Friday, October 21, 2005

Faces of Desperation

We are gathered around a campfire sharing chai (tea) and fellowship. “We” consists of nineteen Palestinian men women and children (ages one to thirteen) who have either been born in or have lived most of their lives in Iraq. “We” also consists of three CPTers, one member of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams and CPT’s translator (who is also Palestinian). We are camped at the Al Walid border crossing between Syria and Iraq and are awaiting news from the Syrian government. News of whether or not the Iraqi Palestinians, who are currently barred from entering Syria, will be granted refugee status by the United Nations, which will be recognized by the Syrian government.

But why would these people want to leave Iraq now? Iraq is now on its way to democracy. The tyrannical régime of Saddam Hussein has been gone for two and one half years. The reason is quite simple; the new Iraq government’s security forces have made Iraqi Palestinians primary targets for harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture-induced confessions to crimes they didn’t commit and in some cases death. All in the name of demonstrating how well the government’s campaign of ridding Iraq of foreign terrorists is going.

But why the Iraqi Palestinians? First they are easy to find. Most live in two large compounds in Baghdad. Second, they are defenseless. Iraqi Palestinian’s are barred from owing firearms. Third, they have no political clout. They can’t vote, own property or even own a car. Fourth, they are small in numbers. The total population in Iraq is around 23,000. Fifth, Saddam used them to promote his political prestige with Sunni Arabs in the Middle East by giving them subsidized housing, a fact that was resented by many Iraqis. They were forced out of those apartments during the first months of the U.S. led invasion.

So here we are gathered around a campfire in the desert. We spent the first night sleeping on the sidewalk at the Syrian side of the border crossing. Trucks roared by all night making sleep almost impossible. Yet several said it was the best nights sleep they had gotten in months. No sirens, no gunfire, no house raids in the middle of the night, no one being hauled away by Iraqi security forces perhaps never to be seen again.

Now into our eighth day we are living in tents provided by the UN. We are eating two meals a day in the border-crossing cafeteria thanks to the UN as well. My teammate, Shelia Provencher, and our translator have started a one-hour “school” each day for the children. As I am writing this the men are playing a game of soccer and we wait. Wait to see if the UN and Syria can reach a solution to this humanitarian crisis.

I asked one man what he would do if the UN and Syria were unable to reach a solution and they were told to return to Iraq. Would he, and his family, return? “Never”, he said, “We will either stay here or die before we return to the certain death of Iraq.” I cannot imagine the level of desperation a person must reach in order to make such a statement. And yet, I don’t need to imagine it at all. I see it one the faces of the community we are part of every day

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