DAMASCUS // It is two months since Adel Ismael and his family moved out of the tiny basement in a suburb of Damascus that had been their home for more than a year. They traded up and the five of them are now crammed into a disused shop with no heating.
With two rooms and an indoor bathroom, it represents an improvement on their previous accommodation: a single room, four metres by four metres, with a sink in one corner that served as a kitchen and washing area. They are Iraqis and, like tens of thousands of others, they are living as refugees in Syria, hoping that against the odds they will be chosen for resettlement to Europe or the United States. The European Union said last week it would allow member states to take in up to 10,000 Iraqis, although there is no guarantee member countries will actually accept that many. Germany has said it will resettle 2,500 Iraqis.
There are no accurate, universally recognised Iraqi refugee figures. In Syria the UN has about 220,000 Iraqis registered as asylum seekers, of whom almost half have special needs, including 26,000 recognised as torture victims. Resettlement has been slow and has touched only a tiny minority. This year 5,700 Iraqis have been successfully resettled from Syria, according to the UN's latest statistics. In 2007 only 833 actually departed for their new homes.
Syrian immigration authorities say 1.2 million Iraqis with valid visas are currently in the country. "No one knows the real numbers," said a senior Damascus-based official with an international non-governmental organisation that works with refugees worldwide. "What is clear is that many Iraqis are dreaming about relocation to Europe and the United States, and that's a real shame. Europe doesn't want them and the US is only taking a few.
"There are hundreds of thousands of refugees, so your chances are very slim. They think it is their one big chance to get a new life for themselves, so they are hanging on. I think we should just be honest and tell them there is no chance, zero chance." He spoke to The National on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his comments and the subject itself; Iraqi refugees have long been a political football. For years the mass exodus was largely ignored and then, almost overnight, was suddenly declared to be a crisis.
The Iraqi government is encouraging displaced families to return and has been offering financial incentives for those heading home. "On paper they are doing things to help but in reality there has been no implementation," the same official, a European, said. His NGO works extensively in Iraq, Syria and Jordan. "There is supposed to be assistance with money, housing, schools, but it's not happening. Decisions have been made but implementation is difficult because of corruption and inefficiency.
"There is plenty of money in Iraqi for these things, but no one seems to know where it's going." According to the UN in Damascus, 68 families received financial aid to return to Iraq in October, US$100 (Dh367) for each adult and $50 per child, up to a total of $550 per family. Of those Iraqis still in Syria many cling to a lifeline of financial help from relatives living overseas, or have some private savings to fall back on. They manage, often with difficulty, to afford flats, food and even mobile phones and televisions. Some do not need the food aid they are given and sell it to impoverished Syrians.
Others, including Mr Ismael, known as Abu Yusif after the name of his eldest son, are not as fortunate. They arrived desperately poor and remain that way. The 44-year-old, his wife and three children depend on food handed out by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and World Food Programme. "When we first got a food package it was like a gift from heaven," said Umm Yusif, Mr Ismael's wife. "We had reached the point where we didn't really know where the food was going to come from, we were living just from day to day, it was so difficult."
Despite recent rises in the cost of food, fuel and housing in Syria, it remains a relatively inexpensive place to live. In the winter season it is possible to rent a small, unfurnished apartment in one of Damascus's outlying suburbs for $200 (Dh734) a month. Such low prices have enabled many Iraqis to remain here, despite their dwindling resources. Abu Yusif however came in the summer of 2007 - much later than many refugees - with just $200 in his pocket. He chose the $50 a month basement in Sahnaiya as a way of eking out the cash. The family had tried to stay at their home in Baghdad for as long as possible, selling their gold and furniture to do so. Their street, in the Karkh district of the capital, had been relatively untouched by violence. As long as they did not leave the immediate area, they felt safe.
Then the bloodshed arrived firmly and irrevocably on their doorstep. Firstly Abu Yusif's brother was shot in the face and badly wounded after a gun battle erupted outside. Then they started getting threatening letters; they were Sunnis living in a mainly Shiite area and a local militia wanted them out. Not wishing to take any risks with their three young children, the family fled. Three days later their home was ransacked and burnt. A friend sent them photos of the destroyed building, which they keep in a tattered envelope, next to their UNHCR registration papers.
"We didn't want to leave, but we had had enough," Umm Yusif, 33, said. They had no problems crossing the border and were welcomed by the Syrian border police, she said. It was on arrival in Damascus that their problems began anew. "We expected there to be something here for refugees, some system," the mother of three said. "There was nothing. It was like falling into a hole so deep you can't see out. There is no communication, you are alone."
In Baghdad Abu Yusif had run a small electrical supplies shop. According to his Iraqi friends in Syria he is a gentle, shy person and not streetwise. Iraq is a macho society with a strong gun culture - every home is allowed to have an automatic rifle - but Abu Yusif refused to have a weapon in the house, even for self-defence. "He doesn't like guns," his wife explained. Again, while other Iraqis manage to stay afloat in Syria though a mix of hard work and resourcefulness, Abu Yusif found it hard to work out the lay of the land.
"We didn't know anyone and we didn't know anything about the United Nations or that you had to register with them," Abu Yusif said. "We were alone for three months before we found out how to do that." It was four months more, he said, before their food aid arrived. In the meantime, they had survived on the money Umm Yusif had managed to earn repairing people's clothes. "It was the other Iraqis who helped us the most," she said. With the onset of winter, temperatures in Damascus drop to freezing. The thin grey blankets given out by the UN offer little warmth and, although friends have given them extra blankets, it is still sometimes too cold to sleep easily at night, said Abu Yusif.
"The problem with moving out of the basement is that now we are paying more rent and the room is bigger so it feels even colder. "I didn't want to leave the basement, but the landlord needed it." They do not have an electric heater because they could not afford to pay the bills. Despite the difficulties and huge uncertainty over the future, Umm Yusif said they would not return to Iraq. "I know they say it is safer in Baghdad now, but we will stay here. We lost everything there and have nothing to go back to. We started from nothing here in Syria and I cannot do that again.
"Here we have friends, we have safety, the children can go to school. In Iraq if you don't have wasta [influential friends] you cannot get work. We don't even have a house. There are no options for us in Baghdad." Improved security is also something about which they, and many others here, have little faith. "Things can change very quickly and I am not prepared to go through that again," she said. "Yusif heard us talking about going back to Iraq and he asked me to promise we would not go back. He was so frightened there. How can we return?"
There are other fears, with stories beginning to trickle back from refugees who were resettled. One Iraqi family from Sahnaiya who ended up in the United States is apparently so unhappy that they are thinking of coming back to the Middle East. "I don't know about the future," Umm Yusif said. "We cannot go to Iraq, I know that; we hope to go to America, or Europe. At the moment we are living from day to day and for now I am happy that my family is safe."
Jean-Jacques Fresard, the head of the Red Cross delegation in Syria said that, for the time being, a majority of exiled Iraqis were likely to stay put. "They will return to Iraq when they feel it is safe enough to do so. Some are already going but not in large numbers. It does look much better in Baghdad but they are saying: 'Let's wait and see.' There are problems in Mosul, in Kirkuk and there are the elections. People will wait and see how real the stability is."