The continuing plight of Iraq's refugees

More refugees are still pouring out of war-torn Iraq than are returning and the UN is looking for new options.

Zakiya is sitting in the modest living room of her rented two-bedroom apartment in Jaramana, a small neighbourhood on the outskirts of Damascus that has become known as "Little Baghdad" for its high concentration of Iraqi refugees.

The 44-year-old mother of three likes to skim through her photo albums from time to time and remember her old life in the now battered Iraqi capital.

Zakiya, an Iraqi refugee in Syria, shows her UN certificate, which allows her a stipend of about $200 a month. (Oussayma Canbarieh/CBC)

As she shows off the family pictures from before the war, she suddenly starts sobbing. 

"Look at me here, I used to be happy," she says. "Now, I've lost it all."

Before the Americans and their allies invaded Iraq in March 2003, Zakiya was working as a journalist in Baghdad and her husband had a gold business.

But since the war, she lost her home and many of her loved ones.

"First, two of my daughters were killed and, a couple of months ago, my husband went back to Baghdad to get us some of our savings and he never came back."

Zakiya now takes care of her three remaining children, Huda, 12, and nine-year-old twins Hassan and Noor.

She lives off her savings and receives a food basket as well as a $200 monthly cheque from the UN's refugee agency.

Guests of a sort

Zakiya's situation is far from unique. The U.S.-led war has created millions of Iraqi refugees who have tried to escape the ensuing violence by seeking new lives across the Middle East and, in some cases, Europe and North America.

By some estimates, nearly five million Iraqis have been displaced by the war, a figure that is said to represent nearly 40 per cent of the country's former middle class.

'Displaced' Iraqis

 Inside Iraq 2.03 million
 In the Middle East 1.8 million
 In Syria alone 1.05 million
 Receiving UNHCR assistance 716,930
 Permanently resettled by the UN 53,000
 Who have come to Canada 1,653

Source: UNHRC Global Report on the Iraqi situation; UNHRC special reports, as of March 2010

Because of Syria's geographic proximity — and a welcoming policy — the majority have settled here, almost 1.1 million by the latest estimate.

Since there are no refugee camps in Syria per se, settlers are mainly concentrated in two low-rent suburbs of Damascus: Jaramana and Sayeda Zainab.

Most of these new arrivals have been living off their savings. But, as time went by, their bank accounts have been drying up and they have come to face the classic refugee squeeze: As refugees, they are not allowed to work in the country, but if they don't work, they can't make ends meet.

The result is that many have no choice but to work illegally at low-paying jobs, while those who are well off have opened up businesses that cater specifically to the growing Iraqi community in Jaramana.

"Competition is fierce among transportation services that offer bus rides from Damascus to Baghdad," says 35-year-old Karim, who would know as he is in this business himself.

Zakiya is a regular customer at the famous Qassim restaurant in Jaramana, which is where many Iraqis like to gather once a day over lunch, a water pipe or a game of cards.

"I feel a sense of comfort hearing familiar accents and reminiscing of life in Baghdad over a cup of tea," she says.

No more news

The TV set up in the upper corner of Qassim restaurant always has the Iraqi channel on, but not everyone is keen to connect with the grim reality that is today's Iraq.

"I stopped following the news," says 50-year-old Abu Hussein, who works as a bookkeeper in the restaurant.

Hussein Rahim,a 21-year-old Iraqi refugee living in a suburb of Damascus, sells Iraqi sweets, called Dahinah, in 2008, to make ends meet. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

"I miss my home, I miss my family, I miss my life there. But I try not to think too much about it. It's depressing."

Many Iraqis had good jobs in Baghdad, some were doctors, lawyers or had businesses. But of course that has all changed.

According to a representative from the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), prolonged exile can have a crushing impact on someone's sense of dignity and self-worth, and many Iraqis here face depression, especially men.

Forty-two-year-old Mohammed used to be a lawyer in Baghdad, but he cannot find work in Jaramana. Instead, his wife brings food on the table while he stays home.

"Family roles have changed since the war," Mohammed told me. "Men cannot find work so they stay home or spend their time in the cafes.

"Here, women and children are forced to work, so this has tremendously disturbed the family structure and created tension among family members."

His wife, Sana, works illegally as a hairdresser in a ladies' salon where many women gather at the end of the day to get pampered and share common frustrations.

Sana says she has noticed a growing number of young Iraqi prostitutes in Jaramana. "Many of them come to do their hair and nails here before going to work in a nightclub close by."

For Arabs, a woman's honour is everything. But for many of those girls, they have nothing left to barter.

Awkward freedom

On what might be called the positive side, those Iraqis who live in Jaramana are enjoying a freedom of religion that isn't possible in Iraq today.

Iraqi refugees wait for food rations at a UN centre in Douma, near Dmascus in February 2009. The UN and U.S. was urging them to return but few took up the offer. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

For example, George is a Christian Iraqi who owns a small pastry shop in Jaramana.

"We openly celebrate Christmas and Easter here, which has been difficult in Baghdad since the war," he says.

Many Iraqis have inter-sectarian unions. Zakiya is a Shia Muslim while her husband was a Sunni. "We used to live in peace and harmony," she says. "But the U.S. war created this sectarian division that didn't exist under Saddam's rule."

Iraqi refugees in Syria are also able to access health and education facilities free of charge.

According to UN figures, 33,500 Iraqi children attended public schools in the 2009 academic year in Damascus. But the war and the resettlement have deeply affected their academic performance.

Many children refugees who have experienced psychological trauma and violence in Iraq are falling behind at school.

Zakiya's 12-year-old daughter Huda, who was kidnapped briefly in Iraq when she was little, told me that she still has panic attacks when she hears the doorbell sound.

"Syria has welcomed us with open arms and is providing us the same services it provides its own citizens, and we are forever grateful," says 38-year-old Hussein, one of the Jaramana refugees.

"But we all live an uncertain future here and no one sees an eventual return to Baghdad."


In 2009, the UN began encouraging Iraqi refugees to return, in advance of the national elections earlier this year.

But the results were not encouraging and, according to a UN representative in Damascus, very few Iraqis are looking to go back as the situation in their homeland is still not very inviting.

Outside Damascus, the refugee situation can be more dire as this impromptu camp near Hasska in northern Syria illustrates. For the past seven years it has been home to 430 Palestinians who fled Iraq in 2003 following the invasion. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)
The push now is for resettlement in third countries, with UNHCR having referred over 100,000 at this point.

Many Iraqis here seem to want to move to Europe to give their children a better future.

Zakiya was offered a chance to resettle in the U.S., but she refused: "Why would I live and serve in a country that destroyed mine?" she asks.

She, too, is hoping to resettle in Europe, or in Canada, which is planning to take in some 4,000 Iraqis from Syria this year, a big increase over previous years, according to the Canadian embassy in Damascus.

In the meantime, though, the Iraqis here call their new Syrian home Little Baghdad and like to joke about how strange it is to sometimes find a Syrian walking on Jaramana's streets.