Between Iraq and a Hard Place
In Syria, Iraqi refugees are preparing to return to the warzone they once called home. "We'd rather die in Iraq than starve as foreigners," they tell Mike Otterman and Tamara Fenjan.
Aisha approached our crowded table, navigating around the sheesha pipes scattered across the smoky Damascus cafe. Her eyes barely lifted from the grimy tiled floor when she began murmuring something under her breath. Tamara, my Arabic speaking colleague, translated: "She says her husband wants to kill her. She wants to tell us more."
We were in Jeramana - an Iraqi enclave seven kilometres south east of the gritty Syrian capital - talking to Iraqis whose lives have been eviscerated in the wake of the US-led invasion.
Aisha's eyes spoke volumes as she told us her story.
Aisha is 25 years old and was born in Al-Saydiya, a predominantly Sunni area in Baghdad. She divorced her husband five years ago. "He used to beat me so much I had to leave him," she said haltingly as she pulled at the ends of her hair.
Her ex-husband, Mohammed, now 35, married her under a false name to escape serving in the Iraqi army. They had two daughters, now aged five and seven. As we talked, the eldest dozed off with her head down on the neighboring table, feet dangling off the chair.
Soon after the divorce, Mohammed started threatening her for custody of the children. The harassment took a darker turn in early 2007 when Mohammed "joined al Qaeda," said Aisha. That March, Aisha, along with a group of onlookers, stood stunned as they watched her husband kill a local Sunni Sheik in cold blood. "I saw him shooting the Sheik as he walked out the mosque," she said.
The next day he called her parents’ house where Aisha and her daughters lived to deliver an ultimatum. "He gave me three options," she recalled. "One, you and the girls come back to me and join Al Qaeda. Two, give up the children. Or three, die."
Aisha was defiant. "I was not going to give up my daughters and join a group of murderers," she said.
But four months later, on 21 June last year, she received the first of three letters under the door of her home. "Leave the house or we will kill you - after the third warning you will die." It was signed: "The Lion Group"- the name of the local al Qaeda upstart.
Undaunted, Aisha stayed put. Then, rumors started flying around her neighborhood. "He spread the word that I was with the Americans to turn people against me," she said. Being labeled an American sympathiser was considered a mark of death.
Another letter followed five days later repeating the same threat. Then, on 1 July, she received her third and final letter. "God willing," it said, "we will kill you this time".
Aisha decided it was time to go.
She left with her daughters and mother the same afternoon, while her father stayed in the house. Aisha first stayed with her sister as she prepared for her journey. On 6 July, Aisha and her daughters took the 13-hour bus ride to Damascus and eventually got a job at a cafe. Aisha was now a refugee and had joined an estimated 2 million other Iraqis in the Syrian Arab Republic.
Syria has been a regional saviour to refugees fleeing the carnage in Iraq. While Iraq's other neighbors have largely shunned escaping refugees, Syria's Ba'athist government opened its doors to up to 60,000 Iraqis each month from February 2006 to October 2007 - when entry visa regulations were tightened. Today, about 600 per day still trickle into the country.
Syria's treatment of Iraqi refugees is mixed. The State allows them to work, but turns a blind eye to Iraqis exploited in the workforce. Miriam, a 26 year-old who lives in Jeramana with her brother and elderly parents, works at a leather handbags factory despite a large badly bandaged gash on her right hand. She works nine hours a day, six days a week, and makes US $120 per month. That equals 51 cents per hour.
Aisha makes US $150 per month at the cafe. Even combined with her savings, she said it is not enough to support herself and two young daughters. Rent alone in Jeramana for a one-bedroom flat is around US $150 per month. Aisha is struggling and she is not alone.
Along "Iraqi Street" in Saida Zeinab - another Damascus enclave that holds around 500,000 Iraqis - many children and elderly beg for spare change while grizzled ex Iraqi Army Generals sit around open fires talking about better times under Saddam. Screaming children, street cats, motorbikes, pushcarts, trucks, buses, and old taxis vie for space on the crowded laneways. Vendors hawk everything from Iraqi flags, to cheap American cigarettes, fresh goat cheese, and grilled fish.
In a dusty lot in Saida Zeinab, every morning over a dozen coach buses return Iraqis to the country they once called home. While some Iraqis are lucky enough to find work, the majority live in Syria off savings. When these run dry, many choose to take the perilous journey back home. Buses charge 1,000 Syrian pounds - about US $10 - for a one-way ticket to Baghdad.
Kaezem from Monsour, Baghdad, was waiting to board one of the coaches. "I heard it was safer in Baghdad, but the first reason I leave is that I'm out of money," he said.
A heavy set man dressed in black and his aunt, an older woman with tired eyes, also said they were out of money. "We can't work," said the man, as he sat on a bus ready to depart to Baghdad. "We've sold everything," the aunt added. "The water heater, our furniture, everything. The only thing I have left are these clothes," she said as she pulled on her sleeve.
"We'd rather die in Iraq than starve as foreigners in Syria," muttered the man.
Services in Saida Zeinab and Jeramana are provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Syrian Arab Red Cross. At the UN registration centre in Douma - the world's largest - up to 500 Iraqis a day are interviewed and receive official UN refugee status. Once recognised, they are entitled to free medical services, and in some cases, food handouts or monthly stipends.
While we met many Iraqis in Saida Zeinab and Jeramana that had chosen to register, the bulk knew little about the UNHCR services. Most complained bitterly that they were simply waiting for resettlement by the UN.
Iraqis deemed facing the gravest threat by UN case officers are referred to other nations for resettlement. UNHCR-Syria has referred 8256 individuals for resettlement abroad. So far, 677 of those have been resettled, mainly in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Aisha hopes for resettlement in the US, Sweden or Australia, but for now she takes one day at a time. Last week she was told by friends that her ex-husband Mohammed is currently in Damascus, roaming the streets to find and kill her.
"Of course I'm afraid, but my life is in God's hands," she said as she looked at her sleeping daughter.
"I don't know if I'll be alive tomorrow."
Names and hometowns have been changed to protect interviewees.