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11.3.2009 Refugees turn their backs on Iraq

By Stephen Starr

DAMASCUS - Like thousands of other Iraqi refugees, Leila Johana Isho lives in a state of flux. Driven from Baghdad after seeing her husband abducted by a group of Saddam Hussein-era loyalists, she and her three children are holding up in a three-room apartment, where they share a single bedroom.

"The main problem for us right now is the rent and to afford a house in Damascus because everything has become more expensive," said Leila.

The woman's husband worked as a servant at one of Saddam's palaces in the Mansour area and as the country descended into a living nightmare in 2004, he was kidnapped by people who thought they could extract money from him because of his job at the palace.

After being held for three days he and his family fled to Syria without returning to their house. The family sold their only valuable possession at the time, their SUV, on reaching Damascus to pay for their rent and to gain a foothold in their new life.

But Bassam could not find work, being one of 1.4 million refugees to have streamed over the border from Iraq, in particular since the escalation of sectarian attacks in 2006 and 2007. He left for Doha last year and has found part-time work there in the tourism industry, earning US$700 per month. "Some days he works, some days he doesn't," said Leila.

"In general here it's difficult but we have adjusted as much as we can. Getting a visa is becoming harder and harder and now every three months we have to renew our residency. When we came to Syria we didn't have any relatives and the first house we stayed in became too expensive so we had to move here. At this house we pay $800 but now we have to move again as our landlord is demanding an increase. All other houses in the area are going up as well," she lamented.

Minorities a thing of the past in Iraq

Church bombings in Baghdad in November 2004 (the same time Leila and her family left for Syria) isolated Christian communities even further. In mixed areas of Baghdad - and greater Iraq - extremist gangs forced Christians to pay a $100 "tax", or leave their homes, without their belongings. Most families left for Syria and Jordan or simply to other parts of the country. A joint report by the Brookings Institute and the University of Bern found that Christians were over-represented as refugees in Syria compared to their numbers in Iraq.

Others fear Iraq itself is becoming a monotheist country as minorities continue to be driven from their homes and towns by fundamentalist Sunni and Shi'ite gangs.

The biggest single bombing campaign since the 2003 invasion saw over 400 Yazidis killed in the Sinjar area in 2007. A leading Chaldean Catholic archbishop was kidnapped and murdered in February last year along with three of his companions. Like thousands of others, their bodies were discarded on a roadside several weeks later.

Leila recounts how her husband was held in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad for nine months as American forces questioned him on the whereabouts of Saddam - a result of his former job working in the former president's palaces. When he came out, he was badly beaten. "He has never talked about his time there," she says.

Iraqis in general have managed to cut out lives of their own in Syria. "We go to a church in the Bab Touma area and have made some friends there, so to an extent we have something we can relate to. People are welcoming here." In the beginning, Iraqi refugees in Damascus were welcomed; however, Syrians now associate refugees with a phenomenal increase in the cost of living. The influx to neighborhoods in the east and south of Damascus saw rent prices rise and the cost of basic foodstuffs double. In May 2008 state fuel subsidies were quashed which triggered a price rise in everything from transport fares to fruit and vegetables. Many blamed the refugees for the increase.

While the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq has largely been kept under wraps in neighboring Syria, petty crime and prostitution are synonymous with these districts of the city. Others, including Westerners, however, have been drawn to neighborhoods such as Jaramana (almost 165,000 refugees registered as living in Damascus and its environs, but the actual figure is thought to be much higher) for its liberal and diverse environment and by the opportunity to interact with Iraqis.

Leila has found herself struggling to keep her family together more than once. "When my husband was taken away, basically kidnapped, I went to Abu Ghraib where he was being held. I came across an American priest and explained to him I was Christian and that I wanted to know where Bassam was. When I saw him I thought he would want to help with both of us being Christian, but instead he waved me away."

In September the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) increased financial assistance to female-headed households in Syria by 40% to $150, with each dependant receiving $15. The UNHCR has registered 24,624 Christian refugees across Syria with total registrations in September 2009 up 37% on August. However, for Leila's family the UN has helped little. "The UN came and interviewed us several times but in four years nothing has ever come of it," said Leila.

A huge media campaign was unleashed in 2007 to try to encourage refugees to return home to Iraq, viewed by many as a publicity stunt by Iraq’s Nuri al-Maliki government to foster international favor, but few have taken him up on the offer. For its part, the UNHCR in Damascus stated it does not encourage the return of refugees to Iraq and only an estimated 273 families have taken part in its Voluntary Repatriation Program over the past 12 months (more than half of the figure applied for the scheme in the first two months). It seems that for most, Iraq represents a former life.

"Iraq is now a thing of the past for us. We can never return, nor at this point do we desire to," Leila says, without showing any emotion.

With some family and friends in Europe and Canada, Leila and her family are looking to move to the West. But with European countries slow to ease visa and refugee laws, her future is as uncertain as her recent past. Neither she nor her children speak English and without third-level education, Leila and her husband are sure to face problems. Nevertheless, some states such as Germany (set to take in 2,500 Iraqis from Syria and Jordan) are offering language and cultural orientation courses for newly arriving refugees so for some there is hope.