RUWAISHID, Jordan, Feb. 18, 2007
This story was written for CBSNews.com by Amman, Jordan-based reporter Kristen Gillespie.
In the middle of the empty, rocky desert on Jordan's easternmost flank, a group of fabric tents flap loudly in the winter wind. It's a small camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before the war with Iraq began in the spring of 2003.
The mass exodus of Iraqis anticipated in the weeks after Saddam Hussein's regime fell didn't materialize, but about 1,300 people did come. When they arrived, they were placed in provisional camps like this one until a more permanent solution could be found.
One of the dozen tents is home to Miriam, her husband and two small children. They're Sunni Muslims of Palestinian origin, and like the nearly 100 others left in this camp, they say they were threatened by Iraqi Shiite militias beginning just days after the regime fell on April 9, 2003.
Thinking they would spend a few weeks in Jordan at the most, they left with the clothes on their backs and ended up in this tent 50 miles from the border with Iraq, surrounded craggy desert as far as the eye can see. They've been here ever since.
The tents are of a thick canvas held together by steel poles and reinforced on the inside with plastic sheets and military-style blankets. Most don't have electricity. Residents bring buckets of water stored in raised communal tanks. Inside Miriam's tent, the smell of a small gas heater fills a room that's dark and stuffy, even in the middle of the day. Since the camp is in the middle of the desert, there's very little to do.
"Just sitting here, we've become bored and mentally tired," Miriam says. People in the camp have stopped leaving their tents, she says, and the makeshift school and handicraft activities that kept people occupied have stopped due to a lack of will and lack of funding.
"Even a prisoner knows how long his sentence will be," says Miriam. She says she fights depression, and her children frequently face infections and skin disorders from the harsh living conditions. Her three-year-old son, Maan, who was born in the camp, has lesions on his legs and his head was shaved due to a skin disorder.
As Miriam speaks, the wind shakes her tent's soft walls. The floor is covered with heavy blankets, to soften the uneven terrain. The tent is not solid enough to keep out mice and scorpions, and the wind whips at the bottom edges of the tent. Still, the inside is spotless, with simple wood furniture neatly arranged. A crumpled page from a 2005 calendar is pinned to the blanketed wall. It shows a photograph of a Mediterranean-style villa surrounded by palm trees overlooking a lake, and serves as an unwitting reminder that time has stood still in this camp.
In another part of the tent sits a small, single gas-fueled burner. A banged-up teapot rests on top of it. Miriam says she's afraid to cook during the winter. Two years ago, a six-year-old girl was killed in her tent when the wind blew the flames out from under the gas heater. Within minutes, several tents had burned to the ground. "I'm afraid a strong wind will come through and set the whole tent ablaze," she says.
Iraqis usually point to the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 as the beginning of open sectarian strife in Iraq. The bombing was blamed on Sunni insurgents, and Iraqis of all ethnicities stepped up what had been a more gradual exodus to surrounding countries and beyond. But even in relatively better times, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the Palestinian community, numbering roughly 30,000 before the war, could already see the beginnings of sectarian tensions.
One reason is that Palestinians received subsidies and other favors from Saddam Hussein's government. Their lives were not much better than that of other Iraqis, but the perception lingers that they somehow supported the former Iraqi president.
"Yes, Saddam helped us a lot," says Miriam. "He gave us assistance, and after Baghdad fell, many Iraqis threatened us, asking us, why are you still here?" She reels off the names of several family members who have been killed, including a cousin whose body parts were returned to the family, she says, in a plastic bag.
"I think the scale of the violence and the attacks on the Palestinian community make it absolutely unacceptable for them to return," sayd UNHCR's representative in Jordan, Robert Breen. No other Arab country has offered to take them in.
Any Arab country in the Middle East that agrees to take in Palestinian refugees is making a political statement. First, they are saying the door is open for other Palestinians to come and settle. The possibility of Palestinians getting too comfortable in their adopted Arab countries could diminish their desire to pursue the right to return to their country of origin. The image of complacency on the right of Palestinians to a homeland of their own is one that Arab countries are not eager to espouse.
But Miriam and her family have lived their entire lives in Iraq. She worked in a beauty salon, speaks in an Iraqi dialect, and has never known any other place as home. Her parents fled Haifa in 1948 and headed for Baghdad.
"All our lives we've been refugees," she says with a laugh. "My family fled, we fled. My family stayed in tents, they saw similar war, now we're sitting in tents, seeing war and not knowing what the future will bring."
The twelve hundred other Iraqis who've passed through these camps have been repatriated. But homeless Palestinians are a political problem in the Arab world, and Jordan is the only country to ever offer them citizenship. Jordan's policy now is that it will not accept another Palestinian refugee on its soil. The UNHCR has an agreement with Jordan that these last refugees can stay in this camp until a third country takes them in.
Miriam says she and her family can no longer afford to live in the past. Or even, in a sense, to live in the present. They look to the future, which is still unknown, but she is sure it will be better. It's that hope, she says, which keeps her depression at bay, which sustains her, and which allows her to tell her children to hang on a little bit longer.
"We hope to go somewhere and settle down and live our lives as a family, as human beings."