April 11, 2009
AL WALEED, IRAQ — What does it feel like to raise a newborn baby in an inhospitable desert where scorpions crawl about and sandstorms threaten to bring down one’s tent?
Lubna Falah is about to find out. She will soon deliver her baby. This is not her first child, but she has never tried to raise one in a tent.
In Baghdad, Lubna had a beautiful home. That was then. Now she is left with bad dreams and repeated nightmares. Lubna is an Iraqi Palestinian, a double refugee, living in the desert close to the border with Syria. Her ancestors fled Palestine 60 years ago when Jewish forces took control of their home in Haifa, and now she is trying to flee Iraq. She is the sister of my friend Lina.
The sisters never thought they would end up in a tent. Nor did they foresee what would happen to Lina’s husband: One sunny afternoon he was taken from his home by Shiite militia, then brutally tortured and later beheaded. Then acid was poured over his head. His facial features were gone, and his family’s life in Baghdad was forever gone.
For days after that, Lina was unable to speak. She would open her mouth but not a single word would come out.
Lina was born in Baghdad, raised in Baghdad and loved Baghdad. But after the Americans invaded, Palestinians were no longer welcome in Iraq. They are seen as Saddam’s people — he gave them free housing and utilities, although he never granted them citizenship.
So Lina could not stay and could not leave. A second generation Palestinian refugee, she had no nationality and no passport.
The only thing Lubna and Lina could do was pitch a tent in the desert, far from the violence and the death threats in Baghdad (the militia threatened to give Lina’s sons the same treatment their father got), and hope that someone, somewhere, would hear about their plight.
Fortunately, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees provides the people in Al Waleed with assistance. Sadly, UNHCR does not have the capacity to resolve their situation. It cannot provide them with a nationality or homes. A political decision is needed.
Lina was among the few lucky ones who got out. After roasting for two summers and freezing for two winters in the desert, the Icelandic government offered her and 28 other women and children to resettle in Iceland. They ended up in my hometown, Akranes (they arrived 15 minutes before the economic meltdown).
Today the outlook in Iceland is gloomy, but nothing compared to that of Al Waleed. Iceland, with its tiny population of 320,000 people, is proud to have offered 29 refugees the possibility of a future free of hazards.
Lina is adapting well and learning Icelandic. But she worries about her sister and other family members left behind in the camp. She has reasons to. Despite improved security, Iraqi Palestinians still cannot return to Baghdad.
A handful of other governments have invited refugees in Al Waleed to resettle in their countries. But about 1,500 people are still stuck there. Ahead is the unbearable summer heat, which makes the tents boiling hot. Lubna’s baby will be born in one of them.
Sigridur Vidis Jonsdottir is writing a book about the Iraqi Palestinians in Iceland.