Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf is obviously tired of talking to the stream of well-meaning foreigners who have been traipsing through Syria to learn about the plight of the over one million Iraqi refugees now living here. Humanitarian groups, religious delegations, migration experts. They write reports full of lofty recommendations. So much talk, so little action.
A Syrian nun at the Good Shephard Convent in Damascus, Sister Marie-Claude had work to do attending to the crisis of the day — an Iraqi girl who had been raped in Baghdad, then dumped on the Syrian border and disowned by her family. Reluctantly, she agreed to give me 10 minutes of her time. An hour later, she was still talking about the horrors she has seen. “It’s shameful, shameful,” she cried, her head in her hands. “What has happened to the Iraqi people is shameful. Girls sold into prostitution, single mothers begging for handouts, men with no jobs, no future, no hope. And the people of the United States, whose government unleashed this disaster of epic proportions, don’t seem to know or care.”
The invasion and the ensuing spiral of violence has led to the most massive displacement in the Middle East since the creation of the state Israel in 1948. Some 1.2 million Iraqis fled to Syria before the Syrian government, its schools and hospitals overwhelmed and local people reeling from soaring rents and food prices, closed its doors in October 2007. The Jordanian government allowed some 500,000 Iraqis to enter the country but has also closed its borders.
Some refugees are wealthy Iraqis who worked with Saddam’s government and cashed out when he was overthrown. They reside in the wealthy sections of Amman, living off their savings. But the vast majority of refugees are middle class and poor Iraqis who fled the post-invasion meltdown. Most are not just fleeing the generalized violence, but experienced personal tragedies at the hands of U.S. soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, sectarian militias, Al-Qaeda fanatics or criminal gangs that thrive on social disintegration.
Layla Atiya is a 50-year-old woman from Baghdad whom I met outside the UN food distribution center in Damascus. She was a Shia who married a Sunni, something very common pre-invasion. They had a large family — eight children — but Layla’s husband worked hard as a mechanic and managed to provide a decent life for his family.
In March 2005, he was kidnapped by Shia militias trying to rid the neighborhood of Sunnis. Ten days later, his body was found dumped in a ditch, riddled with drill holes from torture.
Layla’s face twisted in pain as she recounted receiving his mangled body. “We should have fled right away,” she said, “but I was in shock and didn’t’ know what to do, where to go.” A week later, masked men came and took away her oldest son. Hysterical, she packed up the seven remaining children — ages 2-16 — and fled to Syria.
Layla receives $120 a month from the UN, but it doesn’t even cover her rent. Education is important to her — “We always dreamed of our children going to college,” she told me — but she pulled her children out of school to clean houses and do other menial tasks. Iraqis are not legally allowed to work in Jordan or Syria, so many parents send their children to work at low-paid jobs under the table. “What can I do?,” she asked me. “I can barely feed my children, much less provide them with a decent future. What will become of us?”
Severely traumatized and terrified, most refugees can’t even contemplate going back to Iraq. But they can’t stay in Jordan or Syria either, for they are not allowed to work and have depleted their savings. Bassam Rahem, for example, owned a small car repair shop in Baghdad. A Christian, he was kidnapped by Shia militia and his wife was forced to pay $25,000 for his release. “We came here with our two children and what was left of our life savings-$10,000. Between rent, food, transport and school for our boys, we have nothing left. We have been applying for resettlement in another country — Australia, Canada, the United States, Sweden. But it has been two years now, and we don’t even get replies.”
Most refugees want to resettle in a third country where they will be allowed to work and have a chance to rebuild their lives. Sweden, a country that was against the occupation from the beginning, has been the most generous, taking in more Iraqis than the rest of Europe and the United States combined. The U.S., on the other hand, has been pitiful. “While the UN refugee agency has worked to identify tens of thousands of vulnerable Iraqis for resettlement, the U.S. has been slow to bring these Iraqis to refuge, and has failed to meet even its own modest goals,” said Amelia Templeton, refugee advocate at Human Rights First. The U.S. target for 2008 is 12,000 Iraqis. Even if the goal is met, which is unlikely, it represents a tiny fraction of the millions in need.
Some of the neediest women have turned to prostitution, or worse yet, have sold their daughters into prostitution. The Damascus night club Al Rawabi, with a cover charge of $35 and bottles of liquor going for $100, was packed when I visited on a Friday night. Young Iraqi girls danced suggestively on the stage, the men — mostly Iraqi — eyeing which ones they would like to have sex with. The atmosphere of forced merrymaking — dancing, drinking, smoking hookas — failed to camouflage the collective stupor.
At 4 am, the Iraqi singer they had all been waiting for got on stage. He sang of love and loss, not for a woman but for a country. “What happened to the country we love? What happened to us, a people without a home?,” he wailed. For a moment, the whole room was united — prostitutes and their johns, Muslims and Christians, old and young. They waved their hands in the air, their eyes teary. “What has happened to us, a people without a home?,” they repeated.
Many Iraqis think the United States has been carefully carrying out a diabolical scheme to obliterate their culture, their people, their sense of nationhood. “The U.S. wanted to turn a strong, proud Muslim country into a weak, divided, pitiful territory that could be easil dominated and controlled,” said Faisal Al-Alawi, an Iraqi PhD in history who lives in Syria but refuses to call himself a refugee. “Thanks to the Americans, our modern, secular society has now disintegrated into tribalism, sectarianism, barbarism and fundamentalism, with Sunnis pitted against Shia, Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Muslims. Iraq is no longer even a nation-state.”
Intentionally or not, the U.S. government has brought Iraq to its knees. The best and brightest are gone, and even if the violence quells, most will not return. The education and health care systems that were once the jewels of the Middle East are now in tatters, with most of the academics and doctors murdered or in exile. This fiercely proud people who gave the world its earliest civilizations have be reduced to beggars, waiting on food lines for handouts or selling their bodies to feed their children.