Home > Archives > 02 - 2007 > In Damascus to escape the Iraqi nightmare
from issue no. 02 - 2007

SYRIA. Among the Iraqi refugees

In Damascus to escape the Iraqi nightmare

A million Iraqis fleeing from their country have found refuge on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Stories and images from a hidden exodus that involves tens of thousands of Christians. And is hastening the extinction of Christianity in the land from which Abraham departed. Reportage

by Gianni Valente

Wissam the violinist and the other choirboys in the parish of Saint Teresa in Damascus

Wissam the violinist and the other choirboys in the parish of Saint Teresa in Damascus

Rita sings in the choir. At half past eight in the morning she and her elderly parents climb into the minibus that runs from the district of Jaramana to the old city. At her side her mother makes the sign of the cross every time that the decrepit banger passes in front of a church: the Franciscan Custody, in Tabbaleh, then the Orthodox, then the Armenian that one glimpses over the walls up near Bab ash-Sharqi, the east gate. They get off in the small square of Bab Touma, and in the festive calm of Muslim Friday their brisk footsteps echo in the jungle of alleys along with those of all the others – men, women, whole families, old people on their own – who are heading like them to the parish of Saint Teresa where the bell for mass is already pealing. The mosques scattered through the suq and the large Umayyad one will be filled with men, veiled women and prayers only in a couple of hours. Here instead the benches are already packed, and the elderly have begun to croon melancholy litanies in Chaldean. Iraqis from Baghdad and from Mossul, from Kirkuk and Basra, today are remembering their dead. They do it here in Damascus, far from their native land. Far from the houses and streets they will probably never see again.
Wissam, who plays the violin at mass, is also in the choir. They wanted to kill him just because he’s tall, has a clear complexion and could be mistaken for an American. They went to find Malad also, the lute player who now makes ends meet by finding a music lesson to give here and there, to kidnap him for ransom. They fled in what they were wearing, together with their parents and their many sisters (they have five each), and are considered lucky. When at the end of the mass the prayer for the dead is read, the church rustles with suppressed sobs. Everyone has some recent death to mourn, some loved one lost in the Iraqi slaughterhouse of bombs, gunfights, disappearances. Outside the church, men and women crowd together to read the list of the families that this week can collect the oil and sugar ration. The sacristy has become a store of goods vital to the escapees from the new “democratic” Iraq. Milk-powder and rosaries, gas cylinders and holy pictures of Mary, blankets and candles for the saints. «This is a good time to taste the comfort that Jesus Christ gives us, we who have nothing anymore, and to God can offer only our heart. Thy Kingdom come, and give us today our daily bread», Father Yussif preached from the pulpit, his eyes glazed with weariness, he who fled like all the others when they told him that his name was on the list of those condemned to death. On the parvis, they hand out sweets and little cakes to those coming out. George tells of wars to export democracy seen from below: «I wouldn’t know what to say about high politics. Saddam was certainly a bad person. But now we all know that there was something worse».

