The world needs to do more for Iraqi refugees.

Notes from different corners of the world.
June 20 2007 12:09 PM

A Tale of 10 Post-its

The depressing fate of Iraqi refugees.

Iraqi refugees. Click image to expand.
Iraqi men wait to register as refugees near Damascus

BEIRUT, Lebanon—While politicians, generals, and columnists debate the surge in troop numbers in Iraq, another surge is being largely ignored—that of Iraqi refugees.

Recently, I toured the Middle East talking to these refugees to determine what the humanitarian community can do to alleviate the situation. As I look through my notebooks, I realize that my tour generated a very scary collection of Post-its.


These Post-its are not everyday "to-do" lists, they are records of the depressing fate of the 2 million Iraqis who have fled their homeland and are now scattered around Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. Their situation is difficult and volatile—most of them receive no humanitarian help of any kind. Almost all of them have used up whatever savings they had and overstayed whatever visa they had. They do not have work permits in any of these countries, nor access to health care, and only those in Syria can send their children to public schools. Most risk being arrested and deported, and because of the complicated political situation in the Middle East, their ethnicity may sometimes be unwelcome, if they are an "enemy minority" in their new host country, which is the case for Shiites in predominantly Sunni Jordan and Syria, and for Sunnis in Lebanon, where Shiites are half of the total population.

One Post-it, from Beirut, contains five names written in Arabic script, and next to them my notes: ''shot,'' four times; ''beheaded,'' once. The source was an Iraqi Shiite security guard, now a refugee, describing the fate of his colleagues who worked with the U.S. military.

Another Post-it has a question that I needed to ask discreetly of a woman in Istanbul. The note, in Arabic, asked, ''Were you beaten or raped?'' I saw the answer in her face: the latter.

In Damascus, on yet another yellow sticky, I scribbled the translation of a note that a Christian electrician, now a refugee, received just a week before his brother was murdered. ''To a dollar slave,'' it said. ''We will chop off heads.''

In Amman, Jordan, I wrote down the words adu wahed (''one enemy''). This was the expression that an Iraqi Shiite used as he told a translator why, though he felt ''some fear,'' he had lived in safety under Saddam Hussein. Now, he said, there are many enemies, and he didn't know where the danger lay. So he fled, because he feared for his six children.

Yet another note has "al-Qaida" spelled out in Latin and Arabic script—an Iraqi Sunni civil engineer was explaining who had kidnapped him.

All the refugees whose fates are reflected in my Post-its fit the priority criteria used by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: They are survivors of violence or torture, women at risk, members of targeted minority groups, persons with legal and physical protection needs, and—a category specifically created for this population—"Iraqis who [were targeted and] fled as a result of their association with ... Multi National Force, Coalition Provisional Authority, UN, foreign countries, international and foreign institutions or companies and members of the press."

None of the refugees I met have any chance of being integrated into the countries where I met them, and none have any intention of returning to Iraq anytime soon. Their only hope is to reach a third country.