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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