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On the Road to Damascus

Syria’s Iraqis strive to rebuild their lives

“Iraq was my country, but no longer. I cannot be safe there,” said Sister Lynda in a hushed voice as she sat outside her tiny rooftop apartment in Damascus, Syria. Though far from Iraq’s sectarian violence, the Chaldean nun remained cautious when speaking, declining to reveal her real name, identify her Baghdad neighborhood or have her picture taken.

Up until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Sister Lynda recalled she rarely knew whether the people she passed on Baghdad’s streets were Sunni, Shiite or Christian. Back then, she said, people were simply people. As a Catholic religious in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Sister Lynda practiced her faith freely and her church thrived. She did not even know the regime had imprisoned and killed tens of thousands of her compatriots until after U.S. forces toppled it.

But the relative security, albeit naïve, that Sister Lynda and her Chaldean community enjoyed under Saddam Hussein began deteriorating soon after U.S. and coalition troops arrived. By 2004, the sounds of explosions and gunfire were interfering with her final year of theology studies. A year later, a string of attacks on Christian communities swept Iraq, and on two different occasions, Sister Lynda was inside a church when a car bomb exploded outside. On the first occasion, the explosion shattered the eardrums of several victims and showered everyone in the church with shards of stained glass. On the second, the explosion killed a child and severed one man’s legs and hand.

In 2007, unknown perpetrators raped and killed two of Sister Lynda’s close friends – fellow women religious – in Baghdad. Not long after, Sister Lynda narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt. Fearing the same fate as her friends, she fled to Kirkuk, a city three hours’ drive north, where she took refuge in a monastery, which also ran a kindergarten.But when the community there began receiving bomb threats from the Mahdi Army – a Shiite militia – it promptly closed. No longer able to cope with the dangers and unwilling to forfeit her vocation, she left for Syria.

Sister Lynda now lives in Damascus’s Jaramana neighborhood, where many Iraqis have settled. She helps connect fellow refugees with free or low-cost health care, food and other basics. She manages to survive on 4,000 Syrian pounds a month, about $87, which she earns making boxes for a local business. She also receives food assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Damascus.

Fortunately, the Chaldean nun does not expect to stay in Damascus much longer.After submitting a request for asylum to the UNHCR, she was accepted for resettlement in Australia. But she numbers among a handful of lucky individuals. Western countries so far have admitted a staggeringly small proportion of Iraqi refugees fleeing the war.

UNHCR estimates that 4.5 million Iraqis have fled their homes since 2003 and have not returned. Roughly 2.5 million of them are internally displaced people, who have moved elsewhere in Iraq. The remaining two million have sought refuge in neighboring countries, chiefly Syria, which hosts between one and 1.5 million people, and Jordan, which has as many as 700,000 refugees.

To date, the UNHCR has registered at most one-fifth of the Iraqis in Syria, of which only a small fraction have qualified as “refugees” under international law. In 2007, for instance, the UNHCR in Syria determined that only 7,852 of all the Iraqis it registered had a legitimate claim to asylum. The agency, in turn, submitted these files to countries in Europe, North America and Oceania for potential resettlement. In the end, only 833 of the 7,852 received offers for resettlement and left Syria.

The resettlement numbers increased significantly in 2008: In July alone, 1,033 Iraqis in Syria were resettled in Western countries, mostly in the United States. Yet, given the size of the refugee population in Syria, the odds remain slim – more akin to winning the lottery – that an individual or family will be resettled in a Western country. For most Iraqis in Syria, resettlement is more a dream than a realistic hope. Still, many see it as their only option.

Iraq’s Christians have paid a high price for the war. Prior to 2003, about a million Christians lived in Iraq, accounting for some 5 percent of the country’s 23 million people. But as violence intensified, reaching a crescendo in 2006, extremist groups began targeting Christians. Living in small pockets within predominantly Muslim communities, and without organized militias to protect them, Christians proved especially vulnerable. Moreover, extremists increasingly viewed Iraqi Christians as collaborators with the Western “Christian” occupying forces.

