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Palestinians who settled in Iraq have remained stateless for generations

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in 1948 during the war surrounding the establishment of Israel ended up scattered around the world. There are now an estimated 6 million Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, most of them descendants of families who left their homeland 76 years ago and were never allowed to return. Jordan, which once ruled the West Bank, provides most Palestinians living there with citizenship. But as NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Iraq, in many other countries, they have remained stateless for generations.

RAAD ADNAN: (Praying in non-English language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: These are Friday prayers in the Palestinian neighborhood of Baladiyat in Baghdad. The mosque preacher, who is Iraqi, is talking about reclaiming Palestine, the ancestral homeland of most people in the neighborhood. Only the eldest here have ever glimpsed it.

ADNAN: (Praying in non-English language).

ARRAF: The worshippers leave the small mosque through a garden with orange trees and prize chickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)

ARRAF: Mohammad, who is 86, is Palestinian but a former Iraqi army general. He wears a blazer over a white turtleneck and holds a silver-tipped cane. He still has the bearing of an officer. Mohammad doesn't want his last name used because he also fought with the Palestine Liberation Organization during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. He was posted in Gaza, in fact, and he says he would still fight if he could.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) I fought because I believe in my cause, and I still do. I am 86 years old, and if they would accept me and take me as a soldier, I would go and fight.

ARRAF: Mohammad's family came from near the city of Haifa, then part of British Mandate Palestine. In the war in 1948, when he was 4, the Iraqi royal family came and took the first group of Palestinians to Baghdad.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) Queen Aliya came there and took the Palestinians who came from Haifa all in Iraqi army cars, and they brought us to Iraq.

ARRAF: Some of Mohammad's relatives stayed in Haifa and are now Palestinian citizens of Israel. But while Israel allows anyone from anywhere in the world with a Jewish grandparent to live in the country, it bars Palestinian refugees from returning. Many have made homes in other countries, but it's not a homeland.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) Tell them that Palestinians in Iraq and Iraqis as an authority, a people - women, men and children - will continue to help and support Gaza so that Gaza will be the nucleus of the State of Palestine.

ARRAF: Palestine is important to the Muslim world, not just because of a shared religion but because one of Islam's most sacred sites, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem. The preacher, Raad Adnan (ph), says he believes God will return the Palestinian homeland. But here, Palestinians are suffering.

ADNAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, they were born in Iraq. Their souls, their families and their people are with Iraq. But the circumstances they live in are terrible. They can't travel. They don't have the right to buy homes outside these complexes. There are 10 people living in a space for four people.

ARRAF: The brick apartment blocks nearby were built for Palestinian refugees in the '70s, but 50 years later, they're badly in need of repair. When it's raining, as it is now, everything floods. The late dictator Saddam Hussein launched missiles at Israel in 1991. When he was toppled by the U.S., and Iraq descended into sectarian war, Palestinians here, Sunni Muslims, were attacked by Shia militias.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER CRASHING)

ARRAF: That's the crash of thunder and lightning flashing over this replica of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on top of one of the gates of what used to be Saddam Hussein's palace compound. He had it built in 2002, just about a year before the U.S. invaded Iraq. It was meant to symbolize that Saddam Hussein was the liberator of the Palestinian people.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)

ARRAF: Iraq, like many other Arab countries, says it didn't give Palestinians full rights because it would jeopardize their ability to go home again. Iraq's Parliament has agreed to allow Palestinians to buy property, but the law hasn't been implemented. Without the right to return, most Palestinians will do anything to get to other countries where they can build lives.

ABU MUSTAFA: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Another refugee, Abu Mustafa, shows us his travel document.

MUSTAFA: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: It's not a passport. He's not a citizen of any country. But if he had the money, it might get him to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. In most other Arab countries, stateless Palestinians are banned.

MUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) My friend, Palestinians here are in a state of disaster. People need aid. They need assistance. They need services. They have no power and no support, and they can't do anything.

ARRAF: Abu Mustafa doesn't want to give his real name because he says it would get him in trouble with authorities. There's not much work for anyone here and even less for Palestinians. And because some Palestinians joined the militant Sunni group ISIS when it took over parts of Iraq, almost all Palestinians now fall under suspicion. Eight years ago, Abu Mustafa borrowed money to smuggle his wife and four children to Europe. Two of his children are in Norway, while another two are in Greece. He stayed to take care of his sister and hasn't seen his wife since 2016.

MUSTAFA: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: As the rain drips on the roof, he shows us photos of grandchildren he has never met. Two of his children who left as stateless Palestinians are now Norwegian citizens with jobs and families. One of them came to Iraq to visit last year with his wife and young daughter. But when he went to leave...

MUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) They said to him, what are you originally? He said, originally Palestinian. They said, did you fight with ISIS? And they held him at the Erbil airport for three hours. Now if I tell my children, come, kids, let us see you, they say they won't come.

ARRAF: Like many Palestinians, Abu Mustafa's family is scattered around the world.

MUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) I have a brother in Australia. He died in Australia the other day. I have a brother in Sweden, one in Cyprus, one in Finland, one in London. My wife and children are in Norway. My sister is going to Germany.

ARRAF: He still believes that Palestine will be liberated, not with the help of other countries but because it's prophesied in the Quran.

MUSTAFA: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He says, "God promised us, and he does not break his promises." Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.