7 October 2007

Let the refugees in

By Juliette Harkin

"I went to the House of God and returned yet I found nothing like my home" - An Iraqi Proverb

You can take a ride from central Damascus in a small 'micro' van packed with workers and travel to Sayyida Zeinab, a popular district of Damascus and home for mainly Shi'a Iraqi refugees. At the entrance to the gold domed mosque foreign women can don the black Abaya, the long black cover worn by some Iraqi and Iranian women, and visit the holy shrine of Zeinab, which houses her remains. Zeinab was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed, daughter of Ali the fourth Caliphate. Shi'a Muslims make the pilgrimige to mourn the assassination of the fourth Caliph and the 'betrayal' against Ali's family at a time that saw the Shi'a and Sunni split of Islam.

Syria has received many waves of Iraqi refugees throughout recent history, from those fleeing the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam's regime, the first Gulf war, the crippling sanctions and now the current violence as a result of the second American-led war on Iraq.

A steady flow of Iraqi refugees arrive in Syria and Jordan, the earlier and relatively wealthy now joined by the impoverished, by those who fled with nothing, in fear of their lives – journalists, those who worked with the occupation forces, foreign embassies or NGO's, victims of torture, and anyone living in the wrong side of the new sectarian divides that carve up Iraq’s towns. They are all waiting to go home and hoping to make a life until their country is safe.

Umm Ashraf and Abu Ashraf (the mother and father of Ashraf), a retired Iraqi couple are still waiting, as Christians they were too scared to return. I first met them in 2003; they greeted me warmly, shaking my hand saying what sounded like a thousand ways in Arabic to say hello, ask after my health and thank God. They invited me for tea and sweet biscuits. They had just returned from church in the picturesque old Christian quarter known as Baab Tooma in the old city of Damascus.

Abu Ashraf said they hoped to join their daughter and her family in Australia. They showed me a brochure of Australia and seemed happy that they would leave the confines of living in one room. They missed home and worried constantly about their son and family still in Baghdad.

This summer Sharouk Dillaa, an Iraqi involved in women's human rights came to talk in Norwich. She reeled off some extremely grim figures. One hundred women every day lose their husbands to the sectarian violence on the streets or the brutality of the occupation. There are five million Iraqi war orphans and every day four hundred more children are orphaned.

Over four million Iraqi's have had to leave their homes. The UNHCR is describing this as "the world's fastest growing displacement crisis".

Amnesty International issued a report in September 2007 urging those responsible for going to war with Iraq to now help in the resettlement of Iraqi's who cannot return to their war torn countries. Amnesty says there is a "moral obligation" to intervene and provide the necessary funds and a safe haven for a nation of people totally traumatised by war, in fear of their lives and lacking the basic food and health needs.

The international community is largely ignoring this dire situation. Promising insufficient funds and setting tiny quotas, countries like the UK and the USA are put to shame by the relative generosity of Syria and Jordan. Amnesty International commended Syria for taking in 1.4 million Iraqis and Jordan over 500,000. By contrast, the UK will allow just 750 refugees to resettle in the UK under its Gateway Protection Programme. The USA is reneging on its commitment to take in 25,000 and now talks of maybe taking in… just 2,000.

Our politicians assume we don't want any more foreigners here in Britain, taking our jobs and welfare benefits. Jordan and Syria suffer high levels of absolute poverty yet Jordanian officials recently estimated that they spent $1 billion on coping with the Iraqi refugees. Syria has allowed all Iraqi children free education, emergency medical treatment and offered a safe haven for families from a war that they have always opposed.

Today Abu and Umm Ashraf are still in Damascus, living in one room, waiting. They are the lucky ones, they have food and shelter and their son in Baghdad is still alive. Their country is in ruins. Shame on us for closing our doors to refugees who watch in despair as their country is completely destroyed by the war that the British government initiated.

Iraqi names have been changed to protect their privacy.