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1967: Abandoned and rejected

By Ahmad Shaheen | Guardian: Comment Is Free

I was born in a tent and I’m living in a tent, but I hope I won’t die in a tent.

I’m a middle-aged journalist and a human rights advocate. My children are grown up and college educated – three of them married with children. I’m far from them though, living with my partner in a desert refugee camp on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Through friends I managed to get word to my brother to phone me on a borrowed mobile, from a shop in our refugee camp in Gaza last week. I was describing my situation and he told me “you born in a tent and you will die in one”. I don’t know if his prediction will come true. So far I’ve been in Tanaf refugee camp for eight months and have still not received asylum from any state. Hundreds of Palestinian refugees are currently in the same situation, along Iraq’s western borders, living in tents.

I fled Baghdad eight months ago. Palestinian life there had become unbearable and incredibly dangerous. After the arrival of Anglo-American troops, we refugees were stripped of all rights, denied the renewal of refugee travel documents that had been customarily issued to us since the days of the monarchy.

Paperless and unable to leave, we were targeted by the death squads as an unprotected minority, and then a collective execution fatwa was issued against our entire community, some 40,000 strong who have been in Iraq since 1948.

Many of my friends were killed in perverse and cruel ways. My neighbour, Abu Adel, was murdered while trying to pick up the body of his son from the morgue. Others were killed by militia having their heads drilled with electric tools. I had previously tried to leave Iraq, spending 14 months at the Ruwaished camp on the Jordanian border, only to be refused entry.

Upon my return to Baghdad, I found that things had got far worse. One afternoon, the interior ministry’s Saqer force arrested me at a café, along with my 76-year-old neighbour, for the crime of sipping tea while being a Palestinian. Taken to an American-run interrogation centre, we saw young men blindfolded and tied, while others were hanging from the ceiling. Fortunately, the debacle ended after the ranking American officer took pity on my elderly friend and ordered our release. We were thereafter thrown in the street while curfew was on, lucky not to have been shot. This incident, along with a phone call ordering me to evacuate my house, convinced me of the need to leave at whatever cost. Nowadays, a tent shields me from the strong dust-storms of the Khamseen wind, while my house in Baghdad has been converted into a local militia office.

My first displacement occurred in the aftermath of what we call the setback, the naksah, of 1967. I was a 15-year-old teenager when the Israeli occupying forces entered Gaza, their megaphones blasting the order for all males between the ages of 15 and 60 to congregate in designated local schools. A vast campaign of random arrests began, and my family feared I would face the fate of other neighborhood youth and told me to escape. Through the desert and across the river, I fled the occupation to Jordan, separated from my family for ever; up until this day never allowed to return. I joined the ranks of the 400,000 displaced (naziheen), almost half of whom had already been refugees since 1948.

Here I am; six displacements later and four decades into my life. I am not that old, but I feel really tired. Stressed out by the last war, I now have diabetes along with high blood pressure. Everyone around me has been through hard times though, and we all share in the daily struggle for survival. The camp is overcrowded, intolerably hot in the morning and incredibly cold during winter nights, extremely flammable (only last month there was a terrible fire that destroyed some of the camp), and lacks most medical and social services. Nevertheless, a UN water truck arrives every other day and rations are distributed monthly (although they are not ideal for diabetics, consisting mainly of flour and sugar). Palestinian refugee volunteers from Syria also come to support us, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society currently provides me with insulin.

Somehow, incredibly, we are still alive, but we are frozen in time, isolated and abandoned by the governments of the world. I am not a refugee by choice and I will hold forever to the right of return to my home. Nevertheless, until I am able to exercise that right, I want to live in safety and dignity somewhere, anywhere, away from the wretchedness of this desert and the carnage of Iraq. Yes, I was born in a tent but I certainly hope I don’t die in one.

Ahmad Shaheen (Abu Fadi) is a Palestinian refugee from the village of Al-Qubayba near Al Ramleh. In 1948 his family was forced out to Gaza. Since 1967, he has been displaced six times. Before moving to the Tanaf refugee camp on the on the Iraqi-Syrian border, he was a Baghdad based journalist and human rights activist.