Iraqi women lighting candles to Our Lady in the Church of Saint Teresa

Iraqi women lighting candles to Our Lady in the Church of Saint Teresa

Frail friends
The flight of the Iraqis to Syria is in its anomalies an index of the catastrophe triggered by the “war of the willing”. Laurens Jolles, the Dutch representative of the UN Commission for Refugees in Damascus, explains: «When the regime fell everybody expected a sudden mass influx of refugees, like those unleashed by the wars in Africa. Here we were ready. There were funds, structures, donors and NGOs on the alert. But almost nobody arrived. Only small groups, in part linked to the old apparat, who were afraid of reprisal and who in any case had had time to transfer resources abroad». In the last two and a half years, when the international alert was waning, the trickle from “liberated” Iraq swelled into a torrent of wretched victims that is beginning to be a hard trial for the social stability of the State taking them in. «Thirty to forty thousand arrive each week», Jolles confirms. People from all the ethnic and religious groups and of all classes, «but also those who were well-off there are now arriving here with nothing. Putting together various data, it’s calculated that there are by now at least a million here in Syria alone, but according to the government there are many more». A muted biblical exodus that is not swamping refugee camps but spreading out in a thousand nameless rivulets in the slums and in chaotic outskirts of Damascus. Different people fleeing the same slaughterous bombs, a world gone crazy with death-squads, kidnappings, torture. A daily horror that has overwhelmed everyone but for which the Christians feel they are paying the particular scot.
In Jaramana, the small office of the CARITAS littered with trayfuls of cards and photos gives the impression of a willing lifeboat manned by brave people overwhelmed by a storm bigger than themselves. Sister Antoinette sums up the situation of the Christians fleeing Iraq in a strong but effective image: «There the Sunni are now kidnapping and killing only Shiites, while the Shiites kidnap and kill only Sunni. But both the Shiites and the Sunni are kidnapping and killing Christians». In the rending tribal war in Iraq let loose by western intervention they feel they are the most helpless target, the predestined victims. People, houses and possessions at the mercy of barbarity. Without barricaded neighborhoods for resistance, without militias and powerful clans to ask for protection.
In the Massaken Barzi district, in the small building refitted as a church and dedicated to Saint Abraham of Ur of the Chaldees, father of all believers, the collective tragedy fragments into individual stories of escape. There is Jalal, who worked in a sports center north of Baghdad and had to sell house and car to pay ransom to his daughter’s kidnappers. There is little Martin, who lost the power of speech for two years after they had tortured him so as to tape his screams and send it to his father. There is Nader, a huge man who worked for the oil companies, also kidnapped and released only after handing over 20,000 dollars. «Our money must have whetted the appetite of our neighbors. They kidnap the Christians because they know that many of us have relatives abroad ready to pay the ransom». But it is not only social visibility that stirs envy and criminal hatred. The husband of Sherma, a thirty-year old widow, was killed because he worked as an interpreter for the American companies. And the religious matrix of the invaders has furnished facile pretexts for the fanatical brutality of the Muslims. «They said we were servants of the Crusaders, they made my daughters wear the veil, they sent threatening letters: either you go or we’ll slit your throats», says Alisha. They say that in the last months the peak of new violence came after the Regensburg speech: «They threatened us: nobody goes into church until the Pope apologises to the Muslims. And they said that for us it was over there: get out, ask your Pope for asylum». Word of mouth spoke of some priests and various young Christians being killed in reprisal after Regensburg. Michel, a taxi-driver escaped from Mossul, is not afraid of appearing homesick: «Believe me, friend: before the war we lived in peace. We worked, and went home safely». Nobody raises objections. Almost all of them agree. «Because every war stirred up around these parts is always a war against the Christians, they are always the first to pay», Robert, a Syro-Catholic, an unsentimental tour operator from Aleppo, says bitterly.

A family of  Iraqi refugees in their room in the Massaken Barzi district

A family of Iraqi refugees in their room in the Massaken Barzi district

Syrian limbo
In the mass of Iraqis exiled in Syria the Christians – Chaldeans, Syrians, Armenians, Orthodox – are at least forty thousand. The “rogue state”, always in the sights of the US administration, is for them a kind of promised land, the best place to run if you are a person who carries the name of Christ. They crowd into the Damascus neighborhoods of Jaramana, of Tabbaleh, of Massaken Barzi or of Dwela. «When someone new arrives, the families go up to the sanctuary to thank God and Our Lady for a happy end to the journey», says Toufic Eid, the parish priest of the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Maalula, the hill village where they still speak Aramaic, as did Jesus. «But then they also ask that their life as refugees be made easy, because easy it isn’t».
In Massaken Barzi, Samir and his relatives live, like everybody, packed together eight in two rooms, they sleep on couches and mattresses on the floor. Walls covered with Our Ladies, Sacred Hearts, photos of happy days, including of those of when his daughter Yasmina was released after the usual lightning kidnap («she was eleven days with tied hands. And we waiting for her, without eating or sleeping …»). Heaps of washing, grandchildren crying, birdcages, open cases, always ready to be filled with the fragments of life saved from the shipwreck. For dilapidated flatlets that in 2000 were rented at ten dollars a month, now the Iraqis are paying from four hundred dollars upwards. With an Iraq effect on the housing market that also annoys the Syrians. «My eldest son sends me the money for the rent every month from Australia», says Samir. There’s no choice but to muddle through. The Syrian government assures a welcome, opens the schools to the children of the refugees, guarantees a minimum health service to those who show the refugee certificates allotted by the UN. But the country’s economy is suffering, and the Iraqis who can’t start up businesses of their own have to stay out of the labor market. Thus the refugee situation is changing the life of many boys and men into a waiting room. As with Michel, who in Baghdad was on his final exams in engineering and now – like so many of his contemporaries – passes the day sprawling from one couch to another gobbling the idiocies of satellite television, that manage to get into even the most broken-down hovels thanks to the dense forest of dishes that envelops the city. Meanwhile, for many women – and they may be young widows weighed down with children, who have buried their husbands before fleeing – the toil of keeping going becomes a slippery slope into prostitution. While even among the children the high truancy rate (30% according to UN 2006 statistics) conceals increasing exploitation of under-age labor. If to these elements are added the ever more frequent cases of delinquency involving Iraqi refugees, one can understand the increasing signs of impatience and social alarm among Syrians towards the cumbersome post-Saddam Iraqi immigration.
Iraqi children in Damascus: coming out of mass

