*Syria 1,200,000
*Jordan 750,000
*Gulf states: 200,000
*Egypt: 100,000
*Iran: 54,000
*Lebanon: 40,000
*Turkey: 10,000
*Internally displaced: 1,900,000
Source: UNHCR … (Iraqi refugees’ stories )
By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Damascus

Millions of Iraqis have been forced to leave their homes because of the continuing violence in the country. Many of them have fled to Damascus where the Syrian government is asking why the Americans and the British are not doing more to ease the refugee problem.

“This is Baghdad,” asserts Hussain.

We are sitting on brightly coloured plastic chairs on the sidewalk of Sharea al Iraqi (Iraqi street) in the Syrian capital.

The street used to be called something else but no-one remembers that now.

And it does not look like that anymore.

The shop signs tell this story.

There is Baghdad bakery doing a brisk trade, Soulemaniyeh sweets, the Falluja restaurant.

Billboard after billboard announces transport to and from Iraqi cities.

The signs are all Iraqi, so are the accents, so is the way the women arrange their headscarves.

“Western countries, including the US and Britain, have so far kept their doors shut for the vast majority of asylum seekers”

I ask Hussain why he left the real Baghdad.

He raises one leg of his black and red tracksuit to reveal a round dark circle, a scar.

Then he pulls up one sleeve and shows me another – the marks of bullets meant to kill him when he was working at the Ministry of the Interior, a place reputed to be dominated by Shia hit squads.

He is Shia himself.

Here he sits with Basel, a Sunni Muslim.

So why did Basel leave?

Basel makes a slitting motion across his throat.

Sitting tight

I realise this line of men sipping glasses of hot sweet tea along the side of a shop is not just a grim sign of joblessness but a sad reminder of what has been lost.

“You’re all sitting together here,” I say, “Shia, Sunnis, Christians…”

It coaxes the faintest of smiles and then a grimace.

They shake their heads at the horrific sectarian violence threatening to tear Iraq apart.

“This is the new Iraq,” declares Basel, with a kick in his voice meant to convince himself and everyone else.

He fled to Damascus last year but then went back to Baghdad a few months ago, hoping the new US-led security plan for his capital would work.

But now he is back in Syria and does not want to return again to what he calls “my death”.

“Arab neighbours do not dare speak out publicly against a sacred notion of Arab unity but Jordan is quietly tightening its borders and sending some people back”

That seems to be the view, however reluctant, of many of the more than one million Iraqis now in Syria. And, there are some 750,000 more in neighbouring Jordan.

But where will they go?

Refugee crisis

Western countries, including the US and Britain, have so far kept their doors shut for the vast majority of asylum seekers.

Syria and Jordan euphemistically speak of “visitors” or “guests.”

They do not want a new Iraq created on their land.

Sixty years ago, Palestinian refugees flooded across their borders in the 1948 Arab Israeli war and still have not left.

This movement of Iraqis is being called the biggest displacement of people since then, a massive exodus which will change the face of this region.

Just how is still not clear but the scale of this human wave is staggering.

Iraqis now make up about 10-15% of Jordan’s tiny population of less than six million.

Arab neighbours do not dare speak out publicly against a sacred notion of Arab unity but Jordan is quietly tightening its borders and sending some people back.

Jordanians and Syrians grumble discreetly about the rising price of everything from houses to tomatoes.

Many ask why should they shoulder a crisis they charge the US and Britain with starting by invading Iraq.

And the UN has been accusing everyone of “abject denial.”

Little choice

After this week’s conference in Geneva, there are more promises of aid.

But this tide shows no sign of stopping. Tens of thousands pour from Iraq every month.

“For now, there are no tented camps. Wealthy Iraqis are buying or renting their own homes while poorer ones slip into poorer neighbourhoods.”

But they are becoming increasingly destitute.

It is hard to find work. “I have two choices”, says Iman who fled to Damascus with her teenage twins after her husband was assassinated.

She is Shia. Her husband was a Sunni.

“I can go back to Iraq but my brother-in-law will rip my children away from me. Or I can stay here and beg. But my children say it is better for all of us to die than for their mother to be a beggar.”

I ask if she would like to go back to Iraq, if she could.

“Don’t mention Iraq,” she pleads, “it made me love my husband, my job, my life but now I despise it.”

I ask her if she has a photograph of her children.

She draws a breath, and pulls a yellowed snapshot from her purse, its corners creased with time.

In the blurred image I see her, a younger woman laughing with ease, hair falling to her shoulders, her arms around her husband, their children in his arms, and a Christmas tree.

“You, a Muslim, celebrated Christmas?” I ask. She nods and looks away.

The past is another country. This was Baghdad of old, an ancient land of cherished traditions, the capital of capitals in the Middle East.

For now, that Baghdad is gone.


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