GUESTS: Iraqi Refugees in Syria

GUESTS: Iraqi Refugees in Syria

A single refugee is a tragedy; over four million refugees is a statistic…

Iraqis have been fleeing their homes en masse. As displaced victims of war are forced to seek refuge in other parts of Iraq or in neighboring nations, they have turned into a number: 4.9 million un-named, anonymous non-entities, statistically relevant yet individually insignificant.[1]

The days of my stay in Syria offered a small window into the magnitude of a catastrophe that is still unfolding and shows no sign of abating in any immediately imaginable future. 

Who are these fleeing Iraqis? Can they be turned from statistics into individual human beings?

At a first glance, Sayyida Zainab doesn’t seem much different from any other bustling, poor Damascus neighborhood, until one listens carefully: the Iraqi dialect spoken here transports one from Syria to Baghdad.

This is where Iraqi refugees come to escape war and sectarian violence -- temporarily, until they can return to their homes again.  But if you ask them how long that may take, the uncertainty is immediately apparent in their gaze and in their repeated phrase, “Iraq’s future is like a long dark tunnel.”

Here, far away from their homeland, desperate, almost penniless Iraqi refugees congregate on “Iraqi Street,” a road that serves simultaneously as a community center, a market, and an access to nearby living quarters.  As one passes the tea sellers and other merchants who are the nerve center of the neighborhood, one can start to imagine what life used to be like in Iraq…before.

In many ways, Sayyida Zainab represents the ideal concept of Iraq, an enclave where sectarian divisions are a foreign concept, a religiously and politically unified community. It is a sensitive topic, one often addressed in hushed tones, but many refugees assert: “We are Iraqis! We don’t refer to ourselves as Sunni or Shiia, we are all Iraqis here!”

“Baghdad…Baghdad,” yells a man on Iraqi Street, attracting the attention of potential travelers.  Many Iraqis are lured by the appearance of a reduction in violence in Iraq; by a monetary incentive offered by the Iraqi government (a Faustian deal for which they have to turn in their passports and remain inside Iraq for five years); by the thought of escaping the desperation, humiliation and poverty they witness every day as refugees.  Some respond to the call and board buses and cars, not knowing the precise circumstances they will find on the other side of the border. Others still fear for their lives and stay.

Damascus is home to over two million once proud Iraqis, now living as “guests” in Syria, without official recognition as refugees.  These “guests” have extremely limited prospects – they are without the ability to earn a legal income or create new lives.

Which desperate story to mention? Which door to an unheated room to open first?  These photographs are intended to puncture the statistics and reveal human beings.

[1]The United Nation High Commission on Refugees estimates that up to 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, with most settling in neighboring Syria and Jordan. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 2.4 million others -- nearly 9 percent of Iraq’s population -- have become “internally displaced refugees,” abandoning their homes.