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Letter from Syria: Goodbye to Iraq...

Abu Khas provides a taste of Baghdad in the Jeremana neighborhood of Damascus. In front, an Iraq-bound GMC makes a pit-stop. Photo by Rob Eshelman.

At first, Jeremana seems like any other neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. A steady stream of road-worn automobiles hobbles over the pot-holed streets that are lined with boxy, chock-a-block apartment buildings. Throngs of people crowd its narrow sidewalks during the hot July nights. They stroll along, passing ubiquitous portraits of Hafiz al-Asad, the country’s former President, now dead, and his son and current leader Bashar al-Asad, which dot shop windows and occupy the center of nearly every traffic circle. By all accounts, it is a typical scene in this bustling city of seven million people.

That is, except for one notable and profound exception: this Damascus neighborhood is teaming with refugees from Iraq.

Shop names are perhaps the first indicator of this recent transformation. Two businesses, among many others, that reveal the neighborhood’s Iraqi roots are “Zerzour’s Renowned Kebab Restaurant,” which, as the shop’s signage announces, is a transplant from Fallujah and “Qassim Abu Khas,” an outpost of a popular Baghdad eatery. Strike up a conversation with anyone in this area and—with few exceptions—they will be from Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, Khaldiyyah or any number of other Iraqi cities or towns. The neighboring district of Seyyida Zeinab is no different. Indeed, “Little Fallujah” and “Little Najaf” are now commonly used monikers for these areas.

Over two million Iraqis have escaped the acute humanitarian catastrophe and the pervasive violence that grips most of their country and have fled to nations near Iraq. Another two million Iraqis are internally displaced within their country’s borders. This massive movement of people is the largest in the Middle East since the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949 and is now the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.

Most have come to Syria. According to the office of the United Nation’s High Commissioner on Refugees, 60,000 Iraqis are entering the country each month. But for these refugees who have successfully escaped their embattled homeland, arriving in Syria merely ushers in a new set of crises. For many, their lives are defined by poverty, exploitation and discrimination.

This huge influx of people may only be the beginning of a wider, more devastating current in Syria and the region. Syria’s economy and infrastructure is being tested by the steady flow of incoming Iraqis. While Syrians, for the most part, have welcomed the newcomers as neighbors and victims in need of help, a bit of compassion fatigue seems to be setting in. How Arab governments and international NGOs can confront such a monumental problem is a lingering question. From the streets of Damascus, the picture does not look good and adequate help is not to be found anywhere on the political horizon.

“The situation is deteriorating,” says Kristele Younes of Refugees International, a Washington D.C.-based NGO that advocates on behalf of refugees worldwide. “The numbers are growing and the welcome is wearing thin.”

Upstairs at Abu Khas, over plates of thinly sliced shawarma meat, hummus and fresh baked bread, Tariq al-Obeidi, 27, describes his journey from Iraq and his unsettled life in Damascus. In December, Tariq fled his Baghdad neighborhood, where gunfights were common and there had not been electricity for a month. Tariq left because he was accused of being a spy. After an American Stryker vehicle, a type of armored personnel carrier, smashed into his car, he went to a military base near his home to file a financial claim for the damages. But his visit raised suspicions among his neighbors and a few days later he received a letter threatening his life; inside the folded up piece of paper he found a bullet. Soon after Tariq left taking his 62-year-old mother with him. The two now live in a single-room basement apartment in Seyyida Zeinab along with Tariq’s brother, his wife and their three young children, who also fled Baghdad recently.

Tariq’s savings—mostly the few thousand dollars he received from the US military—are quickly running out. “For me, there is no future in Syria. There is no work because the Syrians stamp your passport. If I found a job in the black market, I would work all day and be paid a fraction of what Syrians make,” he says. “The working conditions are very poor. They exploit Iraqis.”

His predicament is common among refugees here. The early influx of Iraqis was largely comprised of educated, middle and upper middle class professionals, but recent arrivals are less economically secure. According to data collected by the UNHCR in Damascus, most Iraqis who now register with the organization arrive with three to five months of savings. Prevented from working by the Syrian government, some find under-the-table jobs, where wages are low. Many Iraqis I spoke with complained that employers had stiffed them for pay. Worse, a growing number of refugee women and girls, some reportedly as young as 13, are forced into sex work.

