Posted by Joshua on Thursday, March 20th, 2008
By Mike Lanchin and Mona Mahmoud
BBC News, Damascus
With news of some improvements in security back home in Iraq, earlier this year Ahmed decided to take a chance and leave Damascus with his family, where they had sought refuge 18 months ago.
But when he arrived in the Iraqi capital, the former Baghdad estate agent said he soon found that he had made the wrong decision.
"I thought the situation would be better, that's what the media were saying," Ahmed said back in the family's cramped one-bedroom flat in the run-down Damascus area of Jaramani, home to thousands of Iraqi refugees.
"I thought I'd find work again, and be able to stay. But it was the opposite."
He said that soon after he got to his old Baghdad neighbourhood he found he had to register with the local Shia militias, the same people he believed were behind previous threats to his life.
He also found food was scarce and the area was without electricity.
After just four days, the family packed up and headed back to Syria for a second time.
Ahmed's 12-year-old son begged his father to let them stay put, but Ahmed said that his mind was made up.
"It wasn't a difficult decision for me to take," he said. "Life is the most important thing."
Back in Damascus, Ahmed said he was still unable to work and the family were again living off the savings they had brought with them, having sold off their car and furniture before leaving Baghdad.
The funds would probably run out in another two months, he said, at which time he would have to make another difficult decision.
"What am I going to do? I can't go back to my original neighbourhood. Perhaps I will try another part of the country, whether it's secure or not."
At one point during the upsurge of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2005-06, almost 30,000 Iraqis crossed into Syria each month.
Although that figure has declined – partly due to visa restrictions imposed by the Syrian government last year – estimates are that around 1.5m Iraqis live in Syria.
Around 140,000 of them are currently receiving regular food parcels from the UN on a two-monthly basis.
UN officials say they expect that number to almost double by the end of the year, as more families run out of the resources they have brought with them.
According to a survey of around 1,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria carried out in March for the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, an overwhelming 96% said they were still not planning a permanent return home.
Less than 30% said they knew anyone who was intending to move back.
"The mood is not for a massive return," said Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR's regional public information officer.
She said that as the UN was unable to verify the conditions on the ground in many areas of Iraq, it could not recommend to refugees that they begin returning home.
"We can't start suggesting it's safe to return until we can verify that."
There is, however, evidence that many Iraqis living in Syria have been travelling back and forth across the border on short visits – for family funerals, to get pensions and to check on property or to test the waters back home.
Abu Feras, a former member of the ruling Baath party, now in exile in Damascus, told the BBC that he had recently been over into Iraq for family reasons, but had no plans to make a permanent move back.
He said he had stayed for just a few days in order to avoid being recognised.
Another mid-level former party official, now in Syria, Abu Abdullah, who used to work on the Iraqi Olympic committee in the city of Basra, said he had no intention of taking his family back to Iraq for fear of sectarian reprisals.
He dismissed as "lies" the recent reform to the de-Baathification legislation, passed by the Iraqi parliament last year, which lifted some of the restrictions on former Baathists.
He said it was an attempt by the authorities to make Baathists return home in order to eliminate them.
Rabi'a is one of two million Iraqis who have ended up in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in the hope of making a better life in Beirut
Friday March 21 2008
by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Beirut
Rabi'a, an Iraqi refugee, is cooking in the narrow, filthy corridor that doubles as a makeshift kitchen in his tiny apartment in eastern Beirut. There is a gas burner, a sink, a cupboard and a small plastic bucket overflowing with garbage and potato peelings. At one end of the room a door leads to a reeking toilet. The heavy smell of urine mixes with that of the months-old oil he is pushing round the frying pan.
"I fry the best tomatoes in the world, the most delicious dish," he tells me. "You must have some with us."
In Iraq they used to call this dish the "dinner of the sanctions", after the decade-long economic blockade imposed on the country in the 1990s.
Rabi'a lives in one of Beirut's poor Christian neighbourhoods. He is tall and well-built, with heavily muscled shoulders, thick wavy hair and a fashionable trimmed goatee. A small crucifix dangles from a silver chain around his neck.
He carries the hot frying pan, a plate of potatoes and some yoghurt to the next room where he sits with another refugee friend around a small table.
They have dinner and drink Iraqi tea from a kettle on the floor. Rabi'a is one of more than 2m Iraqis who have fled to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon since the start of the war, making up what the UN describes as the biggest movement of people in the Middle East since the creation of the state of Israel.
