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In Iraq, a homeless family's plight furrows brows

A woman and her parents are living on the steps of an empty Baghdad building, hoping to draw the attention of the Chinese Embassy. She says China is their homeland, but something doesn't add up.

February 25, 2009|Monte Morin and Caesar Ahmed

BAGHDAD — Angelenos visiting Baghdad will find more than a few reminders of life back home -- gridlocked traffic, eye-searing smog, the periodic crack of gunfire.

What they won't find are skid row-style homeless encampments.

Even with more than 2 million Iraqis displaced from their homes by war and sectarian conflict, it's practically unheard of to see a family living on the street in Baghdad's bustling downtown.

So residents of the City Center district have been shocked by the predicament of 48-year-old Allia Abbis Ali Kassem Tibiti and her parents. For about two months now, they've made their home on the steps of the shuttered Rashid Theater, on the bank of the Tigris River.

Their encampment, flanked by two police checkpoints, consists of a clump of battered mattresses, piles of blankets and dozens of cardboard boxes, plastic bags and dented water bottles.

On a recent afternoon, Allia Tibiti prepared a stew of tomatoes and vegetables on a small gas stove as her father and mother, both 65, huddled beneath blankets and stared vacantly at the traffic rolling past.

"This is really bad," said Ali Abdul Hussein, a Communications Ministry employee who wandered by. "I feel great sorrow for them, to be living like this. This is very rare in Iraq."

Even more unusual is the explanation the family offers for their predicament. The Tibitis say they are not only without a home and money, they are also without a country.

"We are Chinese!" Allia Tibiti said with excitement. "We want to go home to China, but we cannot!"

Still holding the paring knife she used on the vegetables, the diminutive woman waved it absent-mindedly as she spoke. Her eyes grew wide.

"We are not Iraqi, we are Buddhists. We want to go home to Tibet!"

A small crowd gathered on the sidewalk as the woman spoke to a reporter. "Did she say Chinese?" one man asked. "They don't look Chinese," said another.

Allia Tibiti acknowledged that she and her parents were born in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala and cannot speak a word of Chinese, but she insisted that China is their homeland. Her grandfather came to British-controlled Iraq from Tibet in 1910 and settled in Karbala to teach school, she said.

"You see, we are originally from China," she said.

As evidence, she hauled out a plastic bag filled with paperwork and extracted three Iraqi travel documents. The papers said they were all born in Karbala. Under the heading of nationality was the notation "claims to be Chinese."

Allia Tibiti said that under Saddam Hussein's rule, the family was classified as Indian and forced from their home in Karbala "because we were strangers," she said. They settled in Baghdad in 1980, and her father worked as a photographer.

The old man sat on a mattress, half covered by a blanket. He wore a smart red necktie and a wool cap. When he spoke, he made no sense.

"They sent him to prison twice under the former regime," his daughter said. "They didn't like him because he was a stranger. He never told me anything about what happened, and when he came home he spent long hours alone in his room."

Allia Tibiti then pointed to a walled compound across the street: the Chinese Embassy. Three years ago, the family met with officials there and pleaded their case, she said.

"We gave all of our documents to the previous ambassador and they did nothing," she said angrily. "They said, 'How can you be Chinese and not speak Chinese?' And this is why we are here. We are sitting in front of the embassy so they will see us."

As Allia Tibiti spoke, the people in the crowd made an audible "tsk tsk" with their tongues, a common Iraqi response to tales of ill fortune.

"Many people come here and offer help, but she does not accept it," said one flak-vested police officer. "We have two checkpoints nearby, so we protect them. We don't allow anyone to harass them."

Later that day, a reporter contacted the Chinese Embassy about the Tibitis' peculiar case. A spokesman who identified himself only as Mr. Chu expressed surprise that a homeless family was claiming to be Chinese.

"If I claimed to be from America, would you believe me?" Mr. Chu said. "Of course not! How is it you can believe them?"

He said that without Chinese passports or another form of Chinese identification, the embassy was powerless to help.

"So many people are always claiming to be Chinese," he said. "Well, actually nobody in Iraq is claiming to be Chinese now."

That is, except for the Tibiti family.

--

monte.morin@latimes.com

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