Iraqi children in Damascus: coming out of mass

Not least for this reason, in mid February the Syrian government – left alone to face an economically and politically destabilizing humanitarian emergency – seemed on the point of squeezing off the generous hospitality to which its pan-Arab ideology pushes it. There was talk of a drastic reduction in the duration of residence permits, with refugees obliged to leave Syria for a long period of time before being allowed to ask for another. Then the fears calmed. Only the registration and control measures on the refugees has been toughened. After the alarm the everyday distress of life in suspension returned for everybody, Christians included.
There are those who move easily in the no-man’s-land of refugees, distributing sips of charity and mercy in the city of castaways hidden in the folds of the real city. Sister Thérèse of the Good Shepherd tours Massaken Barzi every day, handing out rosaries and small stoves, mini fridges and crucifixes, and then listens and gives what help she can – in the almost total absence of initiatives even from ecclesial bodies – to alleviate people’s distress. Above all of the young widowed mothers who here alone make up ninety of the five hundred families known to her. When she wants to take them on a trip or out to play every so often she has to pay the day for some of the sixty children to whom she teaches catechism, releasing them for a day from the three dollars a week “jobs” they’ve managed to find with barbers and stores. She has set up a kind of cooperative with the bigger ones. They call themselves “Domenico Savio’s group”, good young people, cheerful as the Salesian Saint, who organize English lessons, courses in computing and make-up. Trying each day to win a “normal” life in the present, the small miracle of putting together tidy notebooks to be studied even in such abnormal conditions. While almost everything around them speaks of an emptiness and dizziness consuming useless days.

End of a Christendom
«Iraqi Christian groups have described the policy of the Bush administration in Iraq as a “perfidious conspiracy”. It is probable that this perfidy will lead to the extinction of one of the most ancient Christian nations in the world in its own motherland». So wrote the American political analyst Glenn Chancy as early as April 2004. To judge from the dreams and plans of the Chaldean refugees in Syria, the process of extinction is accelerating.
The queue for refugee certificates in front of the UNHCR office in Damascus

The queue for refugee certificates in front of the UNHCR office in Damascus

According to a UN survey conducted in March 2006 80% of Iraqi exiles have no intention of returning to their war-torn country. A percentage that is certainly higher still among the Christian refugees, with the compliance of all the heads of the Churches who from their pulpits tell their congregations not to run. Robert, for example, was also a taxi driver in Baghdad. He nonchalantly shows the slash left on the back of his neck by a piece of shrapnel. Now he gets by on a few certainties: that his wife Rania is pregnant again, that his mother and her brothers are in Michigan and that they will do everything to join them. «With Iraq», he says, «we’ve done. Enough. Finished. If we mean to live, we’ll live elsewhere. Before things went smoothly. But now, if you’re Christian, you’re not fit to live in Baghdad».
They can’t go back to Iraq. They can’t work to make a new life in Syria. But the doors of other countries are locked to them, above all those in the West, with their ever tougher policies on immigration. That even here force the Iraqi refugees to make frustrating and futile tours of embassies and consulates, where the officials fiddle about, take their time, dragging out the procedures for granting visas from postponement to postponement.
Susan went again this morning to the Australian embassy. Pointless again. She looks with pained, childish eyes at her son Semir, a big lad of fifteen, firstborn of four children, and recounts that her husband has gone back to risk his skin in Baghdad in the hope of selling the house, the car and coming back with a bit of money. More than a few fathers of families have not come back from these last visits intended to close accounts with the past. The new “occupants” of the houses cut off any contention at birth by eliminating the undesirable owners and their “claims”. One can see from their faces how she and her boy are suffering, and also from the dogged tone in which she repeats questions without answer: «Why won’t the embassy give us the visa? How long can all this last? But is there any future for us anywhere?».

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português