Palestinians, Refugees, Turks, Aleppines, Arar, Bloggers

"Everybody is happy about a food drop. I am watching. A blind lady is being helped by a small boy. People are jumping to catch food."

A Food Drop
David Deng Aleu, age 16
Sudanese, Kakuma refugee camp

This illustration is from Sybella Wilkes, One Day We Had to Run!: Refugee Children Tell Their Stories in Words and Paintings, (Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, 1994) All rights reserved.

Today Sybella Wilkes is the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Damascus. She wrote the following heartbreaking story. She is extraordinary. Many journalists have sung her praises to me, explaining how she helped them with their stories on Iraqi refugees and got them set up in Syria.
Sybella Wilkes ‎

Seaside break in Syria proves too much for young Palestinians
By Sybella Wilkes and Covadonga de la Campa
30 Jun 2008
Source: UNHCR, Reuters, and AlertNet are not responsible for the content of this article or for any external internet sites.

The views expressed are the author's alone. AL TANF, Syria, June 30 (UNHCR) – It seemed like a good idea. Take a group of Palestinian children to the seaside to help them escape the monotony and hardship of their lives in limbo on the arid Iraq-Syria border.

But it all proved a bit too much for most of the children taken to the Syrian city of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month from the Al Tanf camp, where they and their families have lived for months after fleeing their homes in the violence-plagued Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

The sudden freedom of movement, the cool sea breezes, the abundant food and drink and the other laughing kids showed these nine children what they were missing and what they would miss once again when they returned to Al Tanf at the end of their week's holiday.

They are among a group of more than 750 Palestinian refugees who have been stuck for up to two years in Al Tanf, unable to enter Syria and unable to go back to Baghdad. They live in a tiny strip of no man's land where they must be on the alert for snakes and scorpions and endure the terrible heat, hoping that some country will come forward and offer them resettlement.

 It soon became apparent that all but one of the children given special permission by the Syrian government to go to the coast were too traumatized to appreciate and enjoy their short break from reality with other youngsters at a summer camp in Tartus.

"These kids have gone through such a hard time, and the change in environment has had an impact on them. They are closed, hurt by their lives. They are not used to interacting with the world, with so many other children," said camp superviser Feras Shihabi, who works for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The camp staff did not push the Palestinians to join in the week's activities, including swimming, dancing, singing, clown shows and daily parties. Eight of them preferred to stay inside darkened bedrooms, missing their families.

"I am here for such a short time. What is the point of enrolling in activities when I am going back to Al Tanf again?" asked Sarab, who felt that the camp gave a false sense of optimism.

Fellow refugee, Naba, said that if she joined in, it would make life that much harder when she had to go back to Al Tanf. "My life is not happy, I need to leave this summer camp right now," she said, adding: "The first day I was happy, but by the second day I was not happy. We are not adapted to this happy life and need to stay strong for our hard life."

Hussam Muktar, an Iraqi who works for the UN refugee agency as an outreach worker, said he felt the pain that the children were living through. "Al Tanf is like a prison – and no child will ever thrive in a prison. They cannot go forwards because they are not allowed into Syria or anywhere else. They cannot go backwards, because they and their families are threatened in Iraq."

In contrast, other Palestinian refugees taking part in the camp – including 24 children who live an easier life at the UNHCR-run Al Hol camp in northern Syria – made the most of their holiday, with many learning to swim in the crystal blue sea. After a few days they began avoiding their compatriots from Al Tanf, unable to relate to their anger and depression.

When Muktar visited the summer camp, some of the Al Tanf children opened up after hearing his Iraqi accent, but they were still too withdrawn to look him in the eye.

"If you look at these children, even though they are the same age as all the other children at the summer camp, their eyes, their body language tells you that they have suffered more than any child should suffer. It hurts to see the trauma in their every movement," Muktar said.

UNHCR provides assistance to Palestinian refugees in Iraq and Syria. Together with UNRWA, it has been looking for solutions for the border refugees at Al Tanf and nearby Al Waleed.

"It is clear that we need to relocate all the Palestinians that are stranded on the Iraqi border. We can meet their material needs with food, water and shelter, but the fact remains that the environment will never be suitable for human habitation," said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's deputy representative in Damascus.

UNHCR, UNRWA and the Palestinian Red Crescent care for the Palestinians in Al Tanf, while UNHCR, Islamic Relief and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) share the load in Al Waleed.

