In Iraq, ISIS Chases Palestinians From One Refugee Camp to the Next

Commemorating the Nakba from yet another tent, Palestinians in Iraq find themselves craving a normal life they fear they will never know.

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Hudda Awad's family tent in Iraq is adorned with Palestinian flags and keffiyah. Awad will commemorate this year's Nakba from her fifth refugee camp.
Hudda Awad's family tent in Iraq is adorned with Palestinian flags and keffiyah. Awad will commemorate this year's Nakba from her fifth refugee camp.Credit: Abed al Qaisi

BAHARKA CAMP, Iraq – Ayhab Aldadeedi has never seen his homeland with his own eyes, he laments. He was born in Iraq, decades after his Palestinian mother and father fled Haifa as children in 1948 upon the creation of the State of Israel and the violence that erupted with it — an event referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic. While he’s never set foot on Palestinian soil, he carries a Palestinian passport, and since his birth he’s been considered a refugee in Iraq.

Today, Aldadeedi, 26, says his current home, a small plastic tent in Baharka Internally Displaced Persons camp, finally matches his lifelong refugee status.

Aldadeedi, like the 18 other Palestinian refugee families in Baharka IDP camp, lives in a small cramped tent near the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. Aldadeedi was living in Mosul when militants from Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — took over last July. He, his wife and their young daughters immediately fled. First they ran to Khazir camp, a sprawling desert tented city between Mosul and Erbil. However, within months ISIS had advanced further, overrunning the camp and causing panic. Now, nearly a year on, Aldadeedi speaks to Haaretz from his second tent in less than a year.

In discussing the Nakba – which Palestinians commemorate this Friday, on the annual Nakba Day — Aldadeedi responds quickly with, “Which one?” His life has been a string of catastrophes, he says. His young daughter is destined to have the same fate he says despondently. Rawan, 5, sleeps quietly beside Aldadeedi, oblivious to the words of her father. A small soft toy elephant lays beside her. Rawan’s life now revolves around the tent that is now her home. Aldadeedi’s parents were around the same age when they fled Haifa in 1948.

Ayhab Aldadeedi has never been to Palestine, yet he holds up his Palestinian passport from a tent in Northern Iraq. (Photo by Abed al Qaisi)

While he’s been applying for visas and looking for opportunities to leave Iraq since he was a teenager, Aldadeedi, who speaks fluent English, was turned down again and again. He is treated as an outsider in Iraq he says, and is discriminated against for being a Palestinian refugee and not an Iraqi citizen.

Even at Baharka Camp, where Aldadeedi lives among 1,120 internally displaced families, he and his fellow Palestinians are ineligible for certain aid, including a monthly stipend, because of their status as Palestinian refugees, as opposed to Iraqi internally displaced persons.

While Aldadeedi has dreamed of leaving Iraq for years, he doesn’t dream anymore of Haifa – it’s better to be practical, he says, adding that he’s sure he will never have the chance of visiting, let alone living there.

“I just want out of Iraq, anywhere out of Iraq, out of the Middle East, there is nothing but problems and war and death here,” Aldadeedi tells Haaretz.

Commemorating the 67th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba from a refugee tent is more hardship than he ever expected, he says.

Heading several tents down through the camp along the dusty central track that runs through rows of tents, Hudda Awad tends to her fragile six-month-old grandchild, Haya. Haya’s big eyes scan the camp, it is her first – and her grandmother’s fifth. Being a Palestinian refugee, Awad says nothing surprises her anymore, bad fortune has followed her family her entire life.

Awad’s family also fled Haifa in 1948. She vividly remembers the stories her parents repeatedly recited to her. Hearing that Palestinian families were to be removed from their homes with deadly force, Awad’s parents fled terrified and barefoot to Nablus in a desperate effort to avoid the violence erupting on the coast. With food and water scarce, the route to Nablus was difficult. Awad was born in Tulkarem refugee camp several years later, but after Israel’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank in 1967, her family fled again.

Palestinians at Baharka refugee camp grow Molokhia, the main ingredient in a popular Palestinian dish not found in Iraq. (Photo by Abed al Qaisi)

After moving from camp to camp across the Levant, Awad ended up marrying a Palestinian living in Iraq, where she has spent the majority of her adult life.

Like Aldadeedi, Awad and her family fled Mosul and the surrounding area last summer. The disruption, panic and sudden upheaval from one place to another, Awad says, gave her a sense of how her parents may have felt in 1948.

Awad sees little room for optimism, though still she keeps a smile on her face. She was born in a refugee camp, and after being diagnosed with cancer two months ago while at Baharka, she is sure she will die in one.

“For everything that has happened to me and my family, if we were in our land, in our homes, would this happen to us? Of course not. The cancer I have, no one cares here,” Awad says. “I prefer to come back to the Israelis, let [the Palestinians] come back to Israel and work together to defend each other from all of the world.”

Awad’s tent is spotless, everything is neatly packed away giving the illusion that the small space is much more roomy than it is. “I’m a professional refugee,” Awad jokingly remarks when asked about how she is able to utilize the small space so well, “all Palestinian refugees are.”

Awad radiates warmth, joking and smiling as she speaks. She is the matriarch of her family. Her sons, daughters, their wives, husbands and grandchildren all pay attention when she speaks. It is obvious that her newly diagnosed medical condition has been a blow to the close-knit family that has already suffered greatly.

Sitting beside her, Awad’s son doesn’t change his solemn expression. His sad tired eyes look like shedding tears. Nakba will be spent in an Iraqi refugee camp, desperately searching for money to fund cancer treatment; no NGO, local or international, has offered to provide medical costs.

Adorning the inside of Awad’s tent are two baseball caps sporting the black and white checkered pattern of the Palestinian kaffiyeh, between the caps a brightly coloured Palestinian scarf hangs. Haifa is talked about, thought about, and romanticized about every day under these dusty plastic tarps.

“The whole world is playing with us, the Palestinians and the Israelis, like a soccer game – enough. Am I right or not?” Awad asks, “Both sides have to understand this. They want to give us Gaza and Ramallah and some cities, fine. We just want to live, it’s better than this. Anything is better than this.”

Thinking about commemorating the Nakba from yet another refugee tent away from the land she dreams about, especially with a rapidly deteriorating health condition, is emotionally draining, Awad admits. She remembers the stories of Haifa from her parents, how they talked about the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, the golden beach, and a life that was normal, where homes were permanent and life was easy.

Awad wishes for a normal life for six-month old Haya, but isn’t optimistic. Sitting in Baharka camp, it’s hard to disagree.

“I just wish it was all over,” she tells Haaretz. “The Jews and the Muslims, why are we fighting like this? We are cousins after all, aren’t we? We are cousins.”

Additional reporting by Abed al Qaisi.

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