February 2017

Born in a country where they cannot become citizens, Palestinians in Iraq face an uncertain future with little hope of escaping life as stateless refugees.


Erbil, Iraq – Inside Baharka IDP camp, a government-run refugee camp that provides emergency shelter for over 4,000 internally displaced people, eighteen Palestinian families live in a cluster of makeshift homes. Located near the city of Erbil – the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region – the camp is managed by the Barzani Charity Foundation and the Erbil Refugee Council.

Born and raised in Baghdad, thirty-year-old Palestinian Yahia Mahmoud has lived in Baharka camp for over two years. Without permission to work, travel or build a life as a citizen, and with nowhere else to go, Mahmoud and his family, like other Palestinian refugees in Iraq, are trapped in a cycle of isolation, discrimination and continual displacement. For this family, as is the case for many Palestinians, their identity as stateless refugees is a burden passed down from generation to generation.

Mahmoud’s parents were also born as refugees in Iraq. His grandfather fled Palestine during the exodus of 1948 known as the Nakba, when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes. Mahmoud spent most of his childhood in refugee camps surrounding Baghdad. After being continually displaced throughout his life, most recently fleeing from the Islamic State group in Ramadi, he now lives in Baharka camp with his wife and two children, together with his brother and other relatives.

In August 2016, Mahmoud’s mother, Hudda Awad, died from cancer at the age of 57. For four months, she had been unable to continue with her chemotherapy in Iraq: her son believes that she was denied the treatment in part because of her ethnicity. “They did not give it to her because it cost a lot of money and also because we are Arabs, not Kurds,” he says.

For Mahmoud and his family, their options are limited. Desperate to provide a brighter and safer future for his children, Mahmoud hopes of someday escaping Iraq in search of the opportunity to build a better life for him and his family as citizens, not as refugees.

Mahmoud has lived in Baharka camp in Iraqi Kurdistan for over two years. “Here we can’t live, there’s no future,” he says. “My future is already gone, but my children don’t have any future here. We need to go to any country, just not Iraq; somewhere where we can be free without prejudice.”

Mahmoud and his family sit inside their home inside Baharka camp. Despite their Palestinian nationality, the family has never visited Palestine. Their dream is to someday visit their ancestral homeland, even if they cannot live there, explains Mahmoud.

Children play inside Baharka camp at sunset.

The Palestinian Authority passport does little to help Mahmoud and his family to achieve their goal of leaving Iraq and visiting their ancestral homeland. As refugees, the travel document does not permit them to leave Iraq without a visa, nor does it necessarily allow them to enter the occupied Palestinian territories.

Like her father, 3-year-old Gena was born a refugee in Iraq. Raising their children in a refugee camp presents many concerns for Mahmoud and his wife Sana. “I don’t want anything except for my children to grow up in a healthy environment with a good education and to have a beautiful life,” said Mahmoud. “I don’t want them to see the things I’ve seen or to live the way I’ve lived. I want them to have a good life.”

Mahmoud holds a certificate for a Capacity Building Training course he completed in December 2015. After studying law in Ramadi Mahmoud worked as a Junior Mobilizer with UNICEF for 2 years. When the region fell under the control of the Islamic State group, Mahmoud and his family fled to Iraqi Kurdistan for safety. “I can’t work for UNICEF now because I don’t have permission to go to the camps where they are,” he explains.

Facilities in the camp are rudimentary with limited access to water and power. “The situation now is ver bad”, says Mahmoud. “Water comes maximum one or two hours per day and for one week there has been no government supply of electricity.” Due to the shortage of power, those who can afford it pay for private electricity, which, according to Mahmoud costs approximately 45,000 Iraqi Dinars (roughly $40) per month.

Three year-old Mariam sits with her father Alaa inside a small house in Baharka camp. As Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan Mahmoud feels that they are isolated and discriminated against. “The Kurds say they are not responsible for us, we are Arabs so we should go to Baghdad for our health care,” he explains.

Mahmoud and his family sit inside their home inside the camp with the Palestinian flag on the wall.

Within the limited space they are allocated inside the camp, the family has a small garden where they grow plants like mint and other herbs.

Children play table football in Baharka camp.

The family sits together in their cramped home in Baharka camp. Mahmoud’s brother used to have a job outside the camp, but without having the required permission to work in Iraq, he was sent back to the camp after being stopped by police at a checkpoint.

Mohammad, 9, shows off his school work.

Mahmoud holds out his phone with the translated message: “We are here, we have no rights.” Palestinian refugees in Iraq are denied the opportunity to be equal citizens of the country in which they were born.

Mahmoud’s wife Sana holds their daughter Gena outside their home in Baharka. Next to them is Yahia’s nephew, 6-year-old Rayan.

Facilities inside the camp are limited so children climb over the boundary fence in order to play football in an open space outside the confines of the camp.