Seaside break in Syria proves too much for young Palestinians
AL TANF, Iraq-Syria Border, June 30 (UNHCR) - It seemed like a good idea. Take a group of Palestinian children to the seaside to help them escape the monotony and hardship of their lives in limbo on the arid Iraq-Syria border.
But it all proved a bit too much for most of the children taken to the Syrian city of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month from the Al Tanf camp, where they and their families have lived for months after fleeing their homes in the violence-plagued Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
The sudden freedom of movement, the cool sea breezes, the abundant food and drink and the other laughing kids showed these nine children what they were missing and what they would miss once again when they returned to Al Tanf at the end of their week's holiday.
They are among a group of more than 750 Palestinian refugees who have been stuck for up to two years in Al Tanf, unable to enter Syria and unable to go back to Baghdad. They live in a tiny strip of no man's land where they must be on the alert for snakes and scorpions and endure the terrible heat, hoping that some country will come forward and offer them resettlement.
It soon became apparent that all but one of the children given special permission by the Syrian government to go to the coast were too traumatized to appreciate and enjoy their short break from reality with other youngsters at a summer camp in Tartus.
"These kids have gone through such a hard time, and the change in environment has had an impact on them. They are closed, hurt by their lives. They are not used to interacting with the world, with so many other children," said camp superviser Feras Shihabi, who works for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The camp staff did not push the Palestinians to join in the week's activities, including swimming, dancing, singing, clown shows and daily parties. Eight of them preferred to stay inside darkened bedrooms, missing their families.
"I am here for such a short time. What is the point of enrolling in activities when I am going back to Al Tanf again?" asked Sarab, who felt that the camp gave a false sense of optimism.
Fellow refugee, Naba, said that if she joined in, it would make life that much harder when she had to go back to Al Tanf. "My life is not happy, I need to leave this summer camp right now," she said, adding: "The first day I was happy, but by the second day I was not happy. We are not adapted to this happy life and need to stay strong for our hard life."
Hussam Muktar, an Iraqi who works for the UN refugee agency as an outreach worker, said he felt the pain that the children were living through. "Al Tanf is like a prison - and no child will ever thrive in a prison. They cannot go forwards because they are not allowed into Syria or anywhere else. They cannot go backwards, because they and their families are threatened in Iraq."
In contrast, other Palestinian refugees taking part in the camp - including 24 children who live an easier life at the UNHCR-run Al Hol camp in northern Syria - made the most of their holiday, with many learning to swim in the crystal blue sea. After a few days they began avoiding their compatriots from Al Tanf, unable to relate to their anger and depression.
When Muktar visited the summer camp, some of the Al Tanf children opened up after hearing his Iraqi accent, but they were still too withdrawn to look him in the eye.
"If you look at these children, even though they are the same age as all the other children at the summer camp, their eyes, their body language tells you that they have suffered more than any child should suffer. It hurts to see the trauma in their every movement," Muktar said.
UNHCR provides assistance to Palestinian refugees in Iraq and Syria. Together with UNRWA, it has been looking for solutions for the border refugees at Al Tanf and nearby Al Waleed.
"It is clear that we need to relocate all the Palestinians that are stranded on the Iraqi border. We can meet their material needs with food, water and shelter, but the fact remains that the environment will never be suitable for human habitation," said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's deputy representative in Damascus.
UNHCR, UNRWA and the Palestinian Red Crescent care for the Palestinians in Al Tanf, while UNHCR, Islamic Relief and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) share the load in Al Waleed.
The inhabitants of the two border camps have endured fires, flooding and harsh extremes of temperature. An estimated 15,000 Palestinians remain in Baghdad, compared to some 30,000 in early 2003. They have fled to escape militia threats, kidnapping and killings. A few hundred have been resettled in third countries.
By Sybella Wilkes and Covadonga de la Campa in Al Tanf, Iraq-Syria border