The inhabitants of the two border camps have endured fires, flooding and harsh extremes of temperature. An estimated 15,000 Palestinians remain in Baghdad, compared to some 30,000 in early 2003. They have fled to escape militia threats, kidnapping and killings. A few hundred have been resettled in third countries.

By Sybella Wilkes and Covadonga de la Campa
In Al Tanf, Iraq-Syria Border More . . .

the POMED Wire On Monday (6/23) Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduced Senate resolution S.3177, calling on the President to appoint a White House Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees.  The Coordinator would be responsible for crafting and coordinating a policy to deal with the resettlement and humanitarian needs of Iraqi refugees.

Trial Sheds Light on Ethnic Groups Living in Turkey  (Thanks to Farhan Siddiqui)
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
ISTANBUL – Milliyet

A new study estimates that there are roughly 870,000 Arabs living in Turkey: This group lives mainly in the cities of Siirt, Şırnak, Mardin, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa, Hatay, Adana and Istanbul.

A report commissioned eight years ago by the highest advisory body in the land investigates how many Turks, Kurds and people of other extractions are living in Turkey. The report comes to light as part of the trial for the murder of three Christian misionaries.

The smallest ethnic groups include: Roma people with a population of 700,000, about 60,000 Armenians, 20,000 Jews, 15,000 Rums (Greeks with Turkish citizenship) and a very few number of Assyrians live in Turkey.

Although some sources say the population of Alevis in Turkey ranges between 5 and 25 million, it is approximately 8.75 million, according to the MGK report. …… (Read More)

Coup Attempt in Turkey?

Turkish police arrested 24 people, including two retired generals and the head of Ankara's main business lobby, on suspected links to a group of alleged coup plotters.

Retired generals Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur were detained early today in Ankara, a spokesman for the Ankara police said in a telephone interview. The spokesman said authorities had to break down the door of Tolon's home. Ankara Chamber of Commerce chief Sinan Aygun was also taken into custody, said Melih Cuhadar, a spokesman for the chamber.

The sweep came on the day prosecutors presented an indictment to the Constitutional Court to close down Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. They claim Erdogan wants to dismantle the secular state set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and make Turkey more like Iran.

Great journeys: Istanbul to Aleppo by train
By Vicky Frost. The Guardian, July 1, 2008

In the first part of her overland journey into the Middle East, Vicky Frost boards the Toros Express in Istanbul bound for Aleppo

Train from Istanbul to Aleppo in Syria

Rolling along … the Toros Express travels through the Turkish countryside from Istanbul to Aleppo. Photograph: Vicky Frost

It must be an extremely odd life, perched behind the counter of a tiny train station kiosk in central Turkey. Quiet, quiet, quiet … then a bedraggled looking crowd of ravenous passengers rushing towards you at top speed, jumping down from gently aging carriages and legging it across the platform to load up with bread, sausage and hard-boiled eggs. Then 15 minutes later … quiet, quiet, quiet again.

Every Sunday morning the optimistically named Toros Express leaves Istanbul's magnificent Hydrapasa station for Aleppo in northern Syria, where it's due to arrive 30 hours later. Not a journey for those in a rush, admittedly — but as we sat happily picnicking on our kiosk spoils on the cabin sofa, watching the olive groves, pistachio trees and herds of cattle whizz past the window, there was a certain romance to proceedings; although not a sniff of a buffet car, despite a rather hopeful knife and fork sign at the end of the carriage. Beyond it? The snake of train track leading back to Europe.

As the sun set, we stuck our heads out of the window like dogs in a hot car, peering at the front of the train as it wound through the Turkish countryside. Farmers waved from their fields, the light began to fade, and I began to think that the train is a remarkably civilised way to travel (not to mention, of course, cheap. Even including the Istanbul travel agents' booking fee, tickets were only £60 each). We cracked open our bottle of raki, lay out our super-clean, starched bed linen, and settled in for the night.

Five hours late, the train rolled into Aleppo. We rolled into a cab, and, finally, into our hotel. The city has been gradually renovating its beautiful 17th-century houses, transforming them into boutique hotels and restaurants. Our room at the Mandaloun (, doubles around $100pn) opened out on to a central courtyard and a fountain, the richly tiled floors were cool beneath our heavy, train-lagged feet, and – most importantly of all — nothing was actually moving. And we didn't have to sleep in (albeit ingeniously designed) bunk beds.

