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BorderWatch:Syria
Archive: July 2007
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Fleeing Iraq
Damascus Strains Under US$60 Million Pricetag for 1.5 Million+ Iraqis
07/30/2007 1:13 PM ET
Damascus, SYRIA: Iraqi refugees wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.
Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty
Damascus, SYRIA: Iraqi refugees wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.

DAMASCUS, 30 July 2007 (IRIN) - Syria's minister of health said providing free medical care to the over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria is costing the country around US$60 million a year, a burden he criticised the international community for failing to take responsibility for.

"It was the duty of the international community to take the initiative long before now to stop the suffering of our Iraqi brothers," said Maher Housami, speaking on 30 July at the end of a two-day conference in Damascus organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) to address the health crisis among Iraqi refugees' displaced by the four-year-old US-led invasion.

The WHO conference, attended by the health ministers of Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, as well as WHO and UN officials, met to discuss Iraqi refugees' access to health care in Syria and the need to formulate a plan to counter the strain being placed on the national health system.

Housami expressed his disappointment that the USA had not provided countries in the region, particularly Syria and Jordan - who between them currently shelter an estimated 2.25 million Iraqi refugees - with greater financial support.

The Syrian government provides Iraqi refugees with free education and health care, but the massive influx of people - estimated at around 40,000 per month - means hospitals and clinics are often too overcrowded to treat refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) provided funds for medical needs, including a US$2.06 million contribution to the Ministry of Health for the rehabilitation of hospitals, in a deal signed last May.

The agency is also involved in a project to launch a new hospital in October staffed by and catering for Iraqis.

"Burden" too great for Syria – minister

However, at a similar international conference in Amman last week aimed at easing the burden of countries hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees, Housami said Syria had received only US$1 million out of the US$2 million agreed upon from the UNHCR.

Syria had been able to face the challenge for the past three years, said Housami in Amman, but "the suffering has surfaced now and Syria is no longer capable of enduring this burden."

Radhouane Nouicer, UNHCR regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said the UNHCR had allocated some US$40m out of its 2008 budget for Iraqis' health needs in host countries, and warned that the refugees had overburdened the host countries.

"Great problems lie ahead of us," said WHO regional director Hussein Gezairy. "We cannot eliminate these problems but we can reduce the suffering." Among the issues discussed at the conference was the urgent need to provide immunisations for Iraqi children to prevent the spread of disease.

The Damascus conference came just a day after Iraq won the final of the Asian Cup, a victory that brought up to five thousand celebrating Iraqis out onto the streets of the Sayeda Zeinab, an Iraqi-majority suburb of Damascus.

For many, the joy of victory was a welcome distraction from the daily hardship of life as a refugee.

"We have big problems - bombs are going off in Iraq and life here is so difficult," said Mohammed, a jubilant Iraqi football fan, "but for today we are so happy".
Exclusive
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.

Fleeing Iraq
UN Urges Iraqi Refugees to Enroll Children in Syrian Schools
07/19/2007 4:00 PM ET
Ali Raddi Ali, foreground, is one of thousands of Iraqi refugee children going to school in Damascus.
Hugh McLeod/IRIN
Ali Raddi Ali, foreground, is one of thousands of Iraqi refugee children going to school in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, 19 July 2007 (IRIN)-Iraqi refugees in Syria were on 19 July urged by Craig Johnston, deputy high commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to send more of their children to Syrian schools.

Speaking to Iraqis at the UNHCR refugee centre in Damascus, Johnston, on his first tour of the region since assuming office in June, stressed the importance of education in alleviating the refugees' long-term plight.

"In particular it's very important that you send your children to schools," Johnston told around 200 gathered Iraqis. "It's important for the future of Iraq and the future of your families that your children get a good education."

The remarks came days after the UNHCR launched a “Back to School’ campaign aimed at getting more Iraqi children in Syria into local schools. At present only 35,000 out of an estimated 250,000 school-aged Iraqi children are enrolled in Syrian schools despite the government's offer of free education for all Iraqi children.

The UN Children's Agency (UNICEF) estimates that around half of all Iraqi refugees are children.

Many Iraqi refugees are reluctant to send their children to Syrian schools because they believe it will cost them money or could jeopardise their residency in Syria by alerting the authorities to their presence.

The government sparked confusion in January when it announced tighter visa restrictions that would have required Iraqis to apply for residency permits within 15 days after arriving in Syria, which then would have had to be renewed every three months by leaving Syria and returning.

The government has since scrapped the decision, reverting to the previous system whereby Iraqis may take a six-month residency permit on entry into Syria, also only renewable at a border crossing.

Schools under strain

Syrian educational facilities are coming under increasing strain as they try and meet the huge extra demand with a shortage of schools and teachers. Some class sizes have nearly doubled to up to 50 students.

