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BorderWatch:Syria
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The Joy of a G Passport
Ahmed's Voided Passport Creates Anxiety, Redemption
By SAADOON AL-JANABI 07/20/2007 09:20 AM ET
Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty

By the end of March, the three-month stamps the Ahmed family had received on their passports when entering Syria were nearing expiration. Saif Ahmed braced himself for more paperwork and bureaucracy and set out for the Syrian Residence Office to seek an extension.

After filling out all the proper forms and handing over the family's five passports, Ahmed was shocked when the policeman handed him back his own with the words: "Your government has declared in that all 'M' passports are null and void. Consult your embassy for an answer and come tomorrow to collect the other four passports."

When Ahmed went to the embassy, he found dozens of Iraqis crowding around an open window, all asking the same question: "What do we do?" The man at the front desk had the same answer: "Either take a laisse passé and return to Iraq and apply for a new G passport or wait for a team to come from Baghdad and issue new passports."

Both options sounded bad.

The first could mean death and the second could require waiting indefinitely until the team came from Baghdad, which would mean bearing the possible consequences of violating Syrian laws by staying illegally.

"Come back next month," came a shout from the window, encouraging the concerned crowd to begin slowly dispersing.

Ahmed had been fortunate to run into a few old friends, and the group gathered outside the embassy gates to talk.

Ghazi and Ghazael had been mid-rank Baathists from his old neighborhood of al-Bunuk in Rusafa district. They told him they both had received threats in an envelope containing one bullet, which was enough to convince them to leave their home behind and flee to Syria.

He also saw Adel Youssif, a former colleague at the university where both had taught translation. Youssif, a Christian, spoke with great sadness as he told Ahmed: "I received a threat in al-Dora, where my entire family lived for years, telling me to either convert to Islam or leave."

Youssif considered himself lucky because he had found someone willing to buy his house and all the furniture before he left for Syria. But since he'd been in Damascus, he'd been unable to get a teaching job. Damascus University had offered him a position, but he hadn't been approved by the security checks. "They are now in their 4th months of checking and no response yet from them," he said.

Both men shared the same problem--their "M" passport. Both decided to risk violating Syrian law by waiting for Baghdad to send a team to process the paperwork in Damascus, rather than risk their lives returning home to get a new one.

While chatting outside the embassy, shouts began to interrupt their talk. "My purse! My mobile! My money!" Everyone in the crowd started checking their valuables, since the group had apparently just been worked over by a crew of organized pickpockets. The gang of thieves made the large crowds outside the Baghdad embassy a daily target, not minding that the ragtag Iraqis possessed little more than what they carried in their pockets.

Suspiciously eyeing nearby strangers, Ahmed and Youssif wrapped up their conversation and headed home to begin the uncomfortable wait for the team to come from Baghdad.

Ahmed's three-month visa had expired by then, so he worried what might happen if he was asked to show his papers. For more than a month he anxiously awaited word, until the day came when he heard the embassy had a team arrive from Baghdad to process the new passports.

Each person had to submit notarized documents of nationality and a nationality certificate (the second proves the bearer is of Iraqi-Ottoman origin), plus three photos with a white background, and extra photocopies of everything--including the original passport. Ahmed completed all the paperwork and presented it to the top official, who looked over everything carefully and told him to come back in a month.

In a month's time, Ahmed returned again to the embassy. His anticipation grew with each name called off the list, the well of anxiety building until the sound of his name broke the spell, raining joy and relief upon him. He could barely contain himself to a walk as he rushed home to show the family his newest prized possession.

His new G passport made it possible to stay in Damascus, but Ahmed liked it for another reason. Its blank pages looked like a clean slate--one that had erased the red seal his Jordanian brethren had used when they refused his family entry, a stamp of shame Ahmed would prefer to forget.

Sadoun al-Janabi is an Iraqi journalist. The names of the subjects of this story have been changed for their own protection.

See Part I of the Ahmed family's flight from Iraq, which recounts the reasons for their abrupt departure and their rejection from the Jordanian border, or Part II as they find a home in Syria.

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