In one way at least, Rabi'a and his friend are lucky. They have a bedroom, albeit a tiny one, where Rabi'a shows me his cracked leather bag.
"I keep it packed ready to leave," he says. Next-door there are more than 12 Iraqi refugees living in a three-roomed apartment.
Rabi'a and his friend spend most of their time in Lebanon indoors. Like most Iraqi refugees they have no genuine papers, and if they are arrested they will end up in a Kafkaesque cycle of jail and police cells and fines which will eventually lead them back to Iraq.
He is too scared to go out except for work. "When I go to work I walk, so that if there is a police checkpoint I can see it from a distance and take a detour."
Rabi'a now works in a supermarket loading crates of beer. Before that he had a job as a barman in a smart beach resort in the south of Lebanon, and before that, he was an electrician. Now, he says, he gets $250 (£126) a month, out of which he pays $50 for the apartment and tries to save as much as $150 to send back to his family in northern Iraq.
Rabi'a was a student in the Institute of Technology in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. As a Christian, he and his family experienced the sectarian violence of Iraq two years before it reached Baghdad and became an open civil war. They were targeted by al-Qaida in Iraq and Sunni extremist groups.
The first signs that they were being targeted were the letters that came to their Christian quarter. "They posted them to everyone in the street," he said. "They called us infidels.
"My father and I and our friends would stay awake all night, waiting and guarding the street," he says.
The threats soon turned into violence. Rabi'a's uncle was as a policeman, which made him a double target. He was beheaded, and a note was pinned to his chest claiming responsibility by al-Qaida in Iraq. He and his uncle had been like friends, he said. When he had joined the police he had just been happy to get a job and salary.
When three more people from the street were kidnapped and killed over the following weeks Rabi'a decided he had to leave. He dips a piece of bread into the greasy pan of tomatoes. "Have some," he offers, "it's really good."
"Rabi'a is the best cook here," his friend says.
"I really want to forget that day," says Rabi'a. "I want to forget everything. I want to go to Europe, or Britain. I prefer Britain because they speak English."
There are two ways to reach Europe from Iraq: the expensive way, which costs up to $10,000 and is relatively comfortable, and the poor man's way, which costs little more than $2,000.
Rabi'a tried to get to Europe the cheap way. His mother sold the few bits of gold she had, his father borrowed some money and they sent Rabi'a off. The plan was that when he reached Europe he would establish himself and make enough money and get his brothers and sisters out of Iraq.
He travelled to Kurdistan in the north of Iraq. From there Kurdish smugglers took him across the border to Syria, and from there they crossed into Turkey.
"We took nothing, just a backpack. We walked for three days across the mountains following a mule, until my legs couldn't carry me any more."
Once in southern Turkey Rabi'a and his friends were taken to a safe house and then by car to Istanbul. From there they were to take the ferry to Europe.
"Once we were in Greece, they told us, we would cross to Slovenia and then take the train to Germany. I wanted to get to Sweden."
Instead, Rabi'a and his friends were arrested by police in Istanbul. "They put us in jail for 10 days. They were nice to us. Then they sent us back to Syria."
He spent two months in a Syrian jail. "The Syrians were bad: the Syrian intelligence agents would beat us, asking us who smuggled us."
Eventually he was dropped across the border in Iraq, and stayed there for few weeks. "I felt I was suffocating. I was scared, the insurgents drive openly in the streets. Everyone is scared of them."
Two weeks later he fled Iraq again. This time he entered Syria on a forged Iraqi passport and paid $200 to smugglers who brought him to Lebanon.
"In Iraq there is no future, no one has a future. Iraq is like a big prison," he says. "We are talking to a people smuggler now. He has a very good plan for how we can reach Europe, but it's very dangerous. It doesn't matter, though, because if I go back to Iraq, I will die."
The two sides also discussed activating the agreements signed between the two countries and companies in the fields of textiles, drugs, foods and creating joint investments by the private sector in different areas.
Dr. al-Jony stressed importance of further enhancing the economic ties between Syria and Iraq, in particular the industrial field. He briefed his guest on the economic and trade developments witnessed by Syria over the past few years as outlined by the 10th five-year plan in the area of industry.
The Iraqi Minster emphasized significance of continuous contacts between the two countries to strengthen economic and trade cooperation, saying his country is looking forward to partnership with the public and private sectors in Syria and establishing investments in various industrial fields.