizenship grant to refugees like Al Raee, as it pushed for the Philippines to allow a “facilitated naturalization” that could speed up the process for refugees and stateless people.
“It’s very significant for the UNHCR because refugees deserve to have another chance in life, and being able to acquire citizenship is a durable solution that we consider in the office,” said Maria Ermina Valdeavilla-Gallardo, assistant protection officer at the UNHCR office in Manila.
The Philippines has a long history of accepting refugees and asylum seekers, among them White Russians in the 1920s, Jewish refugees in the 1930s, the Vietnamese boat people for two decades starting in the 1970s and refugees from East Timor in 2000.
Naturalization proceedings even for refugees, however, remain a tedious undertaking, one that the UNHCR hopes will change, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which lays down guidelines on the treatment of refugees.
The Philippines is a signatory to the convention.
“In UNHCR, we have been advocating all over the world for signatory states such as the Philippines to allow facilitated naturalization. Facilitated means that refugees, as well as stateless persons, should be given an opportunity to be able to ease up the process of being able to acquire citizenship,” Gallardo said.
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