January 20, 2012
|Graffiti in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria.|
Often it seems like Palestinians are faced with barriers or struck by ill fortune wherever they try to settle and build their lives anew. Take for instance some Iraqi Palestinians who fled the hell of Iraq to seek yet another refuge, this time in Syria. They much prefer living in poverty in their new home as opposed to risking the endless spiral of sectarian killing and constant threat of death they faced in Iraq.
The story began in 2003 with the US occupation of Iraq, which turned out to be a turning point not only for the Iraqis but for Palestinians living there too.
In 1948, a number of Palestinian families fled to Iraq, settling in various cities and provinces. Their population in Iraq reached about 35,000 before the US occupation.
Since 2003, these Palestinians have been forced to move a number of times as they fled Iraq’s sectarian death machine. More than 400 Palestinian families have had to leave Baghdad as a result of sectarian threats, hatred, old racist grudges, or for strictly financial reasons.
Iraqi citizens are able to enter many other countries legally in the event that they are subject to persecution, repression, and harassment. Palestinians on the other hand, have to be smuggled through the desert as they are not allowed to enter any country legally, except in rare individual cases.
Some of the Palestinians of Iraq, like countless Iraqis, fled to Syria. Palestinians who went to Syria from Iraq are divided into two groups. The first, came to Syria as Palestinian refugees and were housed in camps along the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The second, entered Syria with fake Iraqi passports that the Syrian authorities seem to have ignored.
Abu Musa is one of the earliest Palestinians to flee from Iraq to Syria, only to find his refugee status was “suspended.” He and others in his situation, are not recognized either as Iraqi or Palestinian refugees because they are not registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This is due to the fact that Saddam Hussein refused to label them as refugees, considering them “guests” and “brethren” instead.
Abu Musa told Al-Akhbar: “We asked the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for some kind of verification of our rights and legal status because the Syrian government is not concerned with us politically or organizationally. The only body that is directly responsible for us is the PLO.”
Abu Musa said he met with many Palestinian officials and leaders of several organizations as part if his efforts to explain to them the circumstances of about 3,000 Palestinians who fled Iraq. He adds however that “none of these officials have responded to our needs.”
The suffering of “Iraq’s Palestinians,” as they have been labeled, has doubled after the political crisis in Syria escalated. Merely leaving their homes to walk around or run errands could lead to them being picked up by the Syrian security forces. Once in detention, such Palestinians in Syria could remain there until their situation is explained and their reasons for violating Syrian residency laws are understood.
Abu Waad, a Palestinian who has been questioned by Syrian security, says: “When we got to Syria through al-Hasaka governorate, the Syrians gave us official al-Hasakah papers even though we did not settle there. These papers help us to move around normally, but do not grant us legal status.”
Abu Waad explains that the real problem occurs when “a policeman or a security man stops any of us. Our papers are not seen as legal. They are meaningless ink on paper, especially during this period that Syria is going through now.”
The lack of safety and security is not the only problem that the Palestinians of Iraq have to contend with. Their living conditions pose a major obstacle that is hard to overcome.
Abu Musa who is an activist in the Volunteer Committee for the Palestinians of Iraq says: “70% of the Palestinians of Iraq – out of a total of 3,000 – live in miserable conditions, whereas we used to have a decent life in Iraq.”
Another aspect to this tragedy is that rent for any room in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp is no less than 7,000 Syrian pounds (SYP) – about US$100 – especially after a wave of price hikes hit Syria.
Families in the camps have five members on average. The UNHCR gives each family SYP6,000 (US$85) per month and SYP24,000 (US$342) every four months. This means that the average family receives about of SYP12,000 (US$170) per month.
“Under these conditions, what is to become of us and our children?” wonders one refugee camp resident.
Work is another challenge for Iraqi Palestinians in Syria and is no less difficult to come by than education. Whoever is lucky enough to find work, earns half the wage of a regular worker because he does not have proper papers and is easily exploited.
To make things worse, the food and financial aid provided by the UNHCR are subject to international political conditions being favorable, according to Abu Musa. He and other Palestinians are at the mercy of politicians and international and regional events.
Palestinians even need passports and official papers after they have died, in order to be buried in the cemetery.
According to Abu Musa: “When one of our friends died, we could not get him an official death certificate from the hospital or mayor, so we smuggled him into the cemetery and buried him illegally in the very early morning to avoid being seen.”