“[Iraqis] bring some money with them but spend it quickly because it is very expensive here,” says Houloud Jadoun, a social worker with CARITAS, a Christian charity, which provides aid, such as food vouchers, to refugee families. Once their cash runs out, she says, “they go backward into poverty” and become “aid dependent.”

Outside the CARITAS office in Jeremana, about two-dozen families are lined up in order to register for assistance. Among them is Um ‘Ali, 40, and her 11-year-old daughter. I ask Um ‘Ali how she and her family are getting by in Syria. “Very badly,” the mother responds. “The [cost] of living is higher than in Iraq. It’s much more expensive.” Making matters worse, her husband is sick and is unable to work and her 15-year old daughter refuses to return to school. “She cannot cope with the Syrians. They tease her because she is Iraqi,” she explains. Another woman, also a mother, who is observing our conversation, nods in agreement when Um ‘Ali mentions the taunts.

While Iraqis like Tariq and Um ‘Ali try to adjust, Syria’s utility infrastructure is approaching a breaking point. A bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information summed up the water situation: “Damascus has a water supply for about four million. The city’s population was estimated at around seven million prior to the arrival of the refugees. Now, the city’s population hovers closer to ten million.” While his estimation of the number of Iraqi refugees in Damascus is exaggerated, he makes a crucial observation: the city’s water system is wildly overburdened.

Syria’s power grid is overwhelmed as well. During the summer, hours-long blackouts hit Damascus and other major cities. High temperatures and a growing population have increased demand, while three successive years of drought have drained the Euphrates River, along which sit Syria’s hydroelectric facilities. In August, former Minister of Industry Issam Zaim told the New York Times: “These power interruptions are costing the country dearly. […] This is affecting our ability to pump water around the country, which not only affects human consumption, but industry, agriculture, just about everything.” Meanwhile, the Bush administration has blacklisted foreign companies doing business in Syria, among them the German firm Siemens, which is refitting Syria’s high-voltage transmitters. Syria has five times put out to bid international construction contracts for two new generation facilities, which domestic companies are unable to build. They have yet to receive any replies. The combination of a dilapidated, over-worked infrastructure and an unpredictable investment environment means that Syria’s utility crisis will likely remain unchanged.

The costs of many goods and services have increased recently. Chief among them is the price of housing, which is a constant source of complaint among Syrians. But the government subsidizes certain products, such as gas and some food items. Thus, the state foots the bill for rising commodity costs, not the consumer. Furthermore, the Syrian government subsidizes health and education, both of which are utilized by Iraqis. Overall, the Syrian government estimates that the influx of Iraqi refugees is costing one billion dollars a year. While there are likely multiple economic factors driving up prices, it is the Iraqis who are commonly held to blame.

Ask Syrians how they feel about the Iraqi refugees, and one hears a consistent refrain. In a single statement, many will express compassion toward the Iraqis’ plight and simultaneously level harsh criticism toward them for increased costs and emerging social ills. A typical interaction occurred one afternoon on my way to Jeremana. After hopping into a cab and stating where I was headed, the driver complained about the neighborhood. “It’s so…crowded,” he said in a way that indicated it wasn’t the number of people that was the problem. I asked if it was because Iraqis lived there. “Yes, it’s not pleasant there anymore.” He then took issue with the rising rental prices and the appearance of prostitution before adding: “What can they do? They are fleeing war.” At the moment, compassion among Syrians seems to be winning out over contempt. But with the number of refugees increasing rapidly, it’s difficult to predict if, and when, a crucial shift might happen.

In order to understand the Syrians’ trepidation of the Iraqis, it is necessary to recognize the existence and impact of a prior refugee population in the Middle East–the Palestinians. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the war that followed, three quarters of a million Palestinians were displaced. Another wave of refugees followed the Six Day War in 1967. By 1982, Palestinian refugees had reached two million; today, they number between four and six million. Palestinians are nearly half of Jordan’s population of six million people. In Syria, there are nearly half a million of them registered as refugees, but the actual number is probably double. Many Syrians I spoke with wondered if the Iraqis, who are now so numerous in Damascus, will ever be able to return and might, like the Palestinians before them, become a permanent fixture in Syrian society.

