The Spoils – American Footprints

When Bernard Madoff was defrauding investors, do you imagine he gave a thought to the refugees he was going to harm? Human Rights First, formerly Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, has a refugee protection program that advocates on behalf of, among others, Iraqi refugees (HRF also gives free and very able legal representation to Iraqis and others, including a few people I know, in asylum cases). The refugee protection program was funded by the late Picower Foundation, at $250,000 a year. All of that money is gone. Between Picower and another now-defunct foundation, JEHT, which was also conned by Madoff, HRF is looking at a shortfall of over a million dollars this year. If you want to help this excellent organization, you can.
Ahmed, an Iraqi in his early 30s, crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border in late November. With him were his wife and his two young sons. They chose Damascus as their destination, a city so flooded with refugees that entire neighborhoods, if it weren’t for the numerous statues and photographs of Syria’s ruling family, would feel more like districts in Baghdad than neighborhoods of the Syrian capitol.
The change in Damascus’s demographic landscape is starting to look permanent. As rates of violence have decreased in areas of Iraq in recent months, many here had hoped that Syria’s massive Iraqi community would move back home. But most Iraqis have stayed put. Many Syrians resent the continued presence of these refugees, and dozens of informal interviews I have conducted with average Syrian citizens over the past three months have revealed strong currents of xenophobia and distrust toward Syria’s Iraqi refugee population. In recent years, the Syrian government has welcomed Iraqi refugees with open arms. But despite this official hospitality, ordinary Syrians are feeling increasingly less welcoming.
When Ahmed and his family crossed the border recently, they were not met with open arms. Their taxi driver, on the road towards Damascus, tricked them into getting out of the car on an abandoned stretch of highway. He then drove off, leaving them without belongings, identification, or money. A Syrian professor (and a friend of mine), out on a late-night drive, happened across them coincidentally, wandering alongside the side of the road. It was a stretch of highway that, as the Syrian professor later described it, was “so abandoned that they may as well have been left to die.”
Ahmed fled the country for similar reasons as many other Sunnis; his relatives had been harassed by American forces in the years since the invasion. His family eventually scattered and lost track of one another. Ahmed’s house in Baghdad, where he lived with his young kids and wife, was repeatedly raided by government troops. His plan was vague — find an apartment in Damascus and look for any type of job to support his family. Being left penniless along the side of the road was an inauspicious beginning, and the weeks since have brought him little relief. […]
Ahmed’s situation is shared by many Iraqis in Syria, and it suggests that social prejudices and xenophobia, in addition to legal barriers, are proving increasingly problematic for refugees. Some Syrians have begun to use the term “dirty” to describe their Iraqi neighbors. I noticed the term used on multiple occasions, often coupled with descriptions of the refugees as being cheaters, thieves, and prostitutes. Not surprisingly, some Iraqis (though not all) describe feeling unwelcome as well; many lie about their country of origin, explaining away their unusual accent as a product of a village upbringing. It’s a falsehood that allows them to get a job or rent an apartment or, at the very least, escape various degrees of social ostracization.
This changing attitude toward refugees appears to be based, in part, on economic conditions. Gas and food prices have shot up in recent years, and many Syrians citizens are unable to find a decent job. Tens of thousands, many of them with advanced educational degrees, take to the roads every morning to drive taxis for around ten dollars a day, or sell vegetables on street corners.