How a Palestinian refugee is enjoying new freedoms as a Spaniard after unearthing Jewish heritage

Heba Nabil Iskandarani was born in Dubai but gaining the passport of an EU country has opened doors

Heba Nabil Iskandarani. Courtesy Heba Nabil Iskandarani
Powered by automated translation

She is a student in Britain born in Dubai to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother. But it is her secret Jewish heritage that has made her eligible for a Spanish passport and opened up a world of possibilities.

Dubai resident Heba Nabil Iskandarani, 26, was classed as stateless and had a Lebanese travel document that defined her as a Palestinian refugee, but after searching family’s ancestral tree a new branch has emerged.

Her family are Muslims but further back in her lineage she found Jewish heritage that opened doors to a new Spanish passport.

She told The National how that new passport has changed her life – for example, she can now visit Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, where her grandfather was born.

“Words cannot describe what it means to have a Spanish passport,” she said. “Honestly, I am beyond blessed today for finally being a citizen and now have basic human rights to be accepted in society as an equal individual, rather than always being oppressed or looked down upon for being less.

“I was always without an identity and now I have one. I can proudly call myself Spanish.”

In 2015, Spain introduced a law that gave descendants of Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain in 1492, the chance to apply for citizenship.

She had found that many Iskandaranis are part of a sizeable Jewish population, and she found an identity document for her grandfather’s mother in the name of Djerbi – a common name among Sephardic Jews from the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Ms Iskandarani, who studied at Birmingham City University, in England, also underwent a DNA test which showed she had both North African and Iberian ancestry.

“The Spanish government created a law in 2015 to fix their wrongdoing of 1492. During the the monarchy of Queen Isabel of Castile she signed a bill to exile and prosecute all Jewish people from the lands of Spain if they did not convert to Catholicism,” Ms Iskandarani said.

The family’s forgotten history began unfolding with online searches of Sephardic names and the help of a Spanish lawyer.

“I began asking my family in Beirut and building up a family tree and found documents that support my claim, and then I hired a lawyer who hired a researcher who specialises in Sephardic ancestry, and his strong knowledge of the surnames being of Spanish Jewish origins, so he helped me search,” she said.

“He drafted a 167-page document proving my ancestry back to people who lived in Spain in 1492. In order to receive Spanish citizenship, we applied for a certificate to validate my Jewish origin from a Jewish federation in Spain that analyses your documents and approves them.”

With her family’s complicated past now becoming clearer, Ms Iskandarani has many more choices.

“I can do anything I want,” she said. “I can work wherever I want. I had so many obstacles with my refugee document, though I’ve lived a good life in Dubai and am forever grateful to the UAE, the only country that treated me like an equal for giving me a home since, the day I was born here, but there was something missing in me, which was an identity.

“I have been refused job positions. It’s the first time I feel like I am free, and no longer restricted because of something that was forced upon me. I was the collateral damage. And no one cared, but now I have the right to choose, to travel and not face issues while entering other countries,” she said.

The extended family history came as a surprise to some relatives but others also remembered having great-uncles with traditionally Jewish names such as Jacob and Ruben.