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SYRIA: Iraqi Kids Struggle on Dangerous Edges

Rebecca Murray

DAMASCUS, Nov 7 2010 (IPS) - Leila, 17, presses her hijab-clad head against the front door and strains to hear outside. “There’s nothing,” she says cautiously, turning towards her mother Rawda, the head of the household, in their quiet basement apartment. Along the brocade couch sit her two sisters, Mona, 19, Nadja, 15, and 10-year-old brother Khaled.*

Growing up is hard for Iraqi children in Syria.  Credit: Rebecca Murray

Growing up is hard for Iraqi children in Syria. Credit: Rebecca Murray

This close knit family is paranoid, and for good reason. They fled Iraq’s sectarian violence to Damascus with the children’s father in 2006, only to find themselves on the run from him too.

Since the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Syria has registered 260,000 Iraqis – with this year’s total just over 150,000. In reality, an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis have lived in Syria over the past seven years, the largest community outside Iraq.

Although Syria has granted visas at the borders for Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, employment of Iraqis is prohibited.

Rawda’s family initially settled in Sayida Zeinab, one of Damascus’s chaotic satellite communities with a large concentration of Iraqi refugees. Like most of the recently arrived, they had little option but to register for resettlement with UNHCR, and wait.

Living in impoverished conditions, the family sold all their belongings, including the girls’ gold jewelry, piece by piece. Rawda – forced by her parents to marry her much older husband at 13 years old – found informal work at a hairdressing boutique, leaving her vulnerable to sex solicitations from clients.

She says that while she worked, her husband drank alcohol, slept with prostitutes and borrowed cash. The final straw came when he arranged for his daughters to marry what they describe as ‘bad’ men for cash, starting with Mona, Rawda’s eldest daughter.

“The last time he brought his friend over who had a lot of money, and it was clear he wanted her to marry this guy,” says Rawda. “Mona became sick and couldn’t move her hands…she was paralyzed for three hours.”

Last year, when Rawda’s husband returned temporarily to Iraq to sell more family furniture, Rawda’s family seized the opportunity to go into hiding. They fled to a church-run shelter for ten months, and then to a small basement apartment living anonymously far from the Iraqi enclaves.

Mona is the biggest causality; at 19 years she is too old to re-enroll in school like her sisters and brother, and too paranoid to leave their small flat in case relatives or friends of her father identify her.

When Firas Majeed, himself an Iraqi refugee, visits the family every week, a sumptuous Iraqi meal is cooked and laughter fills the flat. His community- based project, ‘Native Without a Nation’, aims to teach Iraqi girls and boys essential English language and computer skills. It also organises Internet conferences, bringing together young refugees and school kids their age in the U.S., promoting a better understanding of each other’s lives and culture.

Education is the cornerstone to building a new life for the children of Iraqi refugees. UNICEF says over 200 schools in Syria have been rehabilitated by the agency and Syria’s Ministry of Education, which mandates compulsory education for all children, including Iraqis, up to 15 years old.

However, UNICEF statistics show enrollment has fallen among Iraqi refugees from over 33,000 in the 2008-2009 school year to around 24,500 this year. These figures mirror the overall decline in registration figures at UNHCR centres, and the driving issue is poverty.

UNICEF’s communications liaison, Razan Rashidi, explained to IPS that “people who came here include middle class Iraqis who thought they could slip into the middle class here. But being prevented from working, their savings have been depleted.

“Children dropping out of school is an issue. There are Iraqi children, especially young boys, who have to work… in basic mechanics, market porter work, and textile workshops, particularly in areas outside central Damascus.”

Hamed, 18, came from a comfortable middle class background in Baghdad. But after receiving death threats by local militia, and the killing of his beloved uncle, a body building champion, his family fled to Syria in 2006. A year later, their funds exhausted, Hamed’s father decided to make the dangerous trip home to obtain more money. But he never made it, and disappeared in the desert somewhere along the Iraqi border.

Hamed says his small family in Damascus was traumatised. They felt safe only when ensconced together in their small flat in the crowded Iraqi neighborhood of Jeremana. He and his mother work as tailors to make ends meet.

“During school I became depressed,” says Hamed. “I started asking what am I doing here? What is this world? Am I alive or dead? I was shaving my head, and using the same razor blade to cut my arms and stomach. I felt if I could see my own blood I would feel better.”

“There is fear and anxiety from the kids mostly transferred from the parents,” says Maysoun Alradi, a counselor with charity Terre Des Hommes Syria (TDH). “Most parents don’t know how to deal with it. They become isolated, stop speaking, are inward or aggressive.”

TDH project coordinator Elisabeth Finianos explains further. “What children are dealing with now is the fear of the unknown – where they are going to end up. For the large part traumas from the war have been addressed, and the prevalent issue is now fear of the unknown and what is going to happen.”

Thanks to TDH, Hamed now has a clearer vision of his future. He took theatre courses at the charity’s recreational centre, and fell in love with writing poetry. His counselor gave him a guitar, and his favorite self-taught melodies are classical Flamenco and Arabic.

Hamed is now pushing himself to enroll back in school, and towards a future working with kids. “I will never go back to Iraq,” he says unhesitatingly. He pauses and softens. “If I do go back it’s to help society. Now there is nothing there.”

* The names of the children and mother have been changed to protect their identities.

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