Jeremana: Portraits of former Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad and his son, Syria’s current leader, Bashar al-Asad stand at the entrance to the Jeremana neighborhood of Damascus, an increasingly Iraqi dominated section of Damascus. Photo by Rob Eshelman.

The staff of intergovernmental agencies, such as the UNHCR, and NGOs, like CARITAS, nobly confront the crisis but are unable, given their limitations, to address such a huge problem. At the UNHCR’s registration facility in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Iraqis are told by the organization that it will be a minimum of six months before they can get a registration appointment, at which time they will receive official refugee status. An Iraqi, claiming to have a severe problem—a medical issue or an immediate threat to his or her life—might be seen in three to four months. “Recently, some [Iraqis] are coming through to register, then they go back to Iraq to wait for their appointment,” says Sybella Wilkes, a UNHCR spokesperson. Wilkes says that the agency will be hiring more registration personnel and a mobile team that can go out to neighborhoods like Jeremana and Seyyida Zeinab. Yet, looking around the crowded center and reviewing the intake data provided by the agency, it is difficult to see this having much impact. Of the estimated two million refugees in Syria, just over one hundred thousand have registered with the organization.

At the end of the day, the UNHCR has little to offer. Once registered with the agency, refugees are given a referral list for services, such as Red Crescent medical clinics and a document that requests Syria not deport them back to Iraq. Nonetheless, they are still required to renew their visas every few months, a process that means returning to Iraq and re-entering Syria. Sitting in on a registration appointment, my translator, at the conclusion of the interview, said to the Iraqi family seated in front of us: “Now, you are officially homeless!” Other than a list of service agencies and a document of ambiguous legal importance, refugees leave interviews like this with little material gain.

This quandary raises the question: What can be done to address the refugee crisis? Refugee International’s Younes envisions a pragmatic approach: “The best possible solution is that they return to Iraq. But this is not happening any time soon. We’re all for a political solution but until this happens we will not advocate for Iraqis to return.” Indeed, an end to the violence and a correction of the humanitarian disaster inside Iraq seems unlikely in the near future. Therefore, Younes recommends a combination of third country resettlement and refugee integration into the countries where they currently reside. “But [resettlement] is only an option for a small number of refugees— the most vulnerable,” she says. As for integration, Younes envisions a joint NGO and governmental aid initiative. “We need to fully fund the United Nations and NGOs. But these organizations alone cannot address the need, which governments are positioned best to respond to. For governments to respond, though, they need more bilateral aid and that means the international community needs to engage with every ministry in the region to see they are getting the resources they need.” But even this approach seems unlikely in light of many countries’ political and economic isolation of Syria.

And, as ‘Amr al-Aqedi of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars points out, a full-press, international humanitarian intervention would be an admission that the US project in Iraq has failed. “The US came here with its rhetoric of freedom. So if they allow the international community to help these refugees, the whole world will be admitting that there is suffering. The international community will then ask: ‘Why are they suffering?’” Besides, as Younes points out, only the Syrian state has the capacity to address this crisis. And it is difficult to imagine the US or any EU country handing over millions of dollars to the Syrian government in order to address the problem, even if they have unleashed it.

A new Middle East—awash in refugees, political turmoil and war— is taking shape. Each day, more and more traumatized Iraqi refugees cross over into Syria and try desperately to conjure up a new life in places like Jeremana and Seyyida Zeinab. The idea that Syria and Jordan (where an additional estimated 750,000 displaced Iraqis are believed to reside) will shoulder the burden of another refugee crisis astounds many people in Damascus. Anger toward the Bush administration and other American policy-makers is high, which binds many Syrians and Iraqis together and trumps much of the animosity that Syrians may hold toward the refugees. But it seems that the Syrian government, which, astonishingly, continues to provide sanctuary to fleeing Iraqis, cannot keep pace with the enormous need that this crisis generates. Aid groups, too, are overburdened. It is difficult to predict how this situation may evolve in the near future, but from this ancient capital the potential for widespread economic and political catastrophe appears to be extremely high.


Robert S. Eshelman

ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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