Palestinians Lose a Shelter in Iraq
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
There are about 30,000 Palestinians currently living in Iraq according to the U.N., refugees or their descendants from past Middle East wars. Support for the Palestinian cause was a pillar of Saddam Hussein's regime and the refugees had greater privileges than most Iraqis. But their system of supports has disappeared since Saddam Hussein was removed from power and now many want to leave Iraq, but cannot, as NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.
JAMIE TARABAY: Nidal Mohammad(ph) turns over falafels frying in a deep pan filled with oil. He sells sandwiches of the fried folds of mashed chickpeas, just like his father did, in his mainly Palestinian neighborhood in Baghdad. The buildings here have names like Freedom and Solidarity, expressions of support for the Palestinian cause. Mohammad(ph) says he and other Palestinians here have never paid rent.
NIDAL MOHAMMAD: (Through Translator) Never. Not a single penny, because it was all granted by the government, and we still pay nothing.
TARABAY: Saddam's patronage of the Palestinians meant not paying for education or health services, either. Residents' permits were renewed without question, and there are other benefits, Mohammad says.
MOHAMMAD: (Through Translator) Whenever we were stopped by a policeman, although that was very rare, the moment he checked our I.D. cards and saw we were Palestinian, he would just say, welcome, and let us go. That pleased us a lot.
TARABAY: Saddam gave to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, too, donating millions of dollars to the families of those killed in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, including suicide bombers. But all that support disappeared when the regime fell. In Iraq, landlords who'd been obliged to let Palestinians live rent-free suddenly demanded their apartments back.
MOHAMMAD: (Through Translator) The Iraqis started attacking from all directions saying, get out of the apartments. We were worried about the people, themselves, that they would storm our houses and kill us.
TARABAY: Hundreds of Palestinians were forced to take refuge in a Baghdad football stadium, living in tents provided by the U.N. Others gravitated to Palestinian-dominated neighborhoods, like Nidal Mohammad's. Mohammad says Iraqi's largely blame foreigners for the suicide bombings that have killed so many here, and that's made the Palestinians suspect. Thousands have fled to the Jordanian and Syrian borders seeking asylum. They're often forced to wait in makeshift camps, in unsanitary conditions. Last week, Damascus agreed to admit 181 Palestinian refugees, who'd waited at the border for over a month.
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TARABAY: Also waiting to leave is 21yearold Zana Sharik(ph). She and her mother are hoping to join the rest of her family in Jordan. Meanwhile, she's left her comfortable home in the upscale district of Monsour to escape harassment. Zana says her Iraqi friends have turned away from her so she spends most of her time alone, surfing the Internet.
ZANA SHARIK: (Through Translator) Most of the time, I'm in a Jordanian chat room and chat with other Palestinians and Jordanians. When I tell them I live in Iraq, they chat with me. But some Iraqis refuse to talk to a Palestinian girl.
TARABAY: Zana's dropped out of college in Baghdad. Tuition used to be free for Palestinians, but no more. And now other students call her a terrorist. She wishes things would go back to the way they were when Saddam was in charge.
SHARIK: (Through Translator) We always thought Saddam was special. He treated us very kindly. But the problem is that he's gone now. I wish he would come back.
TARABAY: It's the sort of speech that riles Iraqi medical student Hassan Aladdin(ph), who remembers how his Palestinian university friends would show off their new cars when other students couldn't even afford used ones.
HASSAN ALADDIN: (Through Translator) You could feel they felt they were superior to us. Actually, as if Iraq was their country and we Iraqis were the guests.
TARABAY: Aladdin remembers the biggest houses in his neighborhood belonged to Palestinians. He remembers friends passed over for college entry while less talented Palestinians cruised through. He thinks those who've left should have their homes confiscated by the government, but he doesn't agree with those who blame the Palestinians for terrorists attacks here.
ALADDIN: Palestinians who were living in Iraq before the war have nothing to do with terrorism. Many of those Arabs who live here believe they're more Iraqi than Palestinian or Jordanian.
TARABAY: That may bring some relief to Palestinians like Nidal Mohammed, but most see no future in post Saddam Iraq. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.