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."

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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