"It is not possible to find a school," said Mohammed Taha, an Iraqi refugee waiting to register at the UNHCR centre, his two young and fatherless nephews sitting beside him. "There is no place in the schools in Syria and they are too expensive."

UNICEF, UNHCR and the Syrian Ministry of Education launched the media campaign to raise awareness of the free schooling available to Iraqi refugees, as well as to strengthen the facilities on offer.

The project aims to build up to nine new schools this year while rehabilitating a further 70. All schools will now work on a two-shift system, teaching separate groups of children in the morning and afternoon, as some schools are already doing.

The UNHCR has also committed to providing school buses, uniforms and books for Iraqi children.

Money for the campaign will come from the Syrian Ministry of Education and the UNHCR, which is to launch a special financial appeal to aid the project.

Johnston's trip to Syria comes on the back of a recent international appeal to donors by the UNHCR to double its 2007 budget to $123 million from $60 million; a figure that Johnston is confident will be met.

"I'm looking forward to the appeals that we are making. I think they will be met. I think there is a great deal of concern in the international community about these issues," said Johnston, who travelled to Syria from a three-day trip to Jordan, and who returns to Geneva on 21 July.

While in Syria, Johnston is expected to meet officials, including the education and foreign ministers, to discuss increased cooperation on the refugee issue. With an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis already in Syria and another 30,000 arriving each month, the displacement crisis sparked by the US-led war of March 2003 continues to escalate.
Video
Alive in Baghdad Reports from Sayyida Zaynab, Iraqi Expats' Home in Syria
07/13/2007 5:48 PM ET

Damascus's Sayyida Zaynab district is now known as an Iraqi enclave in the Syrian capital due to the large numbers of of Iraqi refugees to Syria who have settled there. This week, Alive in Baghdad interviews an Iraqi resident of the district, who describes its appeal to Iraqi expatriates.

Iraqi refugees in Syria are settling in a great many areas of the country due to the sheer size of the emigration. However, many, perhaps the majority, have settled in a neighborhood in Damascus named Saeda Zeinab, after the daugher of Imam Ali, who is buried in the gold-domed shrine that dominates the area.

The Iraqi dialect of Arabic is more common on Saeda’s streets than any other, and rumors abound about violence, kidnappings, and crime reminiscent of “Old Baghdad” taking hold in the neighborhood.

The reasons for Iraqis preferring this area tend to be relatively simple. Especially devout Iraqis enjoy their proximity to one of the more holy places for Shi’as, who are the dominant sect residing here. Iraqis in need of assistance and extra support are close to the office of the Sadr Movement in Damascus, which we reported about here.

Still other Iraqis, perhaps in the country illegally, or overstaying their visa, may find an extra layer of security here, able to disappear in the ubiquity of Iraqi habits, dialect, slang, and dress that is prevalent here.

But all of these raise particular questions about why Saeda Zeinab became important in the first place, more than 1300 years ago. We spoke with a man who preferred not to give his name who has lived in Saeda for some time. He tells us a little about Saeda Zeinab, and why Iraqis have such an attraction to this area

Congratulations to the Alive in Baghdad team for the recent spot on ABC News. Of course, Slogger readers were introduced to the weekly video blog's founders much earlier.

Exclusive
Ahmed Family Works to Set Up New Life in Syria
By SAADOON AL-JANABI 07/13/2007 3:38 PM ET
Damascus, SYRIA: Iraqi refugees wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.
Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty
Damascus, SYRIA: Iraqi refugees wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.

Soon after the morning sun began shining down on the desert border post, the families started packing up and warmly bidding each other goodbye and good luck.

Ahmed grasped the hand of Dr. Saad, an optician who had been turned back from traveling to Amman to sit for his final board exams, wishing him a safe journey back home to Baghdad. Next he said goodbye to Dr. Bassima, who has a Phd in nursing from Britain, and was turned away though she is a professor at a Jordanian university. The females in the families kissed one another for farewell before the Ahmed family loaded into their rented GMC.

Three hours after setting out, Ahmed and his family arrived at the Iraqi border with Syria. Displaced Iraqis crowded the main hall of the border post compound, and angry shouts rang through the air as Saif entered.

Locating the source of the conflict, Ahmed cringed at yet another scene of Iraqi humiliation. Some families had just arrived who appeared to have fled in haste after the male head of the family was arrested or taken prisoner. But Syrian law forbids entry to any woman unaccompanied by a man, so these families were being turned away.

The driver advised Ahmed to slip some money into their passports before showing them to the border police, in order to ease their entry and avoid the long queue. The money helped expedite things, and the family was through much sooner than could have been expected, considering the massive crowd of refugees still waiting as they pulled away from the Iraqi border and pointed the GMC towards Damascus.

Welcome to Syria

A few hours later, the exhausted crew arrived at the outskirts of the capital city, where they would all cram into Ahmed’s nephews flat for a few days while searching for their own new home.