Tell people you are visiting Syria and most first reactions are: Why? And then: Isn't it a bit dangerous? I am certainly not going to try and excuse the ruling regime — and if you view visiting Syria as endorsing that, you may wish to travel elsewhere. But — and this does not change the first point — Syria is not a dangerous place for travellers; it is surprisingly secular, the people are enormously welcoming, and, as a woman, I experienced little of the hassle of Turkey.

The country is also home to what is an almost embarrassing number of historic sights: Aleppo's imposing citadel rises above the centre, giving views beyond the old city to the suburbs and industry beyond. Essentially, the ethos here seems to be — here's the sight, have a look around. No barriers, no roped-off areas, no handrails, and, frankly, no safety. But adventure; lots of that. And space. With visitor numbers low, you can stand alone in the citadel's 13th-century great mosque, or sit high up next to its domed roof and gaze over the ruins with only the occasional figure emerging from arched doorways or behind crumbling walls to break the spell…..

[Getting There: EasyJet fly Luton-Istanbul from £51.98 inc all taxes. The Toros Express leaves Istanbul's Haydarpasa station early on Sunday mornings, due to arrive on Monday afternoon, but invariably rolling up around eight in the evening. Book via the Tur-ista agency in Istanbul (]

An article in yesterday's New York Times criticized the Bush administration for failing "to develop a comprehensive plan to address the militant problem" along the Afghan-Pakistan border, where Osama bin Laden is reportedly rebuilding the al Qaeda terror network.

In Case of Extraordinary Rendition Victim Maher Arar, U.S. Gets Away with Torture
Center for Constitutional Rights. Posted July 1, 2008.

Citing national security, a federal court rules that Maher Arar, who was kidnapped at JFK and sent to Syria by the U.S., had no due process rights.

June 30, 2008, New York — A federal Court of Appeals ruled against Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) client Maher Arar's case against U.S. officials for their role in sending him to Syria to be tortured and interrogated for a year under the extraordinary rendition program.

Maher Arar is not available to comment in person, but is issuing the following statement: "The Court's 2-1 ruling is outrageous. It basically legitimizes what was done to me, and permits the government to use immigration law as a disguise to send people to torture without regard for due process."

The court ruled that Mr. Arar's constitutional claims that it was a violation of due process to lock him up for two weeks, obstruct his access to a lawyer and a court, and then to ship him to Syria for the purpose of having him interrogated under torture could not be heard in federal court for two reasons: It concluded that adjudicating the claims would interfere with sensitive matters of foreign policy and national security, and that Arar, as a foreigner who had not been formally admitted to the U.S., had no constitutional due process rights with respect to the government's interference with his access to a lawyer and the decision to send him to Syria to be tortured. …..

Bipartisan Campaign Seeks Presidential Executive Order to Ban Torture
Jim Lobe

Syria sets Arab world record with at least five bloggers and cyber-dissidents detained

(GIF) [Reporters Without Borders is worried by the lack of news about Hammam Haddad, a Damascus University student and author of magazine and Internet articles, since his arrest on 5 May in the capital without any reason being given. He is the fifth Internet user to be detained in Syria in the past year.

“This arrest turns Syria into the Arab world’s most repressive country towards people who post news and information online,” the press freedom organisation said. “It is an additional attempt to intimidate and silence dissidents and bloggers.”

Activist Mohammad Badi Dak Al Bab, a member of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria->], was meanwhile sentenced to six months in prison yesterday on a charge of “attacking the prestige of the state” under article 287 of the criminal code for posting an article entitled “Damascus, capital of Arab culture”on the organisation’s website. Bab, who has been held in Adra (20 km northeast of the capital) since 2 March, was previously detained from 2000 to 2005.

A blogger, Tariq Biassi, 22, is being held in a Damascus security camp. He was sentenced on 11 May to three years in prison under articles 285 and 286 of the criminal code for “publishing false information” and “undermining national sentiment” for posting a comment critical of the government on a website.

He was one of the first people to fall victim to new government provisions regarding the Internet. Telecommunications minister Amr Salem, decreed on 25 July 2007 that website owners should, for security reasons, keep the personal data of those posting articles and comments online…..

