Iraq’s Palestinians Dispossessed Again

BAGHDAD – The grass has all but disappeared off what used to be the football field of the Palestinian Haifa sports club on the edge of Baghdad. After more than a year as an improvised refugee camp that at one point housed some 2,000 people, it looks sun-bleached and bent by the wind. Hardly a soul moves outside the tents during the day when the heat is most oppressive.

The camp is one of the most visible testaments to the fate of the Palestinians in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein, who was to a degree at least their benefactor and protector. Almost the moment the war was over, Iraqi landlords evicted Palestinians by the thousands. Many came here, many more found shelter with family, or left the country only to get stuck in a camp at R’weishet on the Jordanian-Iraqi border.

There is some disagreement among the refugees over the reason behind this brusque treatment by people who most had been dealing with for decades. They had not expected this from "the Iraqis, our Arab brethren who had done more for us than any other Arab country," says one refugee.

The older generation and the officials blame the artificially low rents that the government set for Palestinian refugees. The younger generation has tales of sometimes open resentment well before the U.S.-led invasion.

Saddam Hussein was the only Arab leader in recent history to attack Israel when he fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf War. He also made large payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers during the Intifada. He had set up a "Jerusalem army," ostensibly to liberate Palestine.

These policies seem to have made him more popular in the wider Arab world than at home, where many Iraqis often wondered why they should invest anything in the Palestinian cause while their own country was suffering under UN-sanctions, and needed all its meager resources.

The Palestinian population of Iraq fell to about half in the decade of the sanctions, dropping from some 75,000 before 1991 to about 35,000 now. Most left because of the worsened economic situation, say people at the Haifa club.

The 350 or so refugees still living at the camp still hardly know what has hit them. "I’m so tired," says Sabri Yunis, a 67-year old Palestinian interior designer who speaks fluent German. "I’m more tired than I’ve been all the rest of my life."

Yunis says he lived in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s where he had built a successful career, even working on the design of Berlin’s Tegel airport. Now he cannot find the energy to do up the shabby tent where he has been living over the last year with his wife and four children. The drinking water is kept in a drum still marked "poison."

Yunis was 10 at the time of the war of Israel’s founding in 1948, when many Palestinians had to flee. His family chose to leave their village near Haifa because their livelihoods were taken away, says Yunis.

He left for Germany with a group of friends when he was 18 to study, and later found work. "But I always missed the Arab culture, the food, the language, my family."

In 1975 he responded to an appeal in the German weekly Der Spiegel that called on Arabs to come and help build Iraq. The country was booming because of the hugely increased oil prices, and Saddam Hussein, who was then vice president, was building hospitals, schools and infrastructure.

The ad in Der Spiegel promised a good salary, a house and other benefits. But when Yunis got to Baghdad he did not receive any of that. "It is the decision I regret most in my life, coming here," he now says.

Even so, he found a job at a ministry, met his wife and relatively prospered until the invasion last year.

"Just a few days after the Americans entered Baghdad our landlord showed up at my door with a large group of his family members. They had arms and sticks,"recalls Yunis. The landlord simply gave him a week to get out, "or they’d kill me and my family."

Yunis says he tried to argue with the man but he finally was told that the rent was to be raised from some $30 a month to $200 a month. "I could not afford that and I did not want to endanger my family, so we left."

At the same time he also lost all the money he had invested with some Iraqi businessmen. "I came for my monthly payment and they told me they didn’t have anything for me and that they’d kill me if I showed my face again."

Yunis says he had never before noticed any kind of resentment towards Palestinians. He puts the current attitude down to the postwar climate of lawlessness and the fact that a Palestinian does not have the large family network that offers protection.

But his children do say that anti-Palestinian sentiments were noticeable before the war. "We sometimes used to be told that we should leave Iraq," recalls Hussam, 23, who studies management and business at Baghdad University.

Right after the war there was a huge surge in anti-Palestinian feeling at the university, he recalls. "Armed ethnic gangs caused a lot of trouble on the campus but now things have calmed down," he says.

At the nearby swimming pool of the Haifa sports club Iraqis and Palestinians mix freely, seemingly without any tensions. "I have been coming here for 15 years,"says Ahmed, the lifeguard. "There has never been a problem between the two groups."

In his office next to the pool Qusay Rifat al-Madhi, the director, denies that the refugee crisis can be traced back to a deeper ethnic problem. He is optimistic that most of the families will be rehoused soon, with the cooperation of the new Iraqi government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

There is one category that would still be problematic. The government will not help some families like the one of Sabri Yunis. "They did not arrive here as refugees directly from Palestine but came here to work. The government will not contribute to rehousing them," says al-Madhi.

Yunis says he has become "apathetic" and he has no strength to change his situation by himself. He appeals to international organizations such as "Red Crescent societies in the Gulf" to help his family. "All I care about is that my children finish university, I don’t care about a house any more."