Iraqi refugees in Syria feel new strains of war

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BEIRUT — 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.

There are some 480,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, according to government estimates, many of whom fled Iraq to escape exactly the same kind of indiscriminate violence that is spreading across Syria.

Now, these refugees must 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, some 70,000 Iraqis headed back home, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During approximately the same period, as violence has flared in Iraq, some 41,000 Iraqis entered Syria.

The numbers indicate a seesaw movement of people caught between two countries wracked 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 UNHCR. “They are even more vulnerable because Syrians have at least some support from extended family members or tribe members or networks that Syrians have for being Syrians.”

Though Iraqis have emigrated to Syria for decades, the pace quickened dramatically during the peak of the Iraqi civil war between 2006 and 2009, when the Syrian government reported that about 2 million Iraqis were inside the country. Thousands of others flooded into Jordan and Lebanon.

The UNHCR now lists some 63,500 Iraqis who have formally registered as refugees in the country, most living in cities as urban refugees rather than in camps. Some observers say the Syrian government’s current count of nearly a half million Iraqi refugees inside 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: Approximately 1 in 10 had been a victim of torture, according to UNHCR figures. More than 60 percent of them were Sunnis, according to UN figures, but a sizable community of Shiite Iraqis also settled in Seyida Zeinab, a southern suburb of Damascus known for a prominent Shiite shrine.

The cost of living was relatively low in Syria and children were allowed to attend school for free. But Iraqis were not allowed to work, effectively making the entire community either dependent on aid from non-governmental organizations or scrambling for odd jobs that could earn them a little pocket cash. 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 neighborhoods.

“There are certain neighborhoods that are safer than others, and the rent in those neighborhoods has skyrocketed,” said Becca Heller, the director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a non-governmental organization 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, who asked to be called Mohammed, escaped the fighting back home, like thousands of his fellow refugees, only to face similar danger in Syria.

Mohammed was detained by U.S. forces in 2004 — wrongly, he says — and held for four years. As soon as Mohammed was released in 2008, he said he took his wife and six children, three boys and three girls, and fled to Syria. Through Iraqi contacts he was able to find a reasonably priced, albeit small, two-bedroom apartment in southwest Damascus.

Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim, chose to live in a neighborhood where the most of the residents were also Sunnis.

He tried to get asylum to Western countries, but as the months passed it became clear that his application was not going anywhere. When the Syrian uprising started, Mohammed’s life, like that of millions of Syrians, was upended.

“We just escaped from the misery of Iraq and we came to the same kind of misery,” Mohammed said.

As the protests grew into an armed conflict, Mohammed and his family could no longer move around the city safely. In late 2011, his middle daughter was burned across the chest and arm by 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 neighborhood was regularly hammered by mortars because it was seen as a base of support for the opposition. In early 2012, a mortar slammed into their apartment building, killing the son of their neighbor downstairs.

The discussions in the neighborhood took on a more sectarian tone with the predominantly Sunni residents criticizing the Syrian government, which is led by members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. For Mohammed, it was a throwback to the dark days of the Iraqi civil war, which pitted Sunnis against Shiites.

“In the beginning in Syria, we didn’t have this sectarianism. This was the first time,” Mohammed said. “The people said we are Sunni and we have to defend ourselves.”

Mohammed sent his eldest son to Belarus to study last summer. And he sent his eldest two daughters back to Iraq to live with relatives last December.

With no job in Syria, Mohammed moved to Turkey to look for work at the beginning of this year, leaving his wife and three of their children behind in Syria. His 16-year-old second son, once a star pupil, has now quit school to work at a grocery store. He makes approximately 100 Syrian pounds, a little over one dollar, per day.

“It’s not easy,” Mohammed said in a Skype interview. “Not everything is going well in my life, but I still have patience.”

The Iraqi refugees who came to Syria were not just escaping a conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. Some of the country’s minorities also faced threats from religious extremists.

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

Youssef, 53, left behind his house and car repair business and settled in a predominantly Christian neighborhood in Damascus. It didn’t take long before they were surrounded by violence once again.

“The same tragedy which we lived in Iraq was repeating in Syria,” Youssef said. “The same random shooting. The outlaws. Innocent people wounded and killed in the streets.”

Last August, Youssef decided that he had to get his family out and he faced a tough decision: Could his family be safe in Iraq?

He chose to come to Lebanon instead and settled in a Christian neighborhood north of Beirut. He now works in a factory manufacturing plastic bags while two of his children work at a local supermarket. The family receives aid from NGOs and local churches, but they are hoping that their asylum application to the United States will come through.

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

Washington Post special correspondent Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.

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