Starting a new life outside Iraq: the situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan
Written for us
by Bruno Neri
I am back in Iraq after two years, since the two Simones' kidnapping and Baldoni's
death. My arrival in Erbil coincides with the Asian cup winning by the Iraqi national
soccer team. Scenes of the “Two banks Lions” and of the outstanding moments of
the victorious match against Saudi Arabia are scrolling on the Erbil airport monitors.
Outside I dip in the joyous traffic-jam of Iraqi supporters. Dances along the
roads, horns all over, waving flags, overfull vans and cars in an unexpected and
At the same time, while people are rejoicing at the win, thousands of Iraqis
are crossing Syrian and Jordan borders to shelter from the daily horrors of the
war. I am carrying out a mission for Syria, Jordan and Iraq to study the situation
of refugees and evacuee as well as the possible relief efforts that Terre des
hommes Italy, the ngo I am working for, can activate for their benefit. United
Nations agencies data are impressive, more than 4 million people sought refuge
in Syria and Jordan in the last two years and as many are the internal evacuees.
It is estimated that more than 5.000 people are leaving Iraq each day: a huge
and unceasing flow. The news I get in Erbil, in Northern Iraq, are disastrous.
Mosul, the second Iraqi city is getting completely empty. The city is totally
under Al Qaeda control. Whole families have moved away, abandoning their homes
and jobs, their most intimate things, their relationships, friends, relatives
to reach safer places, especially towards the North, controlled by the Regional
Kurd Government, or towards neighbour states.
In Erbil, as well as in Amman, Iraqi refugees are rebuilding pieces of a small
Baghdad. Many owners of famous restaurants and cake shops moved here opening new
activities after closing them in the Iraqi capital. Many, but not easy are my
encounters with the refugees. In fact in Jordan, as well as in Syria, Iraqis hide,
being afraid to be sent back in Iraq, very often for trivial reasons, like a whim
of the policeman on duty or for a decision of the intelligence of these countries.
Neither Syria nor Jordan have ever signed an international agreement concerning
refugees. Iraqis have just a temporary residence permit and it is not by chance
that Unhcr (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) recorded no more than
200.000 over a total of 4 million present in the two countries. In order to survive
many refugees are forced to accept temporary, under-paid jobs, although the cost
of life, especially house rents and medical expenses, is high.
In Jordan I visited the city of Irbid with our collaborators Shant and Elisa;
we are here to assess the number of refugees and understand where they live. We
meet Abu Dimitrios, Irbid parish, who gives us some information regarding the
Christian and Muslim Iraqis he knows.
In Irbid the middle and low class families have settled, as here the rents and
the life cost are more affordable compared to the capital, Amman, where rich people
sheltered. Since few years ago prices in Amman soared both for Iraqis and Jordanians:
speculation has no limits! Abu Dimitrios indicates a few Iraqi families and asks
an assistant of his to take us to Abu Jusef's. When we arrive he is waiting for
us at the door and Shant, who is Iraqi, as soon as he sees him opens his eyes
wide and says: “I know this man, I think he lived in Baghdad in my neighbourhood,
As soon as we get off the car Shant realises that Abu Jusef is one of his father's
best friends and a refugee in Syria as well. They recognise at once and hug each
other. They talk about Dora and of course of Shant's father, immediately called
upon the cellphone. Abu Jusef and Shant's father speak together, talking about
their families and common friends now far away, parted by an unjust war. Abu Jusef
cries, being moved by the talk with his friend. While we are talking Khaled, another
friend and refugee, arrives taking Abu Jusef's daughter, Mariam, back home. Khaled
has been in Jordan for few months and tells us he decided to leave Baghdad after
being involved in two different car bomb explosions in the same day. The first
when he went meeting some friends in a restaurant, the second in the Jamuk hospital
car park, where he had just driven his friends being injured by the first explosion.
The job and health care problems are becoming besetting for refugees. In Jordan
the government decided not to grant access to public and private schools to Iraqi
children. In Iraqi Kurdistan public schools only Kurdish is taught, a language
totally different from Arabic, and therefore incomprehensible for the Southern
refugees who belong to the Arab ethnic group.
From Jordan I move to Damascus and meet the Terre des hommes staff. They are
doing an incredible work, their base in the old city is overfull by Iraqi refugee
women, many of them poor Shiites, wrapped in their black baya and needing health
assistance for their children. Terres des hommes Syria signed an agreement with
some hospitals and medical offices to grant free health assistance to refugees.
Many children with heart malformations are cured in Syrian hospitals or sent to
Europe to be operated thank to a Tdh programme. During my stay in Syria I collect
many data on refugees' health and life conditions. The most surprising and puzzling
element is the increase of cases lf leukaemia, that according to many doctors
could be caused by the use of depleted uranium bombs. In Damasco I also meed Firdus,
an Iraqi refugee who worked for the intelligence during Saddam regime. At that
time he discovered that top level personalities in the regime were corrupted and
managed illegal activities. He denounced them and had them convicted. Their families
persecuted and harassed him, so he had to escape with all his family. After Saddam's
fall he returned to Iraq, but after few months one of his daughters was kidnapped,
probably still for revenge against his complaint towards the old regime personalities.
To free his daughter he had to pay a ransom and sell his home, car, his wife's
jewels and everything else he owned. Now Firdus works in Damascus in an handcrafts
laboratory producing mattresses. His family is untroubled and his daughters go
to school, something that in Baghdad would have been impossible.
After my mission, Terre des hommes Italy started in Jordan an aid programme for
600 Iraqi refugee families. The programme foresees supply of first aid goods,
especially sanitary and home products, clothes for 4500 people and the opening
of two children centres with educational and recreational activities, with psychological
support funded by UNHCR and private funds.