- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria

Decades after the Middle East was hit by the mass uprooting of Palestinians, it is struggling again with a gigantic refugee problem — this time from Iraq.

The exodus — 1 million going to neighboring Syria alone, according to the United Nations — is another unforeseen byproduct of the 2003 Iraq invasion. When it might peak, nobody knows, but if it continues at its present rate, the consequences for the region would be profound.

Iraqis now make up more than 5 percent of Syria’s population, the U.N. refugee agency says. Jordan says 700,000 Iraqis have swollen its population by 12 percent, and officials say they have moved to cut off the flow. So has Egypt, with 130,000 Iraqi newcomers.

Syria’s doors remain open, and the new arrivals have transformed some Damascus neighborhoods to such an extent that Iraqi-accented Arabic is all that is heard.

In the capital’s Jarramana suburb, restaurants advertise Iraqi dishes, along with belly dancers and singers imported from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. Many store windows advertise apartments and houses for rent or sale. In al-Sayda Zeinab, another Damascus suburb, Iraqis crowd into the marble-tiled plaza of a Shi’ite mosque, far outnumbering Iranian pilgrims.

Syria is poor and lacking in jobs, and many Syrians grumble about the newcomers pushing up the cost of food and housing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says it is struggling to help the newcomers, many of whom are poor and running out of the meager funds they brought.

The United States, which has accepted 466 Iraqi refugees since the war began, announced yesterday that a new task force will examine ways to sharply increase the American intake of displaced Iraqis. The UNHCR wants Washington to take up to 20,000 this year.

Resources stretched

Egypt and Jordan have reported only minor security frictions with the refugees, but both say their fear of importing Iraq’s violence forces them to clamp down.

Jordanian officials point to the killing of 60 persons in 2005, when Iraqi suicide bombers linked to al Qaeda struck three hotels in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

Human Rights Watch says Jordan refuses entry to Iraqi men ages 17 to 35. Government officials acknowledge restrictions on the entry of Iraqis but won’t give specifics.

The Iraqi presence is a burden, Jordanian government spokesman Nasser Judeh said. Jordan, he said, wants an international conference to discuss compensation for Arab nations hosting fleeing Iraqis.

Syria, with a population of 18 million, is the refuge of choice primarily because of its relaxed entry regulations for Arabs, the relatively low cost of living and availability of schools and health care.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is reluctant to detail the costs. “There is indeed a burden, but Syria doesn’t complain to anyone and is not asking anyone for help,” Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa told reporters in Damascus last month.

Still, the impact is felt. Housing prices in the Damascus area have soared by up to 300 percent. Syrians also complain about higher food prices and overcrowding at some schools, which reportedly have admitted up to 28,000 Iraqi children. In areas where Iraqis have settled, residents say some classes have swollen from 30 pupils to 50.

The Damascus office of the UNHCR says about 40,000 Iraqis arrive monthly. They can stay for six months, then must leave and renew the visa process from scratch. The quickest way is a short trip to neighboring Lebanon, but at $20 a person or more, the sightseeing packages are too costly for the poor.

‘At least we are safe’

Still, most Iraqis in Syria say they have no serious complaints about their life in exile and have made a home away from home.

Some have settled in Palestinian refugee camps, where rents are lower, joining tens of thousands of Palestinians who came to Syria as refugees after the 1948 creation of Israel and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Iraqis also have set up a private university outside the capital, with Iraqi lecturers and a mostly Iraqi student body — a reflection of Iraq’s war-driven brain drain.

Two Damascus theaters are showing Iraqi plays, complete with star actors in exile. “Homesick,” a slapstick comedy set in the offices of an imaginary Iraqi satellite TV channel based in Syria, has drawn near sellout crowds since opening Dec. 7.

“My homeland is like a paradise even if it resembles hell,” blares a song from the theater’s speakers.

For $5 a ticket, Iraqis who have fled suicide bombings, death squads, gunbattles, unemployment and violent crime laugh hysterically as comedians Majid Yassin and Nahi Mahdi joke about Baghdad’s fuel shortages and power outages.

“It is not a good life, but at least we are safe here,” said Ibrahim Hamad, a former Iraqi army officer who came to Syria eight months ago with his wife and three children from Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni-led insurgency.

“No bombs, no shootings, no Americans, no militiamen and no power cuts,” he said.

Mr. Hamad is not entitled to an army pension because he was an active member of Saddam’s now-outlawed Ba’ath Party. The family lives on the $250 a month he collects from tenants living in his central Baghdad apartment and from dabbling in cross-border commerce.

The promise of a well-paid job in a business run by relatives in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai keeps his hopes high.

The United States and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government accuse Syria of harboring leaders of Iraq’s Sunni-led insurgency — particularly former Ba’ath Party officials — and allowing them to move back and forth across the border with Iraq. Among the Iraqis in Syria are about 300,000 Shi’ites, but there have been no reports of Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’ite tensions spilling into Syria.

Displacement grows

The UNHCR is struggling to deal with the flood of Iraqis across the region — and within their homeland. It says about 500,000 fled their homes to other parts of Iraq last year alone, and that the number of internally displaced people could reach 2.3 million — nearly one in 10 Iraqis — by the end of this year.

This month, the Geneva-based agency made an emergency appeal for $60 million to help fleeing Iraqis.

“Unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region,” it said.

Already, its resources in Syria are stretched thin. The waiting time for seeing a UNHCR official is five months, said Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Syria. He hopes it will drop to one month after his office recruits 10 new staff members.

“Syria’s generosity is admirable and must be noted,” he said.

Many Iraqi families are running out of money and becoming increasingly dependent on aid from religious and political-support groups, he said. Up to 30 percent of young Iraqis aren’t attending school, he added.

Some of the refugees are fortunate enough to find legal work, but Mr. Jolles said many more are employed illegally and vulnerable to exploitation.

The Iraqis pose no security threat, “but there are social ills like theft and prostitution,” said Elias Murad, editor in chief of the Al-Ba’ath, official newspaper of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party.

Saad Hamza Ilwan, a retired primary school teacher from Mahmoudiyah, a particularly dangerous Sunni Arab town south of Baghdad, came to Syria with his wife and three children nearly two years ago. He could afford only an apartment in the al-Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, which is more like a sprawling suburb of Damascus.

He sells cell phones and phone cards. “Business is slow,” he said as his 10-year-old son, Mohammed, dusted the shelves. “There are five shops selling the same things on this part of the street alone.”

He said his children are struggling with a Syrian school system that is more rigorous than Iraq’s.

“But the Syrians treat us well,” said Mr. Ilwan, who says he fled Iraq four months after U.S. troops stormed his home, arrested two of his brothers and held them for eight months.

In al-Yarmouk, the men spend their evenings smoking and drinking sweet black tea while swapping stories of conditions at home learned from telephone conversations with relatives and friends in Iraq.

Mohammed, the 10-year-old, huddles by an electrical heater to fend off the cold and declares himself homesick.

“I don’t like Damascus,” he says, drawing protests from his father. “I want to be back in my school in Iraq.”

• Associated Press correspondents Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo contributed to this report.

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