Shelf Life: The Invisible Iraqis

article image
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 (, 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.”

The influx of Iraqis into Syrian cities–some of which have doubled or tripled in population since they began arriving–has strained resources and patience. In a three-part investigative series for the Baltimore Sun (Dec. 28-30, 2008), Matthew Hay Brown notes that water, electricity, and fuel are more scarce, hospitals more crowded, rents two or three times higher. Salaam Marougi, an Iraqi refugee living in a Damascus suburb, told Hay Brown that he understands why Syrians have grown hostile: “We are like guests who have stayed too long.”

Both governments have tightened border controls. Syria now renews visas only for professionals and academics, notes Christopher Watt in an online article for Maisonneuve (Dec. 11, 2008), which means many Iraqis are overstaying their visas and risking deportation. Even formerly friendly Western countries like Sweden, which has taken in more than 40,000 refugees, have begun turning people away. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government did its part to convince Syria and Jordan to tighten restrictions, reports the UK’s Independent (June 15, 2008), as part of an attempt to lure its citizens back home.

Never mind that nobody else–not the United States, the United Nations, or any respectable humanitarian-aid group–agrees that Iraq is safe for returning families. The Iraqi embassy in Damascus displays “big black banners,” writes Deborah Amos at Huffington Post (Dec. 4, 2008), that read, “We will help you go back to your houses and you’ll find out how much money you’ll get when you register!” (It’s 1 million Iraqi dinars, or $850, reports Al-Jazeera [Nov. 2, 2008], plus free airfare. Only 322 people from Syria accepted the offer during the first month.)

What’s the alternative? For starters, we could step up our country’s commitment by accepting more Iraqis here and contributing more help to their hosts in the Middle East. The United States has resettled around 15,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003–and more than 12,000 of them arrived last year after pressure from the media, the international community, and Angelina Jolie (yes, Angelina Jolie).

The State Department plans to accept 17,000 more Iraqis in 2009. It’s still an embarrassingly low number, but we ought to at least be ready for them. Most of those who have arrived thus far went to Southern California and metro Detroit, where established Arab American communities are doing most of the work to get them on their feet. Small numbers of them wound up in relative isolation in other cities where services are often scarce.

Philadelphia’s City Paper (May 29, 2008) ran a lengthy profile of Bassam, a young Iraqi who can’t wrap his head around Americans’ lack of engagement with the war he narrowly escaped: “There’s culture shock, and then there’s the culture shock of moving to a country that started a war in your home.”

For every issue, Utne Reader combs its library of more than 1,500 independent publications to bring you the best of the alternative press.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.