Palestinian party finally arrive after visa trouble

The Palestinian group from Shatila preparing drawings for panels that are going to be produced and displayed before they leave.
The Palestinian group from Shatila preparing drawings for panels that are going to be produced and displayed before they leave.

A GROUP of children from a Palestinian refugee camp have finally arrived in North Tyneside after a catalogue of issues put the annual visit under threat.

We reported last week how the visa applications of the ten 12 and 13-year-olds were rejected by the British Embassy in Beirut just days before they were due to fly out.

The group is part of Peter Mortimer’s Shatila Theatre Trust, founded after the Cullercoats-based writer spent three months living in the Shatila camp researching a book.

Last Thursday they thought they had been granted an eleventh hour reprieve after Tynemouth MP and former Home Office minister Alan Campbell stepped in to help.

Mr Campbell contacted the embassy and the group’s visa applications were reviewed and approved.

However, the joy was short-lived and the youngsters were told their visas would only be valid from Monday this week – the day after their flights, which cost £9,000 in total.

With the Olympics under way it was feared new flights may not be available, but the children were able to fly out on Tuesday, but only after the trust paid a £1,500 re-booking fee.

The youngsters arrived in the early hours of yesterday morning, two days later than planned, after their visas finally came through with just an hour to spare.

Mr Mortimer said: “It wasn’t something we had budgeted for and I feel very angry because it’s not our fault, it’s the British Embassy and the Border Agency, but it’s us that had to pay.

“I will take this up when this is over, we don’t have this kind of money, we are a charity.”

Palestinian art teacher Mariam Najem, who is accompanying the group along with two colleagues, spoke to the News Guardian as the children took part in an art project in Whitley Bay just hours after their arrival.

She said: “We have never had problems with visas before, we didn’t expect it, and there was no time to apply again.

“When we finally got them it was very difficult to find flights, we had to be at the airport at 2pm and we only found out we had got the last seat at noon, so we just had to get ready and go.

“We are very happy to be here now.”

Mr Campbell, also a patron of the trust, said last week: “Once Peter Mortimer had got in touch on Tuesday, we contacted the embassy.

“They agreed to review the applications and we stayed in contact with them.

“They have now agreed to give them single entry visas, as opposed to six month visas, which will cover the ten days.

“I know the original decision has caused uncertainty, but embassy staff have been fantastic.

“My office, and Peter through my office, worked closely with them and once they realised what had happened they were fantastic.”

Yesterday afternoon the youngsters were looking forward to watching Brazil take on New Zealand in the Olympics at St James’ Park.

During the visit they are working on pieces of art, which will be displayed in the form of panels at Tynemouth Station.

Their work will be unveiled during a ceremony at 6pm, on Tuesday, before they fly home the following day.