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Feature: "Dreaming of return helps me survive," say Baghdad's evicted Palestinians

Feature: "Dreaming of return helps me survive," say Baghdad's evicted Palestinians

Hundreds of Palestinian refugee families evicted from their homes in the Iraqi capital are now living under UNHCR tents in a Baghdad sports centre. The UN refugee agency is working to move them to vacant government buildings as soon as possible.
25 June 2003
A young Palestinian refugee taking refuge in a tent at Haifa Sports Club in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (UNHCR) - "I have been a refugee my whole life and I have gone through many things, but this is the first time in my life that I am forced to live in a tent," says 73-year-old E'tidal Muhammad, sitting in her dust-covered tent in the Haifa Sports Club in Baghdad.

E'tidal's family is one of 800 Palestinian refugee families in Baghdad who were evicted from their homes after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Some were given a few days' notice; some were thrown out at gunpoint by their former landlords. At least another 200 families have been asked to vacate their flats, such that by the end of June, the number of displaced refugees could rise to 1,000 Palestinian families.

These Palestinians have been living as refugees in Iraq for 50 years; most of them were born and educated here. They hold jobs in the capital and feel fully integrated. Only a few are old enough to remember Palestine.

The previous government paid for their modest accommodation. But rents were low, so the landlords decided to evict the refugees the moment Saddam's regime collapsed.

E'tidal's family of 24 used to live in three rooms. "It was crowded, but at least we had a roof to protect us from the heat," she says in the 43°-Celsius heat. In July and August, temperatures will soar by another 10°C.

When these Palestinians found themselves out in the street unexpectedly, UNHCR provided some 400 tents on the premises of the Haifa Sports Club, formerly a Palestinian centre for cultural and sports activities. Some 300 families are accommodated there, while the others found refuge with relatives and friends.

UNHCR also distributed mattresses and blankets, cooking pots and other domestic items to the displaced Palestinians.

At the same time, the refugee agency has set up a bus system to transport the young Palestinians to and from school. This is because their temporary shelters are now very far from their schools and universities, and moving around Baghdad is not exactly safe. The transport service is especially crucial at a time when the students are completing their classes for the academic year.

To protect the children and the elderly from the stifling heat, UNHCR equipped rooms in the Haifa Sports Club with air conditioning. Many people spend their days inside; some of them even sleep there when the heat does not subside at night.

Other adaptations had to be made. Showers and water points are nearly finished, and a joint kitchen is under construction. A provisional electricity network provides the tents with electrical power so they can at least run ventilators. Each tent is equipped with a bucket of sand for extinguishing fire. A Palestinian clinic nearby takes care of the refugees' medical needs.

But the tented camps are only a provisional solution. UNHCR is negotiating with the Coalition Provisional Authority to find more permanent housing and work out a plan to use vacant government buildings to accommodate the evicted Palestinians.

All these efforts, however, cannot undo the trauma of becoming refugees within a society many of the Palestinians had regarded as home.

What does E'tidal hope for the future? She answers without hesitation: "I want to see the Palestinian sun before I die," adding after a short pause: "I know this is only a dream, but thinking of return helps me survive this."

By Melita H. Sunjic