Israel shuts crossings to Gaza after alleged attack

Israel has shut down cargo crossings into the Gaza Strip following an alleged rocket attack by Palestinian militants into southern Israel. Local authorities have yet to find any remnants of the rocket, which Israel say was detected by radar on Monday night. Hamas claim Israel are simply looking for excuses to break the terms of the ceasefire that came into effect last month. Egyptian authorities today opened the Rafah crossing for two days to allow access for those stranded at the border, and for Palestinians needing medical attention.

Comments (9)

abu Kareem said:

The tragedy of the Palestinians caught in al-Tanf is as heart breaking as it is absurd. Why can Syria absorb 1.5 million Iraqis yet 750 Palestinian souls have to remain stuck in the desert between Iraq and Syria?

July 2nd, 2008, 1:31 am


Alex said:

I still have no idea why Syria or Jordan will not take those poor Palestinians … Syria already has 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, and another 500,000 Palestinian refugees!

Abu Kareem … this is the world we live in .. every country is supposed to mostly care for its own citizens. McCain can talk about another 100 years of war in Iraq because the millions of Iraqi refugees and orphans are not his countrymen.

I want to post again Rime Allaf’s excellent piece on this subject:

Beggars on Iraq, choosers with Syria

By Rime Allaf, Arab Media Watch
Adviser and associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) whose blog is

12 February 2007

When the invasion of Iraq was being spin doctored in American and British media (remember WMDs?) and some commentators warned of a humanitarian and refugee catastrophe, they were ridiculed by the warmongers already on a high from the adrenalin of the imminent attack, labeling any sane person pointing to the folly of the enterprise “Saddam supporter.” Why were these anti-war kill-joys preventing Iraqis from liberation, wondered the neocon clan (which came to include the British Labour Party, to the frustration of the Tories who were robbed of the extreme right-wing position by Blair and who couldn’t possibly turn the opposite way)? The whole doom domino concept (war-chaos-refugees-etc.) was nonsense, we were told; Iraq would be liberated, WMDs would be found, democracy would be installed, and the only domino theory would be the one spreading happiness and justice for all. That was before the “birth pangs” theory of course.

Fast forward four years; the refugee catastrophe has exploded, and the exodus of some 2 million people (according to the UN) was most certainly not an “unforeseen” by-product of the invasion, as some media agencies with short memories would have us think. After the US and Britain embarked on this illegal, immoral and inhumane war against the country and the people of Iraq, the hope remaining in Pandora’s box has not been sufficient for many Iraqis who have fled in despair to neighboring countries.

There are around 1 million such refugees alone in Syria, facing the inevitable hardship of all refugees and a difficult period of readjustment. Unintentionally, they are simultaneously making life difficult for a good number of Syrians as well, who have suddenly seen property prices sky rocket (for rentals and sales), general inflation increase rapidly, and a new height of overcrowding in the big cities. Jaramana alone, a suburb of Damascus, has practically become an Iraqi quarter where house prices are similar to those in Damascus. According to most accounts, Syrian authorities have behaved in an exemplary manner with the refugees, treating them with compassion and affording them the same social services (including health and education) to which Syrians have access.

By way of example, “moderate” and major US ally Saudi Arabia, in contrast, is building a fence to keep out undesirable Iraqis, and other “moderate” and major US ally Jordan has been treating Iraqi refugees quite badly, denying them healthcare and education, and letting live the exploited life of illegal aliens. With its generosity applauded by the head of UNHCR, Syria finds itself in the other, the “right” extreme here. But after a long period of laissez-faire, continuing to treat all Arab nationals equally, and not as foreigners needing visas, Syrian authorities have begun to apply visa restrictions to try to manage a situation that is spiralling out of control. Authorities have seemingly promised that Iraqis would not be deported or turned back, as they are in Jordan, but clearly the open-arms, no questions asked treatment is going to be regulated.

There is no doubt that the blame for this catastrophe lays squarely at the feet of the US and Britain, which is why it has actually become funny (even for regime critics) to hear officials from these two countries describe Syria as a negative force in the region, given that anything the Syrian regime actually does – or even anything it is allegedly doing – really can’t compare with the unprecedented devastation brought to us courtesy of the Anglo-American enterprise. Really, look who’s talking.

Be that as it may, whether Syria is negative, positive or neutral, the Bush administration nevertheless seems to have no choice but to liaise with this force, apparently, for lo and behold, the American Secretary of State has now declared that she has authorized talks with Syria about the refugee crisis. Authorized. In other words, Syria is allowed to help America solve its mess, and permitted to talk to its chargé d’affaires in Damascus towards that end. What an honor. Let the appreciation ceremony begin.

