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Exodus: Iraqi Refugees in Syria

Christopher Watt gives us the largest refugee crisis in the world at ground level

Between four and five million Iraqis have fled their homes since the American invasion in 2003. They escaped by bus, taxi and car, though some must have crossed the desert on foot. More that one million are in Syria, where they live on the outskirts of Damascus, in apartments paid for with cash.

Many are determined to stay, even as their savings dwindle and housing costs rise. Desperation has led to high levels of child labor and prostitution. Syria has been forced to step up with food assistance, health care and cash handouts (refugees are unable to work under Syrian law). The strain on local infrastructure was so great at one point that, according to reports, three of the neighborhoods that hosted refugees no longer had safe drinking water.

The situation has pushed Syrian officials to tighten visa requirements. Until recently, refugees could make quick runs to the Iraqi border every six months to renew their visas—a trick that, theoretically, allowed them to stay indefinitely. In September 2007, the Syrian regime ruled that only academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs need re-apply. This left most Iraqis refugees with an ugly choice: return to Iraq or stay in Syria and, as one man put it, go “below the ground” to avoid deportation.

In countries that have signed the relevant conventions, refugees are protected against deportation. But Syria has not signed those conventions, and therefore perhaps only a quarter of Iraq’s new displaced class have registered with the United Nations High Council on Refugees. For many, becoming a refugee means nothing more than a chance to tell their story for the first time. At a registration centre outside the city, where there are curtains for privacy but not nearly enough chairs to go around, a new Syrian university graduate transcribes one family’s grim, typical story into power-point English on a computer screen dense with columns and rows under headings like: INITIATING INCIDENT. The storyteller, a Shia man alongside his Sunni wife, surrounded by their brood, speaks softly; after all, the kidnappers of his seven-year old son, who shares a chair with his twin brother during this hearing, could be airing their own grievances in the next booth.

Outside UN headquarters in the upscale district of Kafer Souseh, a tired woman thrusts her identification papers across a guard rail. She wants to become a refugee, and applied to become one months ago, but the UN has yet to call with an appointment time so that she can make her case. “Send me anywhere—even Darfur!” 

In Damascus refugee circles, limbo is a popular word. The problems these people face often go deeper than uncertainty about their legal status. In the Sunni-Christian neighbourhood of Jaramanah, where 100,000 Iraqis are said to live, a boy named Zaid is silent while his father, a former mechanic in Saddam’s air force, describes a bus crash last year that left Zaid without his right arm and his face covered in scars. He shields them from view with a New York Yankees hat pulled down low. In a cruel irony, Zaid received his injuries on a visa run. The family had received its new stamps from Al Tanf border crossing east of Damascus, but on the road home to Jaramanah the bus driver lost control. They are seeking help in Canada, but the father believes his connection to the Baath regime could ruin Zaid’s shot at plastic surgery and a better prosthetic. The one Zaid currently wears was made just for him by a Syrian doctor affiliated with Medecins San Frontieres, but it would better fit a six-foot tall man. The kid’s string of bad breaks began elsewhere, in Baghdad, where before the move and the accident, he spent more than two weeks in captivity, taken from a bus stop in front of the family’s home in a wealthy district and held for ransom by kidnappers that Zaid’s father either cannot or refuses to name

Here are six more stories from the largest refugee crisis in the world. Much of this reporting took place in late 2007.


Umm and Abu Anas were comfortable enough before the American invasion of Iraq. Umm Anas has a university degree and speaks fluent English. Abu Anas traded garments in Baghdad and Damascus

The war changed everything. Abu Anas lost the business when travel became risky. The family moved to Egypt but Abu Anas couldn’t make a living; he had $3,000 for an internet cafe, but needed $7,000 more. They moved to Jordan but couldn’t get a business off the ground. They moved to Syria on December 8, 2005, and Abu Anas went back to Iraq to sell his car, with the intention of wiring the money to his wife. The buyer took the car and kept his money. Now Umm Anas spends what’s left on pencils and stickers that read: “Superstar!” She runs a school for the childern of Iraqi refugees in a suburb called Sayyida Zeynab. Crayon drawings of trees and families and Iraq flags hang on the wall of the family’s living room.

In May 2006, Anas, their oldest son, complained of chest pains. They took him to a local clinic. A doctor asked if the son had a pre-existing condition (he didn’t). Then, says Umm Anas, the doctor stuck a needle in her son’s arm and he fell unconscious. They rushed him to a real hospital where he died. A second doctor said the first doctor’s dosage was meant for an adult, and called that doctor a fool. The death certificate cites internal bleeding.

