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Home From Home in Syria

Violence and sectarianism have followed many Iraqis across the border.
By Sahar al-Haideri
Ten-year-old Rifqa Haitham is an Iraqi living in Syria as a refugee with her parents. Every morning when it is time to go to school, she cries and begs to return to Iraq.



Her parents were shocked when she told them she was unhappy because her Syrian schoolmates tease the Iraqis, telling them to go back to their country and liberate it from the Americans.



Rifqa angrily lists their comments, “Why you don’t go back to Iraq? Why are you here? Are you Sunni or Shia? Baathist? Do you like Saddam? Why don’t you fight the enemy like the Lebanese and Palestinians? Why did you leave your country? When will you leave Syria for Iraq?”



She goes silent, dries her tears and says loudly, “What did I do? What did Iraqis do? I feel insulted by my classmates. I hate school and want to go back to Iraq. Syrian students say we didn’t protect Saddam.”



Rifqa is one of many children who fled with their parents from war-torn Iraq looking for a safer life. More than one million Iraqis live in Syria, with about one quarter having official residence, according to the Syrian authorities.



Syrian society is similar to Iraqi in terms of habits, traditions and living conditions, and in the beginning some refugees enjoyed a good life.



But as their numbers increased, so did the problems.



Iraqi Samir Burhan lives in the Rif Dimashq district of Damascus. He thought he had escaped the dangers of Baghdad’s streets, but his son was kidnapped in front of his house in the Syrian capital. The kidnappers asked Burhan to pay a 10,000 US dollar ransom and finally agreed to set him free for 4,000 dollars.



Abduction is frequent in the more volatile areas of Iraq but unusual in Syria.



In Iraq, families afraid of endangering the hostage’s life don’t usually contact the authorities when someone is kidnapped. But even in Syria the victims keep silent, because they are afraid of being deported by the authorities there. They also worry that the kidnappers might cause problems for their relatives still in Iraq.



Crime is also widespread in the refugee community, with petty confidence tricksters particularly common.



One Iraqi refugee asked a neighbour how to register his four children at school. The man, also Iraqi, said he would help but that it would cost 400 dollars. “I gave him [the money], but I was doubtful so I went to the ministry of education and found out it costs only two dollars.”



The desperate plight of many refugees tempts some locals to take advantage of the situation.



Iraqi Mahir Salim had to renew his residency and went to the relevant office in the Baramike district to find about 600 of his countrymen waiting to do the same thing. In the end, he put a 50 dollar bribe in his passport to speed up the process.



The bureaucracy has been swamped by the extra demand created by the refugees. Hundreds of Iraqis gather at the immigration office every day, waiting desperately for their residency requests to be dealt with or their papers to be renewed.



“I have been coming here every single day for two weeks now, standing in line, and nothing happens because it’s too crowded,” said mother of three Nadia Arif, 37. “They just keep telling us that these procedures may take a very long time, and that we have to be patient and wait for our turn to apply for a long-term residency.”



Her husband stayed in Iraq and works for a company in the north, managing to send money from time to time. “He keeps telling me that I have to be brave until he can join us here. But I feel like I will just collapse from exhaustion at any moment,” said Ariff.



A Syrian government decision to change the visa regulations for Iraqis, shortening the time they are allowed to stay to 15 days, recently prompted demonstrations in front of the Damascus office of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.



Sadi Ahmed, 60, a Shia from Baghdad where he once owned a clothing store, left Iraq after receiving a threatening letter from an Islamic party. He called upon the Iraqi and Syrian governments to take care of the refugees. “Iraqis are being eliminated at home, so they should not be forced back to Iraq,” he said.



Queues of Iraqis gather every morning in front of western embassies seeking asylum. Sweden has recently opened its doors to some Iraqi immigrants, but getting a visa isn’t easy. As ever, there are those willing to help – for a price. Lawyer Sarmad Tariq described how one man promised to get him a visa for 11,000 dollars.



Othman Abdul-Wahid wants to go to Sweden but needs a new passport to replace the one he lost. He’s been told he must go back to Iraq to apply or pay a 400 dollar bribe.



“I want to apply for asylum in Sweden as soon as possible which means I have to accept the offer… and pay the bribe,” he said.



Majid Ghanim applied for asylum at a European embassy in Syria but despite supplying photos of his dead brother and his bombed house, he was turned down. An Iraqi visa broker stepped in, offering to sell him a photo of a body that had been tortured, a death certificate and a document describing how Ghanim’s family had been murdered.



Even in Syria, there are sectarian tensions among the incomers. Iraqi Christians have settled in the Sednaya district in northern Damascus, perhaps for its churches, and others live in the Barza neighbourhood. Well-to-do families live in luxurious districts of such as Mazze in western Damascus.



The majority of Sunnis came to Qudisiya, while Shias are situated around the Shia shrine of Sayida Zaineb and Jurmane.



Ayman Abdullah told IWPR that during the recent procession in Jurmane to mark Ashura, a Shia holy day, a teenager passed by on a motorcycle loudly playing an Arabic pop song to disrupt the event. A fight broke out and some of the Ashura participants broke the windshields of cars parked nearby with licence plates from majority Sunni Iraqi provinces.



Political differences between Iraqis glad to have escaped the totalitarian system of Saddam Hussein and Syrians who are still unhappy with the regime change only add to the problems.



Muayyad Jawad’s landlord forced him to leave the flat for which he had paid a year’s rent in advance after Jawad criticised Saddam. The landlord had held a wake to mark Saddam’s execution, Jawad said. Many Arabs believe that Saddam was a national hero and see him as a charismatic figure in the struggle against western occupiers.



The newcomers have imported many Iraqi traditions into their new country. With close to a million Iraqi refugees, restaurants in the districts where they are concentrated commonly feature Fallujah kebab, Erbil yogurt, Hilla cream and Mosul pickles.



Omar Abdul-Malik from Fallujah has found work in a bakery specialising in baking Iraqi-style bread. However, the little money he makes is barely enough to sustain him and two relatives whom he supports.



In Syria he feels safer, but far from happy. “That feeling of homesickness is killing us every day and every hour,” he said. “I keep dreaming of the day we will be able to go back to Fallujah and see all our relatives, neighbours and dear friends again.”



In his home town, he used to work in a small restaurant that was burned down during an American attack. “If that’s what democracy means, I would rather have lived all my life in ignorance,” he said.



Mohammed Abdul-Halim, an Iraqi businessman who owns restaurants in Iraq and Syria, is more optimistic. “We’re coping with our new life here, and [even though we] use the same names… we have left our sectarian feuds on the other side of the border.”



Sahar Al-Haideri is an IWPR reporter in Mosul. Nassme Muhammad is a pseudonym for an IWPR contributor.



This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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