With Damascus teeming with an influx of Iraq refugees, the search for an apartment became a hassle bordering on nightmare. Whether the result of scheming real estate agents or the housing demands of displaced Iraqis, Ahmed discovered they faced painfully exorbitant rental rates. Most Iraqi refugee families have a limited supply of money to sustain themselves, but are forced to accept the expensive rents because they have no other choice.

The Ahmed family split into two groups so they could cover more ground, and for days canvassed neighborhoods looking for a good home for a decent price. Ahmed decided to leave the decision-making to his wife, who settled on a modest flat, overpriced at US$800 a month.

After a week of much-needed rest in his new home, Ahmed entered a world of agony as he began negotiating Syrian bureaucracy, seeking to enroll his youngest son, Abbas, in school. Ahmed hadn’t thought to bring documentation of his son’s educational record, which the Syrian authorities required for enrollment.

Faced with the prospect that his son could fall behind in his studies, Ahmed called his sister in Baghdad immediately and asked her to hire someone who could follow-up on the necessary paperwork. The multiple stops and stamps the documents required took more than a month and cost a healthy sum because of regular curfews and the risks the man had to take in traversing the insecurity of Baghdad.

Bouncing Through Bureaucracy

First, the man had to retrieve a document and have it stamped at Abbas’s old school, thus establishing the level of education he had completed. Then that document required a second stamp from the education department in Kharkh region, on the west side of Baghdad where the family had lived, then to the foreign ministry for authentication. Finally, the Syrian embassy in Baghdad had to authenticate the document before sending it on to Syria.

Once the document arrived in Syria, Ahmed's agony started once more. Syria allows Iraqi students to study until the paperwork is processed, but once the document arrived, Ahmed had to take it for another whirlwind tour through bureaucratic authentication. First, the Iraqi embassy had to approve, then the authentication department in the Syrian foreign ministry. Third, the document had to pass through the Syrian Education Ministry en route to the Damascus Education Department. Once Abbas’s status was approved, the department would issue a letter to the school, which Ahmed would then have to hand-deliver.

By the time all bureaucratic hurdles had been overcome, Abbas had missed the 1st and mid-year exams, but in a goodwill gesture the Damascus Education Department agreed to allow Abbas’s 2nd-term and final exams to make up for it.

After all the trouble, Ahmed was ecstatic when Abbas succeeded in his exams, but then the reverse trip of annoying but necessary documentation began. Ahmed had to take Abbas's report card to the Education Department, then the Education Ministry, the Foreign Ministry’s authentication department, and finally the Iraqi embassy.

By keeping the embassy’s culture section updated on Abbas’s educational advances, in theory his records should be registered with the Education Ministry in Baghdad, which would keep the paperwork in order if the Ahmed family ever returns to Iraq.

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

See here for 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. Watch Slogger Sunday for part three of the story, as Ahmed learns his family's passports have been voided.

Video
Alive in Baghdad Interviews Sadrist Activists in Damascus
07/02/2007 2:57 PM ET

This week, Alive in Baghdad files from Damascus with rare interviews with displaced activists affiliated with the Sadrist living in the Syrian capital. The weekly video blog introduces the report as follows:

The US has again been stepping up actions against Muqtada Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. American soldiers, apparently searching for Iranian or Iran-supported militants, killed 26 Saturday in Sadr City. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki has spoken out, condemning the kilings.

Currently it seems that all the violence in Iraq not committed by Sunni insurgents is committed by Muqtada’s Mahdi Army. The label “Shiite militias” has become a catch-all that is too often equated without question to Muqtada’s followers. His followers are dedicated to him for two main reasons, the first is an alliance they feel to him as heir to his incredibly popular father, Muhammad Sadeq Al-Sadr, who is believed to have been assassinated on Saddam Hussein’s order in 1999. The second reason is that Muqtada utilized the resources of the Sadr Movement’s, as it was called under his father, to create stability and provide services to poor Iraqis when Baghdad’s infrastructure collapsed in 2003.

Today, although the Mahdi Army has been involved in controversial actions, kidnappings, killings, and other acts, the Sadr Movement claims it is purging its membership, and taking responsibility for its past.

The Sadr Movement is more than just the Mahdi Army. They provided aid and security in 2003 when none existed, and even worked to stop looting and return stolen goods to their rightful owners. Today they still provide security and medical aid to needy Iraqis, even locating an office in neighboring Damascus. Alive in Baghdad spoke with the Sheikh who directs the Damascus office, and other Iraqis connected to the movement.

For an in-depth look at these issues, see the most recent study in the Brookings-Bern series of reports on displaced Iraqis. The report, issued last month, surveys Iraqi refugees in Syria, and warns that displaced Iraqis in that country are growing more needy with time. The Syrian government has provided some support to the nearly one million Iraqis living in Syria, but the system is showing signs of strain.

All of IraqSlogger's coverage of refugee issues is available here.

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