Fleeing the sectarian violence that has engulfed Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and areas where Christians have lived for centuries, an estimated 400,000 of Iraq’s Christians have sought refuge in neighboring countries or further afield. Of the roughly half million who remain in Iraq, more than half are internally displaced, many having migrated north to the autonomous Kurdish region, which remains relatively stable.

Today, Christians make up as much as 15 to 20 percent of all Iraqi refugees, a disproportionately high number given that they make up a relatively small percentage of the country’s total population.

Christians, of course, are not the only Iraqis whom the war has hit hard. Sunni Muslims, too, have fled targeted violence in disproportionate numbers. Prior to the invasion, Sunni Muslims constituted roughly 35 percent of Iraq’s total population. Today, Sunnis represent by far the majority of refugees, accounting for nearly 60 percent of those registered with UNHCR in Syria.

Hailing from Fallujah, Omar and his family are among the many Sunnis who have settled in Damascus’s predominantly Iraqi Saida Zainab neighborhood. In 2005, Omar took a bus in Baghdad heading for Damascus. But before the bus could reach the highway, uniformed Iraqi police officers stopped it, boarded and began checking passengers’ identification cards. When Omar presented his papers, they hauled the then 19-year-old off the bus in handcuffs. (According to Omar, his first name clearly identifies him as Sunni.) The police officers, Shiites, arrested and imprisoned him. Omar does not recall the police officers ever documenting or recording his arrest.

For the first six months, Omar’s captors tortured him on a regular basis, beating him severely, breaking bones in his arms and legs and putting out cigarettes on his skin. They also contacted his family and demanded ransom. His family paid the ransom, but each time the kidnappers refused to release him, demanding more money instead. In the end, the family paid a total of $70,000, selling their car and house to collect the ransom. In addition to Omar’s incarceration, the family was grieving the loss of his younger brother, who had been murdered at the same time.

After six months, Omar was transferred to another prison, where eventually representatives from a human rights organization visited the prison and took an interest in the circumstances of Omar’s arrest. The representatives told him he had been wrongfully imprisoned and subsequently helped secure his release, 14 months after getting on the bus in Baghdad.

Still quick to smile, the baby-faced 22-year-old now works at a travel agency fronting the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Iraqi Street. Ironically, Omar only sells bus tickets to Baghdad.

The agency’s owner, a spectacled middle-aged man named Abou Abdullah, works alongside Omar.

“The police, who were supposed to secure the country, did this – do you think we can go back?” asked Mr. Abdullah.

Mr. Abdullah fled Baghdad after receiving persistent death threats following the 2003 invasion. But when he went home for a visit in 2005, Iraqi police kidnapped and tortured him. He had been filling up his car in a Baghdad gas station when suddenly four police officers surrounded and abducted him. Over the next three days, he was strung up in a cell and beaten head-to-toe with pipes. Eight individuals directly participated in the torture, in which they took turns strangling Mr. Abdullah with a noose, twisting his arms behind his back and holding a gun to his head and threatening to shoot. The captors contacted Mr. Abdullah’s family, demanding $100,000 in ransom. Unable to come up with the sum, his family agreed to pay $30,000, which they pooled together from extended family members. Mr. Abdullah’s captors released him once they got their hands on the money.

Mr. Abdullah showed a video recorded on his cell phone with images of his body two months after the torture. Bruises as dark as third-degree burns covered his shoulders and back and bright red welts crisscrossed the length of his arms and legs.

“I still can’t tell if I am alive or dead,” said Mr. Abdullah.

In February 2008, a man entered Mr. Abdullah’s travel agency in Damascus. Startled at seeing Mr. Abdullah, he turned around at once and walked out the door. After a moment, Mr. Abdullah recognized the man as one of those who had tortured him three years earlier. Terrified, Mr. Abdullah ran home and locked himself in his house. After three days, friends finally coaxed him out. Since that day, Mr. Abdullah has been attacked twice on the streets of Saida Zainab. Luckily, on both occasions, friends from the neighborhood intervened in time to save his life.

If a refugee makes it out of Iraq, he or she usually leaves behind the war’s immediate perils. But, for a surprising number of refugees, the conflict’s dangers follow them to their new homes. In Damascus, many Iraqis report receiving messages and calls on their Syrian cell phones threatening torture or death should they return to Iraq. One woman even reported she found the same threatening letter from the same militia group slipped under her door in Damascus that she found while living in Baghdad.

