Shelf Life: The Invisible Iraqis

The war has uprooted 4.7 million people from their homes. So where are they?


| March-April 2009



Invisible Iraqis

image by Phil Sands

It’s difficult to imagine what an Iraqi refugee family looks like, isn’t it? Is she a harried-looking woman holding a baby swaddled in tattered blankets? Is he tired but smiling, bored by the idleness of the refugee camp but optimistic that he’s on the road to a better life? Is their 8-year-old son enthusiastically learning English in a dusty makeshift classroom? Your preconceived notions about refugees do not apply to most of the new Iraqi diaspora. Our war in Iraq has forced 4.7 million people to leave their homes, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but “they are not in refugee camps where they could perhaps capture media attention,” writes Julie Peteet for Middle East Report (Fall 2007).

Some 2.7 million people are displaced within Iraq, struggling to get food rations and social services under a corrupt, dysfunctional government. (Tent camps exist, but conditions are so appalling that few families live in them.) Another 2 million Iraqis have spilled into neighboring states, where many of them cling to anonymity because of dubious legal status or for the safety of loved ones still in Iraq. All of this—combined with the U.S. media’s pullout from Iraq and their easy reliance on the “surge is working!” story line—has served to downplay the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis and the desperation of these individuals.

Refugees have fled to Jordan, where 500,000 Iraqis now live, and Syria, which hosts 1.2 million Iraqis—one for every 20 Syrians. In and around Damascus, writes David Enders for the Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2008), well-known Baghdad restaurants have reopened and Iraqi political parties have offices. “All of this reinforces the feeling of permanent transplantation, of starting over,” Enders writes. “People are recreating their home rather than talking about returning.”

Neither Syria nor Jordan will grant most Iraqis long-term legal status, as refugees or otherwise—although legal residency can be purchased in Jordan for about $141,000, the Progressive (Sept. 2008) reports. Rent has skyrocketed in many places, and Jennifer Utz, who runs the phenomenal and heartbreaking website Iraqi Refugee Stories (www.iraqirefugeestories.org), writes at AlterNet (Nov. 15, 2008) that “Iraqi refugees are taken advantage of by just about every crooked landlord who realizes how desperately they don’t want to be sent back—war profiteering on a new level.”

Many refugees can’t get work permits, either. In War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket, 2008), Michael Schwartz’s superb history of both the war and the Iraqi refugee crisis, he cites a 2007 survey that found only 24 percent of Iraqi families in Syria were earning salaries or wages, which means that most refugees are burning through their savings or making ends meet on the black market. Some men have begun returning to Iraq for brief but dangerous work stints. Education Week (March 5, 2008) reports that just a fraction of their children are going to school. In Syria, fewer than 50,000 school-age Iraqis were enrolled—out of about 300,000—and Jordan attracted only half of the anticipated number when it opened its schools to all Iraqi students in 2008.

“Iraqi children here [in Jordan] dream of being engineers or doctors,” write Mary Ann Zehr and Yasmine Mousa. “After all, Iraq, once home to one of the best education systems in the Middle East, has produced many engineers, scientists, and physicians. But Iraqi children often lack an understanding of how far they’ve fallen behind their peers in school.”