Palestinians Among Refugees from Iraq War

An estimate 2 million people have fled Iraq since the start of the war. Among them are thousands of Palestinians. At a refugee camp in eastern Jordan, Palestinian refugees find themselves seeking asylum again.

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U.N. officials estimate that at least two million Iraqis have fled the country over the past four years. Most have gone to neighboring Syria and Jordan. Some 25 to 30,000 Palestinians lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. They, too, are fleeing the violence. And these refugees are also not finding asylum. About a thousand of them are stuck at camps near the Syrian and Jordanian borders.

Kristen Gillespie visits one of these desert camps.

(Soundbite of wind)

KRISTEN GILLESPIE: In the middle of the hard, rocky desert in eastern Jordan sits a group of flimsy tents that flaps around in the strong wind. The tents are reinforced with plastic sheets and military-style blankets. Inside one tent, the smell of a small gas heater fills a space that's dark and stuffy even in the middle of the day. This tent is home to Umer Sul(ph), her husband and two small children. They're Palestinians. And like others in this camp, they say they were threatened by Iraqi Shiite militiamen in Baghdad within days of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April of 2003.

When her brother was killed, Umer Sul and her family packed up and fled the city. They ended up in this tent, 50 miles from the Jordan/Iraq border. They've been here ever since.

Ms. UMER SUL: (Through Translator) (Unintelligible) comes and goes with the wind and sandstorms. None of us can take it anymore. We don't have walls around us to protect us from this life. We can't do it.

GILLESPIE: The camp was set up by the U.N. Refugee Agency in the weeks before the war began. Designed as provisional shelter for refugees, the tents are held together with metal frames. There are virtually no other amenities, and there's very little for the refugees to do day in and day out.

Ms. SUL: (Through Translator) We've started to get really bored here. There are people here who have stopped leaving their tents out of boredom. They're mentally tired of being here. Even a prisoner knows how long his sentence will be.

GILLESPIE: But Umer Sul says life in the camp is better than Baghdad, where Palestinians are increasingly targeted by Shiite militias. One reason is that Palestinians received subsidies and other favors from Saddam Hussein's government. That bred resentment, particularly among Iraqi Shiites, who were frequently persecuted by the former regime. Though she lived her entire life in Iraq, Umer Sul and her family can't go back any time soon, if ever. Iraq won't take them back and no other country has offered to take her and the nearly 100 Palestinians still left in this camp. Syria and Jordan combined have absorbed about two million Iraqi refugees, but neither country will accept these Palestinians.

(Soundbite of wind)

GILLESPIE: Umer Sul's son, Maan, was born in the camp and he has no identity papers. Like the others here whose residency documents are no longer valid, Maan at age three is stateless.

Ms. SUL: (Through Translator) All our lives we've been refugees. My family fled, we fled. My family stayed in tents. Now we're staying in tents. They saw war. We see war.

GILLESPIE: Robert Breen is the U.N. HCR representative in Amman. He says that as time goes by, the situation is becoming more dire.

Mr. ROBERT BREEN (Representative, UNHCR, Jordan): Four years in the desert in this location is more than anybody should have to endure. I think it's affected both their physical health, their psychological health, the education of their children, the ability to be able to function in any society. The longer they stay there, the more disadvantaged and dysfunctional they become.

GILLESPIE: But Umer Sul remains optimistic, certain, she says, that the future will be better than the past and the present. It's that hope, she says, that keeps her depression at bay, sustains her, and allows her to tell her children to hang on a little bit longer.

Ms. SUL: (Through Translator) We fled a war, we fled the fall of a regime and the destruction that came with it. Looting, pillaging, this is why we left. We hope to go somewhere and settle down and live our lives as a family, as people.

GILLESPIE: For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie in Ruwaished, Jordan.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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