When discussing the war and their own troubles, refugees often evoke an unidentified ominous “they.” While “they” may refer to the Mahdi Army or Al Qaeda, the war’s better known belligerents, they may also refer to any one of a number of loosely organized groups or individuals who threaten, kidnap, extort, torture and kill, usually in a fog of anonymity.

Though Syrian authorities maintain tight security in and around Iraqi neighborhoods – likely a major reason why sectarian violence has not erupted among Iraqis living in Damascus – the influence of Iraqi militias remains palpable in some areas of the city. From high on the tenements’ walls lining the streets of Saida Zainab, posters of Mahdi Army leader, Muqtada al Sadr, and his father, Muhammad Sadeq al Sadr, loom down on passersby. The Mahdi Army also operates an affiliate office in the neighborhood.

Many believe the Mahdi Army and other militias run intelligence operations in the neighborhood. These militias allegedly deploy spies who keep records on Iraqis, noting what they say and do and communicate the information to their counterparts in Iraq.

Falah, who lives around the corner from Mr. Abdullah’s travel agency, insisted that criticizing the militias in Damascus could mean a death sentence upon returning to Iraq. A Shiite from the Iraqi province of Babil, he swore he could never return.

Despite belonging to the same Islamic confession, he said that members of the Mahdi Army began targeting him when they decided selling mobile phones was haram, or forbidden. In May 2006, two masked gunmen drove by his shop and shot him in the back. Unconscious in the hospital for 15 days, Falah woke to learn that the bullet had severed his spinal cord and that he was paralyzed from the waist down, unable even to control his bowels or bladder.

As soon as Falah felt strong enough, he, his wife and two children left for Damascus, hoping to find safety and treatment. Doctors have told him he has a 60 percent chance of walking again if he undergoes quickly the appropriate operation. Unfortunately, the procedure is not available in Syria, and he cannot afford to travel to a Western country where it is offered.

Falah said that resettlement in a Western country represents his only chance to walk again. Soon after he arrived in Damascus, Falah registered himself and his family with the UNHCR. Placed on the list for resettlement in the United States, he interviewed with U.S. authorities in May 2008. But, he said, the officials did not believe his story, telling him “there is something missing,” and denied his application. Now, he said, he only hopes another country will look at his file, but he feels weaker by the day and knows his opportunity for full recovery is closing.

In the meantime, his wife cares for him around the clock and recently ruptured a disk in her back moving him in and out of bed. The family has gone through the savings they brought with them from Iraq. UNHCR gives the family 6,000 Syrian pounds ($130) each month, which goes entirely toward rent. In addition, the family receives a monthly food assistance package from the UNHCR, which includes a small supply of rice, pasta, tomato paste, lentils, sugar, bulgur, kerosene and soap. Nevertheless, Falah said his family has no choice but to sell a portion of their food to pay for his medicine. To compensate, the family eats only two meals a day.

Falah spends his days on the streets, trying to sell cell phone cards from his wheelchair. His children, who help support the family rather than attend school, often join him. Falah said the family manages to get by, but barely, and he does not know where they can cut spending as prices continue to rise.

The dramatic influx of Iraqi refugees into Syria has destabilized the local economy. Many of the refugees once filled Iraq’s professional middle class, owning homes, businesses and other investments. (Ipsos, a leading global marketing research firm, recently published a survey indicating that 31 percent of Iraqi refugees in Syria hold university degrees.) Arriving in Damascus with significant savings, many Iraqis were at first more affluent than their Syrian hosts and enjoyed high purchasing power in the local market.But their massive numbers (roughly one of every seven persons living in Damascus is Iraqi) and wealth soon created an unprecedented demand for goods and services, driving up prices for everything from rent to rice. This past year’s price hike on food and other commodities in global markets has only exacerbated inflation. The World Bank reported that food prices in Syria have increased 83 percent in the last three years.

While the Syrian government grants the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees access to most public services, it prohibits them from working to contain the country’s swelling unemployment among its own citizens. As savings run out, a growing number of Iraqis are joining the ranks of Syria’s poorest. And yet despite certain economic hardship, new refugees continue to arrive.

