The second story in our ‘Rhetoric and Reality’ series focuses on refugees in al Tanf camp, on the border between Syria and Iraq.
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Al Tanf refugee camp, Syria-Iraq border, December 2008
Ahmed and Fatma are both Palestinian refugees born and raised in Baghdad’s Baladiyeh neighborhood, where approximately 25,000 Palestinian refugees lived happily and peacefully until conflict erupted in 2003. Perceived as a privileged group during the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Palestinian refugees in Iraq became the target of persecution once he was deposed and have been subjected to killing, death threats, torture and inhuman treatment ever since.
After experiencing threats to their lives, killings and kidnappings of family members, both Ahmed and Fatma’s families decided to flee Baghdad and managed to relocate to Damascus. Once in Syria, the families faced further challenges. As their life-savings started to run short, they came under threat of deportation due to the policy of the Syrian Authorities which refuses entry to Palestinian refugees from Iraq based on their national identity as Palestinian refugees and non-Iraqi citizens. In mid 2007 the families of the two young Palestinian Iraqi refugees arrived in al-Tanf refugee camp, on the Syria/Iraq border.
The Tanf area is a desert region with extreme weather conditions and is isolated from any resources such as hospitals, schools and community services. The refugees living in al-Tanf are trapped between the border of Syria and Iraq, unable to enter Syria and unable to return to Iraq. The families living in the camp have, at present, been blocked at the border for over twenty months. Since 2007, UNRWA has been providing much needed education and medical services to the refugees stranded in the camp. The camp is crowded and the atmosphere desperate, but for those refugees facing deportation from Syria and unable to return to Iraq, it is the only option.
Fatma and Ahmed first met when their families were given contiguous tents on the crammed camp. "Ever since I saw her (Fatma) for the first time I knew she was the love of my life" says Ahmed.
They met casually, going around al-Tanf, getting to know their new "home"; stranded between two countries and between their longed-for past and their unknown future. Like every other refugee in al-Tanf, their hands were full of time with nothing to do but wait, without exactly knowing what they were waiting for.
The uncertainty of Ahmed and Fatma’s situation was compounded by a feeling that their lives had been put on hold. Ahmed fled Baghdad just as he had finished high school. ‘I was about to start my university studies. Given my legal status, throughout our stay in Damascus I was unable neither to work nor to study. And since arriving in al-Tanf I’m also incapable of getting on with my life.’
Despite the difficulties of their situation, it didn’t take long for the young couple to fall in love. "We were just meant to be with each other. After we realized we wanted to be together, I went with my family to talk to Fatma’s family about formalizing our engagement and they agreed. We were so happy", said Ahmed. The couple got the blessings of a local cleric, following the muslim tradition of "katb kitab" and their courtship officially started. Suddenly, for Ahmed, ‘being in al-Tanf wasn’t that bad after all.’
For six months the engaged couple enjoyed each other’s company and filled their families and the whole camp with joy. They were about to get married, complying with the second part of the "katb kitab" when Fatma’s family was selected for resettlement in Chile. Ahmed said "It was devastating, the worst day of my life. My heart is still sad just thinking about it".
The only way to go was for them to split, to call off the wedding and to go to the cleric asking to dissolve the "katb kitab". Ahmed was to stay in al-Tanf and Fatma would have to leave for Chile. The weeks they had left they spent together. They renounced their hopes of forming a family together and attempted to come to terms with their situation.
"The day on which Fatma left, I and my family spent the whole day with her. Not much was left to say, everything was clear by looking at our faces and into our eyes. It was so sad. I’ve never felt so unhappy in my life", Ahmed recalls.
By the time they had to board the car that was to take them to Damascus Airport to fly to their new life in Chile, Fatma’s family had to drag her. Ahmed tells of how ‘She was shouting, crying her heart out, and asking to be left behind. But everybody knew, even her, that that wasn’t possible. I couldn’t speak; it was as if someone had taken out my last breath away. I felt like succumbing.’
It has been seven months since Ahmed saw Fatma for the last time. Now he is ready to be resettled in Sweden, to where he is schedule to fly this week. Both Fatma and Ahmed are supposedly some of the ‘lucky ones’, refugees who have been resettled as part of the UNHCR resettlement programme. But the fact remains that as Palestine refugees, without the protection afforded by citizenship and statehood, they are the most vulnerable, the first to be targeted in a conflict and most susceptible to being torn apart from families and loved ones due to government policy.
In desperate circumstances Ahmed and Fatma found happiness, only to have it taken away once more. "It will never be the same for me, I don’t think I’ll be able to fall in love again and get to form a family as I dreamt of doing with Fatma".