"Iraq Is Not a Suitable Place To Live as a Human"
Why more than 1 million Iraqi exiles remain in Syria.
Arshad begged them to let him go, promising to repent. They knew nothing about his portrait work with the U.S. military. But this was one warning too many, and Arshad says he was determined to flee the country. He took his wife and two children to Syria on May 18, 2005. Within a few weeks, his parents were forced out of their home in Dura. This was a mixed neighborhood, and Shiites were being "cleansed" from the area by radical Sunni militants.
Since he had been threatened by both Sunnis and Shiites, I asked Arshad whether he identified himself as a Sunni or a Shiite.
"I don't really know, but you have to know to live in Iraq," says Arshad, who has a Sunni father and a Shiite mother—not unusual among Baghdad's urban elite. "This is one of the reasons I left. One reason I won't go back. I have to feel myself as a human being, and I can't be a real human being if I have to declare whether I am Shiite or Sunni."
This is a common fear among Iraqi exiles. Returning to Iraq means choosing to live in Sunni or Shiite enclaves divided by high concrete walls. It means choosing a side and staking your life on that decision. The real-estate dilemma dictates the choice. Arshad's family home is now lost, because it is occupied by another family, which is likely to have been cleansed from yet another neighborhood. Moving back to Baghdad means choosing a new neighborhood, a new Iraq.
As difficult as it is to survive in Damascus, Arshad says he will wait things out in Syria. He has joined thousands of other Iraqis hoping for resettlement, a rescue that may never come.
Sam, a lawyer from Baghdad, has another plan for his future. We meet in a busy cafe, where Sam, in a leather jacket and a Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, chain-smokes as he describes his life in Damascus over the past two years. Inflation is rampant; even potatoes are now expensive for the poor. The Syrian government does not permit Iraqis to work, although there is a thriving illegal job market, especially for child labor in factories, restaurants, and street markets. Sam tried to open an Internet cafe, but he ran afoul of the security police. Now, he says, he wants to use what little savings he has left to pay a smuggler to take him to Greece.
Every Iraqi here knows someone who has made it out by the smuggling routes. They also know someone who has been arrested on arrival or cheated out of his or her life savings for a chance at escape. But the underground route is a gamble those Iraqis who can afford it are willing to take.
Greece has become the preferred destination. Sweden was once considered the safest haven, but in February, the Swedish government rejected 72 percent of Iraqi asylum applicants. This winter, Sweden signed an agreement with the Iraqi government to allow forced repatriation, and more than 11,000 Iraqis are likely to be sent back to Baghdad after their asylum claims are rejected. The backlog of Iraqis is still flowing through the illegal pipeline. A new U.N. report shows that Iraqis were the largest group seeking asylum in the European Union.
"Iraq is not a suitable place to live as a human. There are no dreams left in Iraq," says Sam, who didn't tell me his last name. "Everything is broken there." For Sam and thousands of other Iraqi exiles in Damascus, the recent lull in the killings in Baghdad is not enough to entice them home. They have middle-class values and middle-class dreams. As long as Iraq cannot accommodate their vision for an ordinary future, they will struggle in the uncertain life of exile.
Deborah Amos is a correspondent for NPR. She reports from the Middle East.
Photograph of Waleed Arshad by Nezar Hussein.