UNHCR launched its food distribution program in September 2007. In the first month, the agency supplied some 33,000 Iraqis with desperately needed provisions. By July 2008, more than 140,000 Iraqis were lining up for food. According to the recent Ipso survey, the number of Iraqis in Syria living on less than $108 per month skyrocketed from 5 to 20 percent between November 2007 and March 2008.

As the Iraqis’ fortunes plummet, poverty- related social problems, such as homelessness, child labor and child marriage, have surged in Syria. A slew of new strip clubs have also opened in Damascus where mostly Iraqi women perform: a phenomenon that aid workers sometimes refer to as the “survival” sex industry.

Zena, an Iraqi refugee living in Damascus’s Jaramana neighborhood, admitted that she has seriously considered prostitution. A widow with two children to support, she sees few other options.

“Should I go the wrong way?” Zena asked softly, tears in her eyes.

The last time rent was due she sold her wedding ring. Her husband, an electrician with the U.S. forces in Baghdad’s Green Zone, was shot and killed on his way home from work in 2005. Christian Chaldeans, the family lived in Baghdad’s notoriously volatile, mixed neighborhood of Dora. When organizing her husband’s funeral, Zena could not find a single driver who was not afraid to escort her husband’s body to the church. And when she finally found a driver, she had to agree to his condition that the service be held in a location other than Dora.

Following her husband’s death, she and her two children moved, first to the Kurdish region, where they stayed with relatives, and then in 2007 to Damascus, where her mother, Amirah, and her sister-in-law, Noura, and her two infants later joined her. The war has made a house of widows out of their tiny apartment in Jaramana. Zena’s father died in a diabetic shock after a car bomb exploded outside the family home. And when Zena’s brother returned to Baghdad for work in March 2008, he was never heard from again.

The family has spent what little savings they had long ago. The $130 from UNHCR and the monthly pension from the Iraqi government for Zena’s father do not even cover basic expenses. Overwhelmed with desperation, Zena at one point almost gave her children to an orphanage, believing they might have a better life in someone else’s care.

U.S. authorities once interviewed her for resettlement, but rejected her application after finding an error on her identification card. In order to have a new card made, Zena would have to appear, in person, at the appropriate ministry in Basra, the city where she was born.

“Should I go back to Basra to renew my I.D.?” she asked. “Should I go there and risk my life? And then I think on the other hand, I don’t want my children to be orphaned from both sides – without a father or a mother.”

Yet despite all the hardships she and her family endure as refugees in Syria, she insisted they cannot return: “I can’t go back to Iraq. Even just psychologically, I can’t imagine myself going back there.”

Syria’s Iraqi refugees live in an impossible situation. The government in Baghdad actively discourages third- party governments to resettle Iraqi refugees. Instead, it will only pay for their travel back to Iraq.

Earlier this year, Germany announced plans to resettle 10,000 Christian Iraqi refugees. In response, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki swiftly visited Berlin and asked the government to scrap the plan, assuring them that the situation was improving and that his government was implementing measures to protect Christians and other minorities. He added that Iraq needed all the refugees to return and help rebuild the country. In the end, Germany canceled the program.

While the Chaldean Church is known to assist individuals in obtaining offers for resettlement, members of its hierarchy opposed the German plan. Some church leaders worried that if word of the plan spread among the Christians still living in Iraq, an overwhelming number might clamor to leave the country all at once.

Nevertheless, there are signs that at least some Iraqi refugees are returning to their country. Along some parts of Saida Zainab’s Iraqi Street, taxi drivers stand outside their large Chevrolet Suburbans with bright red Iraqi license plates and call out to passersby, “Baghdad? Baghdad?”

The fare costs $150. A visitor does not have to wait long before he sees one of these taxis pulling away, with a stack of luggage strapped to its roof, heading east. But, for many Iraqis living in Syria, the trip is a return to the unknown, or perhaps death. So, with no other choices, Iraq’s refugees cling to an uncertain future in a temporary safe haven.

Based in Beirut, Canadian Spencer Osberg covers the Middle East for numerous publications.

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