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BorderWatch:Syria
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Returning Refugees Hot Topic in Damascus Cafe
Many Reasons for Going Home to Iraq, Most Waiting for Security, Services
By SLOGGER NETWORK 12/13/2007 2:02 PM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 5: Iraqi refugees hug their relatives after returning from Syria on December 5, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 5: Iraqi refugees hug their relatives after returning from Syria on December 5, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq.

On each Saturday at 6:00 pm, a group of old friends, who used to work together as journalists in Iraq, gather for tea at Al-Rawdha Teahouse near their new homes in Damascus.

When they meet in the teahouse, old memories of their work together on one newspaper takes over the discussion, until many cups of black tea and hubble-bubble smoke turns the talk to politics.

One of them raises the issue of Iraqi refugees returning to Baghdad--whether it is true or not, and how they evaluate the Iraqi government claims that thousands are returning to Iraq from Syria.

Abu Firas, as an old Baathist from the Izzat Al-Douri branch, insisted on expressing his opinion first, saying emphatically, " What the Iraqi government is saying is sheer lies."

He explains that he thinks the Iraqis who have returned definitely didn’t do so because security has been restored in Baghdad. Abu Firas says, "Iraqis are not allowed to work in Syria. Thus, how are those going to finance their families' needs and pay the rent, let alone healthcare and medications?"

He finally suggested another factor forcing the Iraqis to return was "the strict immigration and residence permit measures that the Syrians have adopted against the Iraqis' stay in and entrance to Syria."

Another journalist, Abu al-Mu'tesem, commented by adding another reason for returning to Iraq, saying it could be “attributed to emotional factors, i.e. Iraqis are not accustomed to emigration and staying away from family members, next-of-kin, loved ones--let alone the Homeland--for a long period of time."

All at the table agreed in principle that Iraqis must return home sooner or later, but they also cited the necessary conditions for their return--security, job opportunities, schools for proper education, hospitals, and the provision of basic services, particularly for the urgent needs of the family.

Butrous, a Christian who has been waiting to travel to Sweden as an immigrant, gave his assessment of the matter: "What is happening to the Iraqis all over the world is the new Diaspora. Iraqis have become like a camel carrying gold (OIL) and eating or drinking very little."

The more he talked, the more incensed he became: "Where have all the world's donations to Iraqi immigrants gone? Why has not a single dollar reached any Iraqi hand? We only hear donations news and that such and such would be reaching Iraqis but nothing materialized. We see that on TV and read them in newspapers but all is lip service."

Abu Firas focuses his ire on the UNHCR, saying when some Iraqis have to return home, "This is because they failed to find proper care from the UNHCR that has not helped them financially."

The UNHCR had given him a food ration quota that began to diminish more and more every month, said Abu Firas. The quota is not open to all Iraqis, but only those who have already been interviewed by the UNHCR and granted “protection papers," though Abu Firas says that is a very small number.

In his view, "Iraqis are not prepared financially for such expensive life, with rent and spending on everything from utensils to furniture to high rates of electricity, telephone and water charges. Thus, you find Iraqis jumping from the fire into the frying pan. They prefer to live under dangerous circumstances in Baghdad than die of hunger or turn into beggars at the UN’s iron gates. "

Still, Abu Firas believes the numbers of those returning to Baghdad has been inflated and says the Iraqi government spokesman who said that more than forty-six thousand people have returned from Syria was "merely telling lies."

Hussein, another Iraqi Baathist, says he thinks “the Iraqi government has manipulated the story of Iraqis' return in the media to show to the world that the situation inside Iraq is under control."

He went on to tell the group that some returnees had been forced to stay in Al-Mansour Melia Hotel in downtown Baghdad until their homes’ ownership was decided. They have returned to find that their homes are either looted, occupied by another displaced family, overtaken by militias, or destroyed by an explosion.

In Bassim’s mind, the confused profusion of reporting on the subject needed only one explanation: "The manipulation of the Iraqi government to the issue of returnees in the media proves beyond doubt the political bankruptcy of Al-Maliki government."

This article was reported by IraqSlogger's network in Damascus. The names of the subjects have been changed for their protection.

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