Palestinian 'Survivors' in No-Man's Land

Banished from Iraq and barred from its neighbours, Palestinian refugees languish along Syrian frontier.

Palestinian 'Survivors' in No-Man's Land

Banished from Iraq and barred from its neighbours, Palestinian refugees languish along Syrian frontier.

The temperature in our tents rises with the sun every morning and plummets at dusk. The days are blazing hot, the nights are freezing cold and time feels like a dead weight in the desert.

We have to be creative to defeat boredom otherwise every moment becomes a burden. Children go to the makeshift school. Husbands help their wives with the endless task of cleaning or repairing the tents.

At sunset, we play backgammon or chess. We also have regular football tournaments, with 10 teams competing for a prize of 500 Syrian lira – roughly ten US dollars.

There are about 850 people at the Al-Tanf camp - all Palestinians who once lived in Iraq. We settled there during the time of Saddam Hussein and were treated as honorary citizens, with free education, healthcare and food rations.

After the United States-led invasion, Shia militias accused us of collaborating with the former regime. As the threats and attacks mounted, thousands of Palestinians fled.

But unlike other refugees from Iraq, we were not welcome in neighbouring countries. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon already have large Palestinian populations and regard more such refugees as a threat to their stability.

So we ended up here, in the no-man’s land on the border between Iraq and Syria. The conditions are horrendous. The local doctors are all Palestinians – they do not have the skills or the equipment to treat serious problems. We get basic relief and food rations from the Syrian Red Crescent Commission and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR.

We survive on aid and on remittances sent by relatives abroad. Food, cigarettes and other goods are also smuggled into the camp by bootleggers. Everyone is addicted to smoking here – it is one of the few forms of entertainment.

Fire is one of the biggest hazards. We have had several big blazes recently. A pregnant woman was killed in one of them. There are plenty of potential causes - from electrical cables to generators or cooking equipment. Our tents are made from very flammable material – they can burn down completely in 20 seconds.

We dread most the fires that break out at night, in the hours between three and six when everyone is asleep. As a precaution, the head of each family usually sleeps with a knife under his pillow. In the event of a fire, he will cut a hole in the tent and evacuate his family.

A typical Palestinian builds his life on contradictions. At Al-Tanf, along with the fires and the knives, we have romance and cell-phones.

Young couples depend on the phones to communicate with each other as there is no way for them to meet in private. Our elders forbid them from mingling before marriage. Since 2006, there have been 35 marriages and 57 births inside the camp.

The families are not wealthy and a typical dowry costs 1,500 dollars. The Palestinian Hamas group gives all newly married couples a gift of 1,000 dollars, which helps somewhat, especially given the high unemployment here.

The few jobs available are limited to distributing food and water and collecting garbage.

We are survivors. The water we use for washing irrigates our plants. Each family has a vegetable garden, close to where it cleans its clothes and dishes.

I studied computer science back in the 1990s and now I look after information technology in the camp. I fix laptops and install software on mobile phones that helps young people chat to each other cheaply.

My family moved to Iraq from the West Bank in the early 1990s. We had a tailor’s store in Baghdad’s Al-Jadida neighbourhood. In November 2006, we found a note on the door saying everyone who worked there would be killed within 24 hours.

For the next three weeks, we stayed indoors. We decided to leave the country when a friend called us at 3 am, saying some men in police uniform had arrived at our shop searching for Palestinians.

We do not have passports and our travel documents are not recognised by Syria. The only way we could enter Syria was by applying for a visa to India, which allowed us to transit through Damascus.

We immediately went into hiding after crossing the border. My father died while we were there. He was buried under a false name in order to protect our family’s identity. But the Syrian authorities eventually found out about us and in early 2008, we were deported to Al-Tanf.

I am 32 years old now and I would like to be resettled somewhere that recognises us as citizens. I was born in one country, I grew up in another country and now I live between two countries. I am nobody – a zero in the Arab nation.

Abu Mohammed is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trainee living inside Al-Tanf camp.
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