Abu Anas, she explained, was not present for some of these events. She has kept certain details to herself because she is afraid that he will kill someone if he learns them. Abu Anas was sitting across the room as she spoke, leaning in—her English is better than his. But a Syrian journalist who knows the family said things may not have unfolded precisely how she says they did. As a mourning mother, she’s prone to conspiratorial thoughts.

But mourning is all she left. I address her as Umm Anas, though that isn’t her real name. Umm Anas means Mother of Anas. She tells me they drove Anas to the Iraqi border in rental cars where uncles and cousins collected his body and took it to Baghdad for burial. She has never seen the grave.


We’re sitting in Mishan Al-Jabouri’s office, in a large villa in a Damascus suburb popular with embassies from small countries. He tells a story from his youth in the 1960s, a lawless time during which his immediate male relatives were killed in a firefight, and al-Jabouri was catapulted to top of the powerful Jabouri tribe, a group that would later supply soldiers to Saddam’s elite Republican guard. This is the same tribe that tried to assassinate the leader in the early 1990s, prompting the execution of the rest of al-Jabouri’s relatives, and an odyssey that forced him to settle in Damascus the first time around.

He returned to Iraq to lead a small post-U.S. invasion Sunni political party, establishing himself as a power broker in the northern city of Mosul. By 2006, al-Jabouri was accused of stealing reconstruction dollars meant to pay security crews at local oil installations. His colleagues in Iraq’s Shia-dominated parliament stripped him of legal immunity, launched corruption charges, and forced Jabouri into Syrian exile once again.

Until recently, Jabouri ran Al-Zawraa TV, a pro-insurgency television station comprised of panel trucks parked in remote locations. The station immortalized a Baghdad sniper named Juba, and airedbattlefield videos bearing the logo of a major insurgency group called the Islamic Army in Iraq. He also created a popular regular segment called “Hidden Camera Jihad” and became a go-to guy for Al-Jazeera on the subjects of Iraqi nationalism and what he called the “honest resistance” against the American occupation. Following the execution of Saddam Hussein, he praised the former leader as a martyr and got into a screaming match—recorded on Youtube —with an Iraqi Shia journalist, calling the man a “Persian shoe.”

“My life is like one of those Indian movies.” He was talking about Bollywood, with its melodramatic twists and turns. In January 2008, the US Treasury Department froze al-Jabouri’s assets, accusing him of inciting violence in Iraq. But Saddam once gave him a watch and a car, he says, and he has the tribe. “I am out of the American game. But I am not out of the Iraqi game,” he said.


Wissam, 30, was nervous. He asked that his full name not appear in print and that our conversation not be recorded. He glanced over his shoulder at a row of cars in a parking lot. We’re in an empty outdoor cafe in downtown Damascus. He lights the first of five cigarettes he’ll smoke over the next hour.

Wissam’s father died when he was 13, and with no breadwinner in the family, he started working as a mechanic. When he was 14 or 15, he noticed a young woman walking home late one night near his house. Some men started to harass her, asking her for cigarettes, so he rose to her defence. He realized she lived alone, so he decided to keep defending her.

“I was a teenager and I started noticing her body,” he explains. Defending her meant going with her to the club she worked at, a small problem because he lived in a religious neighbourhood. But “she started telling people, ‘that’s my little brother,’” and he started making money there—150SP ($3) a night, plus cigarettes. “No one asked me where I got it.”

Today he’s responsible for the productivity and well-being of some thirty women from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The majority are Iraqi, because with more to gain, and more to lose, they’re easier to manage. Many of the Iraqi women fled to Syria after their husbands were killed. He doesn’t need to recruit them; the girls do that for him. He just takes them to the Artists Union to renew their visas every two weeks. He’d like to start his own club one day.


Ra’ad Al-Qademi was a Friday prayer leader in Sadr City, a predominantly Shia neighbourhood in Baghdad, according to reports. He now runs the Sadr office in Sayyida Zeynab. His boss, Moktada Sadr—the firebrand cleric who, in the early days of the invasion, rose to prominence as the leader of the insurgent Mahdi Army and went on to become one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People—has a following in Damascus, which makes Ra’ad Qademi a fairly important person. But would the Mahdi Army ever give up their guns?

“We have a leader, and when our leader decides to stop, we will stop. We don’t have the dictatorship of one sole leader, [but] our leader decides the interests of the Iraqi people,” al-Qademi said through a translator.

Sadr decides the interests of the Iraqi people? Why can’t they decide for themselves?

“He’s our leader and he inherited that from his family,” al-Qademi said.

Sadr’s father, an ayatollah, was assassinated by the Saddam’s regime; his picture appears on a poster in the alley outside the office. His face appears on a mural inside, where perhaps a dozen followers in black t-shirts gather before prayer. Sadr inherited that authority, and transformed it.

“We have to follow him because he is our leader.”

What about Iraqis who do not subscribe to his beliefs?

“All Iraqis, Sunni, Shia, Christian, Sabean, they know that he has no interest in this world.”

Al-Qademi mentioned an “international plan to help the whole world,” but offered no specifics, and anyway, it was time for prayer. We had stayed too long, but he offered a parting gift: A book of defiant sermons Sadr the elder famously delivered before his death.

Can I take this?

“Yes, but you have to read it.”

Later, a Syrian friend who attended the meeting regretted that the emissary had not been asked something else. “Why do his people drill holes in Iraqis’ heads?”


After the first Gulf War in 1991, Salman went to Basra, a southern Iraqi city where plenty of fighting had occurred. A few days later, he noticed swelling in his cheeks. He thought they were mosquito bites. The swelling spread to his nose, wrists, and spine, and it itched. He tore at his skin. 

We sat on a patio in Sayyida Zeynab. Salman had arrived on August 22, 2006. He handed over two pictures. The first was taken before his trip to Basra, when he had a full head of hair. The second is from his passport application. He is bald, and his cheeks and hairline look flayed.

Salman shares a house with a three other Iraqis, Adil, Methem and Riad. Methem arrived in Damascus with $500, Adil with $250 and Riad with nothing. They pay 9500 SP a month in rent, or almost $500. All three men work illegally, doing small jobs around the neighbourhood, but it’s never enough. 

Salman, understandably, is fixated on his illness. Back in 2003, after the U.S. invasion, an upstart Iraqi newspaper called “The People’s Road” profiled Salman, blaming his condition on depleted uranium in the soil from bombs dropped on Basra during America’s first stint in Iraq. Salman showed me a Syrian doctor’s report, written in English for the international aid community. The report blamed lupus for his state. He keeps these files in a plastic bag.

Salman has been prescribed sulphur pills. The doctor told him to make a point of soaking his hands, but he doesn’t have regular access to running water. Salman’s days are all about fatigue. He spends them sitting. “He wakes up tired and goes to sleep,” says a friend.

There is some humour in this. Even Salman laughs. But his three-month travel visa will soon expire and he wasn’t sure what to do. “I have to leave. I don’t expect to get another visa to enter Syria. I have to find a solution,” he says. He faces a five-year ban if caught overstaying his visa, he believes. “Frankly, if I have to go back to Iraq, I will commit suicide.”


Nearly a hundred years ago Sami’s family migrated to northern Iraq. But when Sami was born his parents had to register him in Baghdad, and that’s where his documents say he’s from.

That’s also where he was in the late 1990s, working at his clothing stall in a bazaar, when a neighbour asked Sami—who is Christian—why he didn’t have a banner hanging on his wall with a saying from the Quran. Meanwhile, propaganda posters and murals began appear across the city with Saddam posing as defender of the Muslim faith. When Samis youngest son, Stevan, was being press-ganged into a state-run military boot camp, Sami put two and two together and took the family to Syria.

That was 2002, and Sami now finds himself forced into early retirement. His leg, badly damaged in the 1980s when an Iranian mortar struck the army kitchen he worked in during the Iran-Iraq War, was amputated after a long infection and replaced with a clunky prosthetic. Now he tends to his documents, and looks for a way to the West. It’s been six years. Sami and his family are not technically Iraqi war refugees, which may complicate the resettlement process.

The room goes quiet. Sami’s teenage daughter Stevana sits on a far couch with his wife, back home from her job cleaning houses for richer Iraqis. Sami mentions a cousin who lives in Vaughan, Ontario, and an eruption of Arabic ensues. The wheels are turning. Maybe I can help?


[See a Flickr slideshow of "Exodus" by Phil Sands.]

[Christopher Watt is a reporter living in London, England.]