Latest News

Palestinian refugees, once sheltered under Saddam, outcasts again

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Nearly 80,000 Palestinians live in Iraq, and since Saddam Hussein's government fell, they feel as homeless as they did before they came.

The Palestinians came to Iraq in waves, fleeing the region's numerous wars, first in 1948, when the state of Israel was created, and again in 1967, 1973 and 1991. The vast majority settled in Baghdad.

Under Saddam, Palestinians got free or subsidized housing, causing widespread resentment. As the value of the Iraqi dinar plummeted in recent years, some of them paid only $1 a month to rent apartments.

Then Baghdad fell April 9, and looting, chaos and revenge filled the sprawling city's streets. Scores of property owners evicted their Palestinian tenants, often at gunpoint.

Now the Palestinians are refugees again, this time in Baghdad.

"In general, Palestinians loved Saddam Hussein," said Dr. Mohammed Qusay, the director of the Haifa Sports Club, a Palestinian center in Baghdad's al Baladiyyat neighborhood. A photograph of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hangs in his office, and the Palestinian and Iraqi flags fly over the makeshift tent.

"Hussein believed in liberating Palestinians from Israel, and he was the only Arab leader who supported the intifadah (uprising). Now everyone is worried about their future, and some Iraqis resent Palestinians because they think that we have not suffered like they did."

More than 350 families—about 1,700 people—now live in canvas tents provided by the United Nations on a barren soccer field next to the Haifa Sports Club. The walls of each tent are stacked high with clothes, cooking pots and blankets, and the floors are covered with rugs. Children play in the dirt between the tents, and in the evenings the elders sit on their front "porches" and talk about what the future may bring.

"It is the same situation as in 1948. We got kicked out of our houses again. History always returns," said Itedal Mohammed, 75, as she sat on a white plastic chair outside her tent, gossiping with the neighbors. Most families in the camp have known each other for decades, and many were born in the handful of villages near Haifa, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv.

"Our houses were owned by the government, and then the government collapsed," Mohammed said. "This is our destiny: to be refugees."

Some Palestinians were so worried about being killed that they tried to leave Iraq. Some 600 fled Baghdad in late April, only to find themselves stuck in the desolate stretch of desert near the Jordanian border: Without passports, they cannot cross into Jordan.

Many have special identity papers issued by Saddam's regime, but they didn't include exit visas or the ability to leave the country. Humanitarian groups have set up another camp in al Ruweished, the last town before the Jordanian border.

"The lack of security endangers everyone in Iraq, but refugees and other foreigners are especially vulnerable," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. He said Iranian Kurds, Sudanese and Somali nationals in Iraq also had suffered in the postwar chaos and reprisals. "Now these people find themselves refugees once again, without a lasting solution in sight."

As Iraqi insurgents mount a guerrilla war against American-led coalition forces and the country struggles with soaring unemployment and rampant crime, many Palestinians here feel more insecure. Though some have lived here for decades, most are desperate to go to the Palestinian territories, where they feel they would be safe.

"I love the tea in Iraq, but I miss our food. In Palestine we have the best olives in the world!" said Mohammed, who said she would walk to Haifa, where she was born, with nothing but the clothes on her back if she could. "I miss everything, but most of all the sea. When I watch the satellite and see the Mediterranean Sea, I begin to cry. But no country will welcome us. We have Iraqi documents but no passports."

The United Nations is working with the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority to find new housing for the Palestinian families, probably in former Baath Party apartments.

Rasmiya Alsayd, 54, came to Baghdad in 1948. She left her apartment in April when men showed up with guns. For nearly three months, she has lived in a tent with her sister, their children and their mother. Their mother has breast cancer and cries in pain constantly.

"Saddam, he was good to Palestinians," Alsayd said, as she chopped vegetables to make soup. "He left a big hole. There was peace. If he was here we would stay in our homes."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+PALESTINIANS