- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — Former residents of Baghdad, Fallujah or Tikrit can get a taste of home on what has come to be known as “Iraqi Street,” stopping by the Baghdady Bakery for a sticky-sweet piece of carrot-pistachio marzipan.

Down the block, they can dine on mazgouf, a dish of charcoal-grilled fish from the Tigris River, at the Habayibna Restaurant. Or they can spend an evening watching a play that dramatizes their homesickness, performed with Iraqi accents and slang.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have fled to Damascus in the past four years with little more than they could carry. But gradually, they have turned the commercial strip that runs through Saida Zeinab — a once-impoverished neighborhood in eastern Damascus — into a little bit of home.

Exiles, expatriates, immigrants, refugees or guests — they go by many labels — the roughly 1.4 million Iraqis who have settled here have brought their culture with them and savor reminders of their old life while waiting for a new one.

“People come in for fish, but we also have kebab, mezze, the usual food,” said Abu Imad, who sometimes works 12-hour days at the Habayibna, a small restaurant with a traditional courtyard tucked behind Iraqi Street. “They smoke the nargila, they talk. This is a place to relax.”

Abu Imad, who serves triple duty at the Habayibna as accountant, waiter and cashier, fled Iraq just a few months ago, after his two older sons were killed in separate incidents by militias.

The United Nations estimates that 4 million Iraqis have been uprooted by violence since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion: Half of those are making do somewhere inside their own country while the other half have gone abroad — some possibly forever.

The Syrian government has welcomed the Iraqis, but the influx is seriously taxing the country’s infrastructure, resources and good will.

The government says almost 80 percent of the new arrivals have settled in and around Damascus — a city already teeming with traffic and pollution. They are not living in tents but renting apartments and buying homes, often exhausting their savings to resettle.

Newcomers, arriving at an estimated rate of 3,000 a month, are facing higher prices, greater resistance from locals and severe employment restrictions.

Umm Omar, who is raising five young children in two rooms just off Iraqi Street, lives on the $100 a month her husband sends from Iraq. That barely covers her rent and food, let alone toys, clothes and incidentals.

“A good day is when I don’t spend a penny,” said the English teacher, who is home schooling her children and hopes to stay in Syria for good.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has registered 77,000 Iraqis in Syria, and say that number could reach 200,000 by year’s end. Registration is voluntary and mostly undertaken by the poorest of refugees who need food assistance or free medical facilities, said Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Damascus.

For many, the transition from middle-class professional to barely tolerated refugee has been painful and confusing. Engineers are selling cigarettes or fruit on the street, while some families resort to theft or prostitution to make ends meet.

A great number of the refugees have settled into Saida Zeinab, a downtrodden area that was once home to Syria’s Palestinians. The first Iraqi refugees, mostly Shi’ite, were drawn by the low rents and a Shi’ite shrine. Later arrivals, including Sunnis and Christians, are here because of reassurance of Iraqi Street.

“This is not home, but it is safe and it is a future,” said cell-phone sales clerk Adnan Ali, who left Baghdad about a year ago. He lives with his wife and two sons in one room of a three-bedroom apartment, but he is not complaining.

“And I can go back every month to visit my brothers,” he said.

Dozens of large air-conditioned buses traverse the five-hour route between Saida Zeinab and Baghdad every day. Some people just visit relatives, but others are ferrying toys, food, building materials and other merchandise that is difficult to get in Iraq.

Syria, like Jordan, has won international gratitude for keeping its land borders open to Iraqi refugees. But with thousands arriving every month, both countries are appealing for help.

Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, who has been trying to drum up bilateral contributions, recently circulated an appeal for $15 million for security and $257 million for health, humanitarian and educational services.

The U.S. government last month pledged $125 million to assist homeless Iraqis, including those in Syria. It also issued rare and carefully phrased words of praise for a government that it more often accuses of sponsoring terrorism.

“It’s very clear that when a government is doing the right thing that that should be recognized and that should be given credit,” said Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. She stressed last month that the money would be handled by international organizations and not given directly to Damascus.

Washington has also ramped up its own immigration program, saying it will accept as many as 25,000 Iraqi refugees this year. Priority will go to the most vulnerable and those who have helped coalition forces.

Mr. Mekdad said Damascus wants to see a more significant commitment, both financial and political, from Washington.

“These [Iraqis] are here under the eyes of the American embassy,” Mr. Mekdad said. “They complain we allow insurgents to infiltrate the borders, [yet] they do not see 1.5 million Iraq people [moving] in the other direction?”

Damascus natives want to help their neighbors but say that so many immigrants puts an unsustainable strain on their country’s already stretched resources, including water, jobs and even parking spaces. In the past two years, rents have doubled and traffic has become intolerable, say residents, many of whom accuse the Iraqis of bringing AIDS to the city and stealing jobs.

“The Iraqis are welcome, but the situation is getting worse for them and for us,” said Atef, a 27-year-old physical therapist in downtown Damascus. “Prices are going up day after day for bread, fruit; anything they can bring back [to Iraq costs] double.”

But Mohamad Ali, a shepherd who has lived in Saida Zeinab for 30 years, says life for him has improved.

“There is more business, more people, more butchers, more meat,” he said, gazing at his flock of sheep grazing in an abandoned lot behind the commercial strip.

Crime, too, has gone up. Contract kidnapping, prostitution, drug and human trafficking, and price-gouging are new or rising, according to Syrian and U.N. officials and the Iraqis themselves. The cause is economic desperation, exacerbated by criminals and militia members who have slipped across the border with everyone else.

The Syrian government has not formulated a plan to deal with the influx beyond soliciting assistance from the United Nations and donor governments. A half-dozen ministries are involved in the problem, but international aid groups say they there is no single bureau or official in charge.

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