April 12, 2013 5:57 pm

Iraqis in Syria face a see-saw of strife

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Iraqi refugees, who had fled to Syria following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, carry their belongings upon their arrival in Baghdad on July 3, 2011. With the wave of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in March once again upsetting their lives, Iraqis who had fled their war-torn country are returning home©AFP

As the conflict in Syria has raged over the past two years, the sectarian bloodletting, the car bombs and the rise of religious extremists have been all too familiar to one group of people in the country: Iraqi refugees.

According to government estimates, about 480,000 Iraqi refugees live in Syria, many of whom fled their country because of the same kind of indiscriminate violence that is spreading across Syria.

These refugees must now choose between two bad options: return to an unstable Iraq or hunker down in Syria and hope for the best.

Between last summer and the first months of this year, about 70,000 Iraqis headed back home, according to the UN high commissioner for refugees. In roughly the same period, as violence has flared in Iraq, about 41,000 Iraqis entered Syria.

The numbers indicate a see-saw movement of people caught between two countries racked by vicious sectarian wars that are increasingly spilling over their borders.

“Refugees from Iraq share all the vulnerabilities and all the problems that Syrians are facing because of the conflict,” said Reem Alsalem, a regional spokeswoman for the UNHCR. “They are even more vulnerable because Syrians have at least some support from extended family members or tribe members or networks.”

Although Iraqis have migrated to Syria for decades, the pace quickened dramatically during the peak of the Iraqi civil war between 2006 and 2009, when the Damascus government reported that about 2m Iraqis were in Syria. Thousands of Iraqis also flooded into Jordan and Lebanon.

The UNHCR lists about 63,500 Iraqis who have formally registered as refugees in Syria, most living in cities rather than in camps. Some observers say the Syrian government’s count of almost half a million Iraqi refugees in the country is inflated, driven by a desire to get more international aid.

The majority of refugees who arrived in recent years settled in Damascus, and brought with them all the trauma of the Iraq war: About one in 10 had been a victim of torture, says the UNHCR. More than 60 per cent of them were Sunni Muslims, according to UN figures, but a sizeable community of Shia Iraqis also settled in Sayyida Zeinab, a southern suburb of Damascus known for a prominent Shia shrine.

The cost of living was relatively low in Syria, and children were allowed to attend school without charge. But the Iraqi refugees were not allowed to work, effectively making the entire community either dependent on aid from non-government organisations or scrambling for odd jobs. Prostitution among Iraqi women in Syria soared at the time.

When the Syrian conflict spread, thousands of Iraqi refugees were trapped because they did not have the money to leave the country or move to safer areas.

“There are certain neighbourhoods that are safer than others, and the rent in those neighbourhoods has skyrocketed,” said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, an NGO that helps Iraqis with resettlement. “So refugees are literally being forced into battle zones because they can’t pay the increasing rent in the safer areas.”

One 47-year-old mechanical engineer from Baghdad escaped the fighting back home, like thousands of his fellow refugees, only to face similar danger in Syria.

Detained by US forces in 2004 – wrongly, he says – and held for four years, he fled to Syria with his wife and six children as soon as he was released.

The man – who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect family members who remain in the Syrian capital – is a Sunni, and he chose to live in a southwest Damascus neighbourhood where most of the residents were Sunni.

When the uprising in Syria started, his life, like that of millions in the country, was upended. “We just escaped from the misery of Iraq, and we came to the same kind of misery,” he said.

In late 2011, one of his three daughters was burnt across the chest and arm in an explosion as she walked to school. A few months later, a sniper shot a woman in their apartment building when she opened her window.

Their neighbourhood was regularly hammered by mortar rounds because it was seen as a base of support for the opposition. In early 2012, a mortar slammed into their building, killing the son of a neighbour.

The discussions in the neighbourhood took on a more sectarian tone, the man said, with Sunni residents criticising the Syrian government, which is led by members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam. It seemed like a throwback to the dark days of the Iraqi civil war, which pitted Sunni against Shia.

“In the beginning in Syria, we didn’t have this sectarianism. This was the first time,” he said.

He sent his eldest son to Belarus last summer to study and his eldest two daughters back to Iraq in December to live with relatives.

With no job in Syria, he moved to Turkey in search of work at the beginning of this year, leaving his wife and the remaining three children behind. His 16-year-old second son, once a star student, has quit school to work at a grocery. He makes the equivalent of little more than a dollar per day.

“It’s not easy,” the man said. “Not everything is going well in my life, but I still have patience.”

Raad Youssef, an Iraqi Christian, said he escaped to Syria in summer 2009 with his wife and four children after being told by militants that Christians had no place in Iraq.

Mr Youssef, 53, left behind his house and car-repair business and settled in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in Damascus. It did not take long for the family to be surrounded by violence again.

“The same tragedy we lived through in Iraq was repeating in Syria,” he said. “The same random shooting; the outlaws; innocent people wounded and killed in the streets.”

In August, he decided he had to get his family out, but he faced a tough question: could they be safe in Iraq?

He headed to Lebanon instead and settled in a Christian neighbourhood north of Beirut. He works in a factory manufacturing plastic bags while two of his children work at a supermarket. The family members receive aid from NGOs and local churches, but they are hoping their application for asylum in the US will come through.

“That would end our long suffering and life in fear,” said Mr Youssef.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.

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