Iraqis Fleeing Violence Put Strain on Syria
The U.S. military surge, aimed at bringing stability to Baghdad, has not halted the exodus of Iraqis into neighboring countries. Many flee to Syria, where the door is still open. The Syrian government estimates 1.5 million Iraqis are already in the country.
Laurens Jolles, the representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Damascus, estimates that 10,000 to 40,000 Iraqi refugees still arrive each month.
The staggering number applying for refugee status is on display at the U.N. office in the Syria capital. Many wait hours to register.
Ali Abdul Karem, who left Baghdad, hopes to qualify for resettlement.
"In any country," he says in desperation. "The important thing to me is security, peace, and a job, I am a chemical engineer."
Karem says it is too dangerous for him to return to Iraq.
The announcement in February that the United States will consider 7,000 Iraqi refugees for settlement has had a "tremendous impact," according to Jolles.
"Everyone believes they will be the ones resettled, so it's creating a lot of problems," he says, as U.N. offices around the region step up the registration process with new funds from the international community.
For the United Nations, resettlement cases are determined by those most at risk — the poorest and the most vulnerable. For the United States, there is another category, Iraqis under threat because they worked for the U.S. in Iraq.
The most common reason for leaving Iraq is kidnapping and the payment of ransom. However, this could bar Iraqis from American resettlement. Under U.S. law, anyone who pays money to kidnappers, even under duress, is considered to have supported a terrorist group.
"This is clearly unfair," says Joel Charney, with Refugees International, an advocacy group in Washington. "We actually don't know yet if it is going to be a serious bar in the case of Iraqis or not."
It is a question that will have to be answered in the next few months. Another question: Will the international community help support Iraqi refugees who remain in the region? For the first time in two years, a high-ranking State Department official came to Damascus to discuss long-term support of refugees with Syrian and U.N. officials.
There are more than a million Iraqis in Syria, many of them in the capital, Damascus. They have brought their culture with them; even Iraq's most famous actors are refugees.
In a Damascus playhouse, an Iraqi production called Homesick tells the story of Iraqis forced into exile.
The theater is packed each night. The audience comes to laugh but is often moved to tears by the last scene, when all of the characters in the play finally return to Iraq.
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