Washington’s infuriatingly condescending attitude is doing nothing to endear it to Syrians, and should technically endear it equally little to the Syrian regime being approached for help. Unfortunately, the likelihood of the latter hurriedly grabbing the opportunity to make proper contact on an official level is high, regardless of the official rhetoric. However, even while recognizing the reality of a unipolar world where most issues are dictated by the agenda of the superpower (who, in addition, currently happens to be our next-door neighbor), it is intolerable to imagine that Syrian citizens who have been affected directly by the war on Iraq should be grateful to America for granting them the privilege of simply talking – talking to help that same America try to manoeuver out of the refugee problem it has created.

It should be made absolutely clear, officially that is, that Syria is helping Iraqi refugees regardless of – and not because of – America’s “authorization,” and that the US had better start taking responsibility for its actions, which are having a huge impact on the life of Syrians (let alone Iraqis). Like it or not, Faruq Shara’a was right when he claimed that the influx of refugees had “imposed heavy economic, social and security burdens on Syria.” The financial costs for the refugee crisis must be borne by the invaders and the occupiers alone, as they have caused this mess in the first place.

Regrettably, even when saying some of the right things, some media (this one being just an example) can’t help but being patronizing about Syria even as they praise its actions with refugees. I don’t know about my fellow Syrians, but frankly, I find this is all getting a bit tiring, this old record of pro-terrorism, radical, negative, etc. Especially when it comes from those who used to sing the praises of the regime (yes, it’s a digression, but I mean the Lebanese political leaders, who treat their own refugees like dirt) while Syrian civil society activists were being harassed. Unlike others, Syrians didn’t wait for involvement or influence from anyone outside Syria to speak whenever they could, at their own risk. So when Syrians (yes, even the regime) do something good, like the regime has actually proved with the Iraqi refugees, to whom it even allowed the luxury of voting freely and choosing from dozens of candidates (I leave you to absord the irony which we’ve already covered in this blog), or when the Syrian people fling open their homes, their wallets and their hearts to the tens of thousands of Lebanese refugees escaping the Israeli war machine, let’s give credit where credit is due without the “but” part. It wouldn’t hurt to be treated like the other problem makers in the area – even the “moderate” ones – every now and then.

July 2nd, 2008, 3:31 am


Frank al Irlandi said:

This picked up by Juan Cole contradicts Stratfor’s assertion that the Hersch piece was instigated by the White House as part of a psychological war on Iran.

It gives an indication of what Admiral Mullen might be discussing in Tel Aviv.

July 2nd, 2008, 8:38 am


Nidal said:


I’d like some information on the status of the 1.5 million iraki refugees in Syria. Where can I find out how they are being treated? Are they given easy access to healthcare, education, jobs? I can imagine the enormous logistics that should be involved, which could seem almost of an impossible task to accomplish. Just wanted to have your view on it. Thanks.

July 2nd, 2008, 8:53 am


offended said:

The story of the Pali kids and families stuck at the borders is heartbreaking to say the least. As Abu Kareem and Alex has stated; it’s inexplicable why won’t Syria take them.

Screw politics, this is an urgent human crisis.

July 2nd, 2008, 9:07 am


alle said:

Nidal — Brookings had a report on that last year, that was recently linked to via SyriaComment. Also, I think Human Rights Watch has done reports on how the Iraq refugees are being received/not received in various countries around the region.

July 2nd, 2008, 11:36 am


alle said:

Ugarit — I caught a glimpse of that on, I think, al-Jazira. The name of the female Mufti being trained was Kuftaro, i.e. like the former Chief Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro. Probably his daughter, and it looks like this is simply a case of the officially sanctioned establishment branching out — but why not? Seems to me like a good, practical thing, and if the regime is onboard, so much the better.

July 2nd, 2008, 11:41 am


Karim said:

The tragedy of the Palestinians caught in al-Tanf is as heart breaking as it is absurd. Why can Syria absorb 1.5 million Iraqis yet 750 Palestinian souls have to remain stuck in the desert between Iraq and Syria?

We know the hypocrite regime we have in Syria …but the silence of the palestinian government on this subject is disturbing.

Thank You for Chile for having accepted some of these refugies who were personally welcomed by the president of Chile Mrs Bachelet.
And Thank You Turkey for accepting a number of the Syrians of Iraq.

July 2nd, 2008, 4:00 pm


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