CAIRO, Egypt —Hundreds of Palestinian refugees who've been forced out of their homes in Iraq are stranded in a remote stretch of the Syrian desert, where they're living in tents that offer little shelter against blinding sandstorms and the biting cold of winter nights, according to humanitarian aid workers and refugees.
Syrian authorities have barred the Palestinians from leaving the Tanaf refugee camp near the border with Iraq. Journalists aren't allowed to visit.
But United Nations officials and camp residents reached by phone described deteriorating health conditions, with an increase in illnesses related to contaminated water and skin afflictions caused by unhygienic conditions. Many children have lice, the Palestinians said, and the elderly suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure. They survive solely through handouts from the U.N. and Arab humanitarian groups.
"We die a thousand times a day," said Wafaa Mazhar, 37, a mother of five who said that her 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia six months ago at Tanaf. "We Palestinians are leading miserable lives. We're helpless, and no one feels our pain."
The fate of the 500 or so Palestinians at the Tanaf camp has been largely overlooked as governments and humanitarian groups focus on the 2.5 million Iraqi refugees who've flocked to urban hubs in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Across from Tanaf, on the Iraqi side of the border, 1,900 Palestinians from Baghdad live in the squalid Walid camp, aid workers said.
The refugees' future is complicated by their status during the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Many have known no home outside Baghdad — they're the offspring of parents who settled in Iraq in 1948 after being driven from Haifa as when Israel became an independent nation. In Iraq, Saddam promised them free housing and education in a bid to promote himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. The refugees said that the dictator's promises rarely materialized and that they were never granted Iraqi citizenship.
Still, the widespread belief that the Palestinians, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, received more privileges than Iraqis did draw resentment. Many were forced from their homes in Baghdad's Baladiyat and Hurriyah neighborhoods by Shiite militias, which branded them "terrorists" and accused them of aiding the Sunni insurgency. They fear they'll be killed if they return to Baghdad.
"They can't go backward or forward. Although their material needs are being met, nothing prepared them for no-man's land," said Sybella Wilkes, the U.N.'s Damascus, Syria-based spokeswoman on refugee issues. Officials are studying resettlement possibilities in Sudan and Chile, she said.
The U.N. refugee agency says more than 21,000 of the estimated 34,000 Palestinians who once lived in Iraq have fled.
Of those, 437 refugees live at Tanaf, the latest U.N. report says. Camp residents said the number swelled to 593 after Syrian officials sent them 90 more Palestinians who were caught in Damascus with forged identity documents.
U.N. officials are reluctant to speak publicly about Syria's refusal to accept more Palestinians because of the sensitivity it raises for a government that steadfastly promotes the Palestinian cause. Syria already is home to more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees and has received an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Syrian officials weren't available for comment.
Winter is particularly dangerous for the Tanaf residents. Their flimsy tents don't ward off the desert chill, and the Palestinians are scared to use donated heaters because of the risk of fire. In October, a fire burned down 53 tents and injured 25 people, according to a U.N. report.
Humanitarian groups supply the families with food rations, daily water canisters, clothing and gas heaters. The U.N. built a small school for the children and hired teachers from the camp. A Red Crescent team is on hand to attend to medical emergencies.
But there's no antidote for the crushing tedium of confinement in the desert, especially for an educated community that enjoyed middle-class lives in the old Iraq.
"Even if you build me a palace in the desert, it's still not living," said Mohamed Khedr, 44.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)