Like many Palestinians around the world, the Palestinian refugees relocated here from Iraq are literally citizens of nowhere. Despite having been born and raised in Iraq, they were never given Iraqi citizenship. The tales of these refugees are but a glimpse of what it means to be stateless in a world that only recognizes rights based on artificial concepts such as borders and nationalities. Those without the luxury of citizenship have few rights and are generally subject to more persecution.
For example, one woman from the Al Waleed refugee camp lost her husband in Baghdad for no reason other than his being Palestinian. One day, some men appeared at her door and stated that their car had broken down and asked her husband, a mechanic, to fix it. She knew something wasn’t right and begged her husband not to go but he went anyway because he believed the strangers needed his help. The next time she saw him was to identify his body. She only recognized him because of the shirt he was wearing. Having been burned and tortured by his captors, he was otherwise unidentifiable. After the murder of her husband, she decided to leave Baghdad where Palestinians were becoming increasingly unwelcome.
The Assad family, now relocated to Chicago, was more fortunate. Even though they lived in relative comfort in Baghdad prior to 2003, life became progressively more dangerous after the U.S. led war. Mrs. Assad and her oldest son were caught in a market place once when a bomb exploded killing and injuring innocent bystanders. They were lucky to escape with their lives. At one point, they also started receiving death threats. Having seen and heard about the atrocities against Palestinians, they took the threats very seriously. They decided to leave their home in Baghdad and went to stay at the Al Waleed refugee camp, where they were stranded for three years.
They applied for residency in both Syria and Jordan but were rejected. The future seemed bleak and many Palestinians believed that they would be stuck at Al Waleed forever. Mrs. Assad described the Al Waleed refugee camp as unlivable. Water was scarce and filthy, they relied on other countries to donate food and they were forced to live in a tent with their four young children, until their relocation two months ago. The living conditions at Al Waleed left a permanent imprint on everyone including the children.
Even their spirited five year old, Aya, giggled when told she had a cute little nose. She responded in Arabic saying that her nose use to be dirty and moldy when she lived in the camp but that now it was clean. Despite most of her memories being from a refugee camp, she still has a sense of humor and is afraid of nothing. She laughed and played like a child but it was clear that she knew what living in the refugee camp meant.
One of the most catastrophic issues at the camp was fire. The tents were paper thin and highly flammable. There was no water with which to fight the fires and no fire department to call for help. Hence, when a fire erupted, the only hope was to get out of the way and throw sand at the blaze to extinguish it. Fires would instantly torch entire rows of tents as most stood by helpless, watching their makeshift homes go up in flames. Mr. Assad had video footage of one fire that burned through a row of tents trapping and killing a young boy they knew at the camp.
The Assad family was brought here with a stipend of less than $500.00 and given a temporary sponsor. By the end of the four to six month sponsorship period, they have to adjust to a new country, learn English, find employment and find a way to support a family of six. Mr. and Mrs. Assad are scrambling to find jobs, a tall order in this economy where many with doctorates have struggled for work. Three of their young children are in school and all are striving to learn English. Despite their harrowing experiences and having nothing to speak of, their attitudes are amazingly positive and their spirit is unbreakable.
The names of the people in this article have been changed to protect their identity. Anyone who would like to help can donate by going to this link.