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BorderWatch:Syria
Archive: December 2007
Video
Alive in Baghdad's Rare Look at the Struggle to Survive in the Syrian Economy
12/19/2007 5:41 PM ET

Alive in Baghdad files its first dispatch since the death of its correspondent Ali Shafeya, who was apparently shot 31 times Friday evening in Baghdad in a raid on his home by Iraqi forces. This week, Alive in Baghdad correspondent Hayder Fahad files from Damascus with a rare look at the lives of Iraqi refugees living in the Syrian capital, who describe their daily struggles in the Syrian economy to support themselves and their families.

The video journal introduces this week's segment as follows:

Damascus, Syria - Although there are many reports of Iraqis returning to Baghdad, there are still hundreds of thousands of refugees and resident Iraqis struggling to get by in Syria. This week Hayder Fahad brings you some of their stories.

There are so many refugees still in Syria, that the UNHCR has just begun distributing financial aid to refugees as of Sunday the 16th. Alive in Baghdad has written stories previously about Iraqi refugees in Syria, this week we focus not on the reasons why they have left, but how they get by. It is illegal for Iraqis to work in Syria, but the underground economy of Iraqi workers is thriving.

Despite this, many Iraqis are still without work, and many more cannot afford to pay their bills even with the small incomes they do make. Iraqis are filling some of the traditionally least desired jobs, particularly that of janitors, and others are forced to engage in sexwork and prostitution. Many Iraqis are choosing to remain in a desperate state in Syria, despite reports from Baghdad that unemployment is down and refugees are returning.

***

Alive in Baghdad correspondents such as Hayder Fahad will continue to bring stories of daily life in Baghdad, as well as the difficulties of Iraqis living in surrounding countries. Please consider making a donation to support Ali’s family, as well as becoming a paying subscriber or making a donation to Alive in Baghdad to support our Iraqi staff who continue to work under these difficult circumstances.

For all of IraqSlogger's coverage of refugee issues, click here.

Only on Slogger
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.

The Latest
Damascus Getting Positive Nods for Effort, But Will US Budge Stance?
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 12/13/2007 12:36 PM ET
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) speaks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari following a joint press conference at the airport in Damascus, 12 December 2007.
Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) speaks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari following a joint press conference at the airport in Damascus, 12 December 2007.

Gen. David Petraeus gave a rare nod of credit to Syria in November, citing its "more robust" interdiction efforts as reducing the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari gave the recent shift by Damascus as the reason for his two-day visit to Syria this week, telling the press conference at his departure from Baghdad Monday:

"We feel that there has been better regional cooperation with the Iraqi government in terms of flow of foreign fighters, of terrorists, of assistance and interventions -- this is due to the steps that the government has taken to engage our neighbours constructively," Zebari said.

"For that purpose, I will travel today to Damascus, to Syria, in response to an invitation, just to emphasize that point."

Zebari spread the praise around once in Damascus, telling every public appearance of Syria's efforts in contributing to the security of Iraq, and getting specific on the numbers with the London-based newspaper al-Hayat.

In an interview published Thursday in al-Hayat, Zebari said "The number of infiltrators was ranging between 80 to 100 every month and lowered to 30, which does mean border sneaking still exists."

"Our aim is to reach zero infiltrators," Zibari also said, adding that Assad's regime also recognizes the risk to Syria of the armed groups.

"From the very beginning we said that security, economic, and trade cooperation between the two countries could not be established without a political will and accepting the new political reality in Iraq," the foreign minister continued.

The continuing low-level of infiltrations may be an unavoidable reality, and one that doesn't look likely to disrupt the neighboring countries' ever-increasing ties.

Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic relations a year ago after 26 years of estrangement, sparked by Saddam Hussein's cutting of ties after Syria supported Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq. Zebari said the two nations would soon name ambassadors.

The Iraqi government has worked to break the chill between the US government and Iran--with the next round of lower-level security talks set to take place next week--and Zebari mentioned his hopes to see a future meeting between American and Syrian officials.

The paper also reported Iraqi Vice President Burham Saleh would travel to Damascus on Sunday to continue talks on economic cooperation, including the new plans revealed during Zebari's visit to reopen the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Baniyas, which has been closed since 2003.

With the increasing level of economic interdependence that will result from the reopening of the Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline and Zebari's invitation for Syrian companies to get involved in Iraq's reconstruction, the ties between Damascus and Baghdad look certain to grow stronger.

This trend will encourage Syria to continue working to exercise control over its porous border, which will please the US, but the Americans may not take much pleasure in the diplomatic and economic engagement of their regional foe.

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