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."

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood