Should I stay or should I go? Hobson's choice for Iraqi refugees in Syria


Those familiar with Syria before the conflict would recognize that xenophobic sentiments are contrary to the cultural DNA of Syria. But fears of difference have become much more entrenched as a result of the bloody conflict and the absence of a just authority.   

Rita from Syria
17 June 2013

Omar: In the summer of 2012, Abo Omar's family – originally from Basra – fled Sitt Zeinab, a neighbourhood south of Damascus named after the Shi'i shrine of Zeinab, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, leaving everything behind. Intensified armed clashes had extended to their alley forcing hundreds of Iraqis and Syrian families to abandon their homes – they walked the whole six kilometers distance to the neighbouring suburb of Jaramana. Newly displaced people were welcomed into local schools doubling as makeshift shelters with Iraqi families housed in a shelter solely for Iraqis. A month later, with no hope of their return to Sitt Zeinab, Abo Omar's family rented a small house and settled in Jaramana.

After losing all that they owned, Omar, the oldest son found work with an Iraqi transport firm, easing the financial burden on the family. For now, Iraqi transport companies are the only place where Iraqis can find employment. Syrian law dictates that Iraqi refugees are prohibited from working and most Iraqi companies operating out of Damascus have faced closure.

In December 2012, the company's office was raided by Syrian security forces. Omar was arrested along with four other Iraqis. For three long months Omar was subjected to torture and accused of terrorism. He had been forced to put his fingerprints to papers – the contents to which he could not read nor understand. All the while, his family were unaware of his whereabouts and well-being. Eventually he was transferred to a court which duly acquitted him of all charges and set him free. Despite the ongoing threat from sectarian militias, two of his brothers decided to go back to Iraq rather than risk facing what had befallen Omar. The rest of the family has stayed on in Jaramana in the  hope of being granted resettlement in a third country – a hope whose glimmers are fading with every passing day.

Tareq: Tareq lost his entire family to the sectarian violence which overwhelmed Iraq in 2006 and 2007. An old war-wound to his leg earned while serving in the Iraqi army during the 1991 Gulf war has severely hampered Tareq's mobility. On arrival in Syria, Tareq found refuge in Sitt Zeinab depending on welfare from the UN and various NGOs. However, with the armed conflict extending into his neigbourhood, his life once more came under threat. An armed opposition group kidnapped him for three days accusing him of being Shi'i. He was released after his kidnappers carefully observed the manner in which he prayed, assuring them that he was in fact a co-religionist. Less than a week later, he was arrested by state security forces and detained for two months. This time he was accused of being involved in terrorism and subjected to torture. He was set free after the court dismissed all charges against him. Tareq moved to Jaramana where he lives on whatever kindness people can afford him.

Far from being isolated cases, the stories of Omar and Tareq reflect the reality of the threats faced by the many thousands of Iraqis remaining in Syria today. As the armed conflict has intensified, the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria has fallen steadily. Seeing Iraqi families huddled around their meagre possessions as they wait for their bus to leave has become a very familiar sight. Many have gone back to Iraq despite the very real risk of sectarian violence.  A fortunate few have been granted resettlement in a third country. Yet, there are many more who are still here – finding themselves caught between a rock and a very hard place.

"We can't go back to our country because of the threat of sectarian militias. They have even put my name at all borders to stop and detain me as soon as I enter Iraq. They want to kill me because I refused to put their leader's photo in my shop window", Bader Said.

"I have no one left in Iraq so why should I go back! My only hope is to get resettlement [to a third country] with my five children", Ala'a said.

Most of the Iraqis who have taken the risk of remaining in Syria have done so because their lives or those of a member of their family are at great risk due to the sectarian conflict in Iraq. 72% of these families are of mixed marriages – Sunni-Shi'i. As such none of the militias will protect them back there. Another reason is the issue of resettlement – many families live on the hope of getting a visa or meeting a delegation charged with interviewing resettlement applicants. In both cases, it seems that they will have to wait for a long time as 82 % of them have already been granted resettlement in a western country more than two years ago.

"Syria is the country that embraced us in our plight. It is the mother who raised us while Iraq is the mother who gave us birth. However, Syria has changed a lot and we prefer to stay at home or at most venture onto our street and not beyond. We often hear some Syrians saying: 'why are you still here? Why don't you go back to your country? We have enough problems and we don't need more.' We feel like strangers now", Abo Amir said.

Armed conflict has created conditions for communities to withdraw into themselves as a  protection strategy. Each group looks to defend itself against any outsider – entrenching its isolation. This further creates an aversion and suspicion of strangers, and Iraqis were the first to feel the harsh glare of xenophobia. Those familiar with Syria before the conflict would recognize that such sentiments are contrary to the cultural DNA of Syria. Fears of difference have become much more entrenched as a result of the bloody conflict and the absence of a just authority.  

"I feel myself floating in the air with no land to stand on. We live on the hope of being resettled", Om Ali said.

In this vortex, an Iraqi finds herself suspended in limbo without a government or legal framework to protect her. She does not have a safe country to return to nor the support of international agencies or NGOs, who are increasingly preoccupied with today's humanitarian crisis – Syria. As the British Punk band The Clash once so memorably sang: 'If I go there will be trouble and If I stay it will be double'. Not much of a choice if you ask me. 


9 years autistic Iraqi child expresses his experience with violence in a free drawing activity - Damascus 2013

A thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece.


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