Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Trail Of Iraqi Refugees Stream Towards Syria

by George Baghdadi

U.S. Not Prepared For Iraq War Civilian Crisis, Say Relief Groups (Nov 2002)
(IPS) DAMASCUS -- Abu Kamal was once a sleepy little outpost on the Iraqi border with Syria. Now it is busy all the time.

Refugees from Iraq have been crossing over into Syria in thousands. A ramshackle convoy of cars, trucks and vans packed with Iraqis and all they can carry trundles through Abu Kamal night and day. From Abu Kamal the convoy moves on to Damascus.

"Bush is the problem," says an Iraqi refugee in Saida Zeinab on the outskirts of Damascus. Others blame Saddam. But the presence of these refugees here is now Syria's problem.

Local Administration Minister Hilal Atrash says his country has informed international organizations of the arrival of the refugees and of the government's "readiness to cooperate with them and other humanitarian groups."

The minister said "we want to reduce the sufferings of the Iraqi people who are the target of American aggression."

Syrian officials offer no information on services being set up along the 600-kilometer border with Iraq to receive refugees. But thousands of Shiite Muslims have crossed over into Syria ostensibly as pilgrims, even before the hostilities began.

The Iraqis came to pay homage at Shiite shrines for the feast of Ashoura last week, but many have decided to stay on. They say they will return to Iraq only when the war ends.

More than 1.8 million Iraqi refugees fled after the start of the 1991 Gulf War, according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). But few headed then for Syria.

"No other country is ready to receive us now, not Saudi Arabia not Kuwait, Jordan, Iran or Turkey," says Aziz Jawahiri, a refugee from Iraq. "Where could we go? There was only Syria."

The Iraqi refugees are struggling to find a new life, and struggling to cope with mixed feelings of anger, fear and uncertainty. Many speak also of their guilt that they are safe while loved ones at home could be under attack.

Bayan Orabi is a shaken man. "Two days ago I had hysteria because I can't see my country," he says. "I was crying, I want to do something but I can't. I have three sisters in Iraq. I wonder what the children are doing now. My sister is very afraid."

He says his doctor has advised him not to watch the news on television. "But how can I not?"

Many of the refugees say the war will bring neither democracy nor freedom. "Washington does not care about us," says Saad Jimali, a school teacher from Baghdad. "They only care about their own interests."

But there are refugees who support the U.S. action. Medhat Omar, another refugee who lives in Baghdad speaks in halting English, but his message is clear: a new regime is necessary for his homeland to move forward.

Omar says he has been forced to watch, and cheer, executions carried out in Iraqi soccer stadiums. Families of the executed men were made to pay for the fatal bullet. Years of war with the Kurds, the Iranians and the Americans have drained the Iraqi economy.

Omar joined Shiite uprisings in the south after the Gulf War in 1991. Most Iraqis follow the Shiite branch of Islam, but they have long been oppressed by the more powerful followers of the Sunni branch who dominate Iraqi politics, Omar says. The revolt was crushed, and Omar was forced to live in a Saudi refugee camp for five years.

Hashem Mourab, a refugee from Basra says his "only wish now is that we have peace."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 23, 2003 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.