In the no-man's-land on the Iraqi-Syrian border, sandwiched between a heavily traveled highway and a 20-foot-high concrete wall, 780 stateless Palestinians endure harsh conditions in al-Tanf Camp, which Joel Charny of Refugees International calls one of the "top five worst" refugee camps in the world. Returning from an international delegation to al-Tanf, Charny describes what he saw in a post on the Refugees International website, describing the mix of frustration, hope, and even humor expressed in a skit staged by the camp's children. Full text below:
Al Tanf camp for Palestinian refugees from Iraq has to be in the top five of worst situated refugee camps in the world. It violates every principle of proper camp siting. In the no man's land between Syria and Iraq, it is within the border zone itself. It is completely exposed on one side to a highway, where trucks alternately speed by or sit idle for hours at a time waiting to make the border crossing. A 20-foot high concrete wall forms a second boundary. The site itself is in a culvert about 10 feet below the highway, making it a flood plain when it rains heavily. Refugees live in tents in the exposed area, forced to endure summer temperatures that climb well over 100 degrees and winter weather that drops near zero. Last winter, tents collapsed under a heavy snow fall.
The only good thing to say about Al Tanf is that it is small --- about 780 people endure life there. They are all Palestinians who fled targeted violence and death threats in Iraq, only to be denied entry to Syria and Jordan. The rationale for the denial is perverse, having to do with lack of travel documents, reluctance to encourage further in-migration of Palestinians, and strict, but empty, rhetorical adherence to the right of return. Most of the Palestinians in Al Tanf are descendants of the original Palestinian community in Baghdad, some 5,000 people who were brought to Iraq in 1948 after they were expelled from their homes during the conflict that erupted from Israel's founding.
I went to Al Tanf as part of an international NGO delegation of 18 people from eight countries. We visited the three camps for Iraqi Palestinians to highlight their plight and the need for them to be resettled out of their precarious situation and into permanent homes as rapidly as possible.
The camp is normally about a three-hour drive from Damascus, but we were held up by traffic near the border area, and by the formalities of getting Syrian immigration approval to move into the zone between Syria and Iraq. The camp committee was anxiously awaiting our arrival, as they were prepared to offer a formal welcome befitting such a grand and important visit. We entered the school compound through two rows of children, received candy from a small girl dressed in pink, and were escorted into a vacated classroom for a meeting with the camp committee.
After the meeting, we sat in plastic chairs in the open cement school compound for a cultural performance by the children. The songs and the dance performances were impressive, but what took it to another level was the skit. A boy, about 12 years old, donned a UNHCR blue baseball cap and sat at a desk, looking important. Other kids marched up to him and spoke in animated voices, while he broke off periodically and spoke on his cell phone. Even without my understanding Arabic, it was clear that he was the beleaguered HCR staff person dealing with the complaints of the camp residents. The remainder of the skit was harder for me to follow, but everyone who understood was laughing, first and foremost the brilliant UNHCR protection officer who lives at the camp.
Later I got the explanation. In the latter part of the skit, Martians visit the camp and remark on the mess that human beings have made of Earth. The camp residents are so despairing that they propose resettling to Mars. UNHCR checks out the planet, determines that it is OK, and all ends happily with the children being whisked off to Mars where they will at last have a place to live in peace and security.
What was brilliant about the skit --- obvious even to a non-Arabic speaker --- was the spirit of the children, their intelligence, and their willingness to mock everyone. They got in a few digs at UNHCR for being callous, but also their own parents for constantly complaining. As for the "international community"? Well, what can you say when the best, most apparent solution to the woes of the Iraqi Palestinians is to abandon Earth altogether and head for the red planet? They are beyond despair.
We spent the rest of the day walking through the camp and listening to stories of deaths and threats and torture and loss of all possessions. These people sit in a camp waiting for a solution that appears remote. It should have been depressing, but it wasn't. The children told us loudly and firmly that they will not be denied. They will get out of Al Tanf and they will live better lives. It's our task now to make sure that happens.
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