Still a rough road to Damascus

The 1.2 million displaced Iraqis who have found refuge in Syria face a deeply uncertain future.

In the bustling Damascene suburbs of Saida Zeinab and Jaramana, people go about their daily tasks, shopping and socialising. In these parts of the Syrian capital's burgeoning outskirts, the concrete buildings are rising rapidly as ever more people move to the cities.

Among the Syrian residents are large numbers of Iraqis, well hidden because of their similar ethnic origins and language. According to government figures, there are roughly 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, most of whom arrived following the US-led invasion of 2003 and the sectarian violence that broke out afterwards. Syria is home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees living abroad, though many have settled in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond, crossing borders in the hope of finding security and escaping the killing. And still they come.

In Syria, UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) has helped 22,863 people leave to be resettled in third countries, mainly the United States, since 2007. The situation in Iraq is too dangerous for the agency to encourage people to return there, though it does assist those determined to go back. So far, just 1,394 have returned with UNHCR's assistance - and an unknown number without. For the remainder, what they presumed would be a short exile has turned into a prolonged stay, accompanied by diminishing livelihood and loss of hope.

For the Hussein family, the Arabic saying "Whoever leaves his home loses his prestige" rings uncomfortably true. Zuheir, Tamara and their two young girls, Doha and Janna, fled from Diyala in eastern Iraq at the end of 2006. A series of events caused them to leave. Armed militias began knocking on the door of their home, threatening the family for what Zuheir calls unknown reasons. Tamara's brother and nephew were killed. From a window, the family saw bombs go off at the local school.

The Husseins do not regret leaving Iraq but are tired of the instability. "We are in limbo and have been for the past four years," says Zuheir, speaking in their small flat in Saida Zeinab, an area where Shia refugees congregate. "It is impossible to look to the future." Tamara breaks down several times as we talk and says that she feels isolated. "We have lost everything: jobs, friends, family, money, education, prospects."

Hard choices

Syria shares a border of 605 kilometres with Iraq, as well as pan-Arab kinship. It has been a relatively generous host, issuing visas and opening its schools and hospitals to refugees. Yet, with its own economic problems and rising unemployment, Damascus has drawn the line at issuing work permits, leaving the refugees with no legal means of earning money.

The Iraqi community in Syria is largely middle class. Many were doctors, teachers and engineers and brought money. But savings have been spent and remittances from back home are drying up. "I am ashamed to ask for any more money from my sister," Tamara says. To make ends meet, those in the Husseins' position do informal work: cleaning, factory or manual jobs that pay as little as £1.40 per day.

Financial hardship is having knock-on effects. Drop-out rates are rising as families pull their children out of school to take jobs. Simone Deli, 21, who came with her family from Mosul, earns £30 a month working at a textile factory. At her home in a run-down block of flats in Jaramana, she says it is her dream to finish her studies but the family rent of £100 a month requires her to work. Her father, Saleem Naamo, looks on with shame and says that this is not what he wanted for his daughter.

“Every day, the plight of the Iraqis is falling further and further off the radar screens of the public, agencies and international donors," says Elizabeth Campbell, senior advocate at the US lobby group Refugees International. "People are forced into very challenging circumstances, with the choice of either returning to an unsafe Iraq or continuing to struggle in exile to achieve basic security."

The strain of living in limbo for so long also has a psychological spillover; many families report problems sleeping. "The effects of the trauma penetrate every family," says Campbell. And the changed power roles - often women find it easier to find jobs, leaving men, used to being the breadwinner, at home - have heightened family tensions. Community workers say that sexual and gender-based violence is on the increase. By the middle of this year, UNHCR had identified more than 800 such cases in Syria, and many others remain hidden.

“The Iraqi refugee community is unique, in that a large part of it comes from a middle-class background and it resides in urban areas, not camps," says Renata Dubini, the UNHCR representative in Syria. "People are not dying of starvation, but they are experiencing a great sense of loss that is magnified with the passing of time." Although the community is resilient, its future looks uncertain. "Our resettlement rate is good," says Dubini. "But we had assumed that there would be a situation where we could advocate a wide-scale return to Iraq, and that hasn't happened."

American dream

Many Iraqis living abroad had pinned their hopes on a new government following the Iraqi elections in March, but months of discussion had come to nothing by late October. At times, the state has called on the refugees to come back to make the country seem safe. But many who return find a lack of basic services, such as medical care and electricity. Jobs are also scarce.

Offers of resettlement from other countries are low - the UK took fewer than 500 Iraqis last year, compared to 18,883 by the US - and are no guarantee of prosperity. One woman due to emigrate with her husband and children to a small town in Kentucky confides: "This seemed like a solution, but now that we are leaving, I'm worried." With little English, and facing potential unemployment and - in the US - a restricted social welfare system, she finds the prospect of a move intimidating.

In Syria, too, funds are falling. The US provided 65 per cent of the requested $271m budget for UNHCR's Iraqi refugees programme in Syria and beyond in 2008, but this figure has sub­sequently fallen and other donors drop away each year. UNHCR has already had to make cutbacks to its medical and education services. The refugees are concerned that Syria won't allow them to stay indefinitely and that limited resources will lead to an increase in child labour, prostitution and petty theft. This, in turn, could lead to deportation.

“The human costs for the future generation and for the country are tragic," Campbell says. "A highly urbanised, educated people is becoming uneducated, poor and lacking in opportunities." It is something the community is well aware of. However, for Saleem, who fled Iraq before the war, daily life is about surviving.

“Sometimes, I can't believe my daughter is not in school," he says, "or that my son, Ramon, a talented artist, has no way of making something of his skills. Mainly, the day is about finding enough money to pay the rent, to eat and to stay in safety."

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue