The exodus of refugees from Iraq in 2003 was no ordinary event. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described it in more than one statement as being the largest forcible displacement of civilians to take place since World War II.
At the beginning of the crisis, our government helped us return home. But because we have been in Syria for 10 years, we had started a new life.It was only natural for the influx of refugees from Iraq to affect Syria. Indeed, Iraq’s neighbor to the west was the best option for Iraqi refugees, given the low cost of living and the familiar social and cultural climate. The Iraqis in Syria generally received good treatment in Syria, with regard to residence procedures and education.
There is an ongoing dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi governments over the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria. For instance, Baghdad tended to consider the figures supplied by Damascus (3.2 million refugees in 2003) as “exaggerated.” The dispute continues even after the numbers of refugees have been gradually decreasing since 2007.
The majority of Iraqi refugees live in the Damascus countryside. Wealthy and well-off Iraqis (an Iraqi fact-finding mission estimated them to represent about 10 percent of the total number of refugees in 2007) prefer to live in areas like Jaramana, the suburbs of Qudsia, and Sahnaya. Poorer Iraqis, meanwhile, live in the Sayyida Zainab area, where it is common for more than one family to share a home.
The Iraqis and the Syrian Crisis
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, especially after it took a violent turn, more than 70,000 Iraqi refugees returned home. But according to the UNHCR, more than 20,000 of those preferred to return to Syria despite the fierce fighting. Jaramana remains their destination of choice.
Hassan al-Ghrawi, an Iraqi refugee in the city, said, “At the beginning of the crisis, our government helped us return home. But because we have been in Syria for 10 years, we had started a new life. Damascus is not a place that you can leave that simply.”
Politically, the Iraqi refugees acted out of their enduring experience in crises, as they knew well what it means for the Syrian state to be destroyed.
Abbas al-Saegh, who runs a shop in Sahnaya, told Al-Akhbar, “In the beginning, we would talk to our Syrian friends about the plot hatched by the Americans. We understood the frustration the supporters of the opposition had with tyranny, but we warned them against falling into the trap of cheering foreign intervention only because they rejected tyranny. The Iraqis among us who suffered the most were those who were opposed to both tyranny and America. I hope it won't be the same in Syria.”
Aws al-Soudani, an Iraqi student at the University of Damascus, seemed more optimistic. He believes that the Syrians are “fine as long as their state has not been yet dismantled, and have not come under foreign attack, as happened in Iraq.” He added, “Frankly, when the Syrians were expecting the US strike, the Iraqis remembered that infamous night in Baghdad with silent frustration.”
The student, in his twenties, envied the Syrians for the Russian-Chinese veto at the Security Council. He said, “If we had what they had, Baghdad would have remained safe. Despite fierce battles, Damascus has not been destroyed, and many parts of it remain safe. All that has happened in Syria is but a drop in the ocean compared to what happened in Iraq. I even say that this crisis might leave Syria stronger.”
Frankly, when the Syrians were expecting the US strike, the Iraqis remembered that infamous night in Baghdad with silent frustration.The Iraqis in Syria have been keen on not implicating themselves in any clashes with their Syrian surroundings, in light of the sharp political disputes among the Syrians. Their attitudes in most cases focused on bringing the views of their Syrian friends together. Nevertheless, reports about armed Iraqi militias fighting alongside the Syrian regime have caused the Iraqis trouble.
Mohammed Assaker, an Iraqi refugee who resides in the Sayyida Zainab district, said, “We love our holy sites and respect them to the maximum extent. For this reason, we preferred that the Syrian government protect them, because we are not willing to fall into a trap that has been set for us since the beginning of the incidents,” in reference to the Shia-Sunni schism. “People in general now regard Iraqis who live in Sayyida Zainab essentially as members of the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, despite the fact that the largest number of its members are Iraqis from outside the district,” he added.
On the sidelines of the daily battles, we managed to reach an Iraqi fighter with the brigade, after much difficulty. The Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, which comprises fighters from different nationalities, has the stated purpose of protecting the shrine of Sayyida Zainab bint Ali, who is revered by Shia.
Inside his modest home, on the outskirts of the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, sat Abu Haidara, as he told us to call him, under a painting of a Baghdad neighborhood. Abu Haidara has no qualms about fighting inside Syria.
His rationale, which he elaborated to Al-Akhbar in a labored Damascene accent, is very simple: “When Iraq was subjected to the American crime, buses carrying fighters from all Arab countries would set off from Damascus. Today, Syria is coming under the same kind of attack, so why not respond in kind?”
Abu Haidara does not accept the claims about the sectarian nature of his group’s activities. He quotes Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah secretary general, to say that protecting holy sites is meant to forestall – rather than entrench – sectarianism, repeating this like a mantra that he must have worked hard to memorize. Taking up arms is an ineluctable duty to protect holy sites, he says.
The Iraqi fighter recalled how Iraqi heritage and holy sites were looted and systematically destroyed, something that he sees is being replicated in Damascus. But he did not deny the excesses of pro-regime fighters, which he places in the context of “many individual excesses,” before saying, “It can all be treated. Tomorrow, the crisis will end, and everyone will go back to their normal lives, without weapons or heartache.”
Abu Haidara then politely apologized for cutting the meeting short, due to his shift starting. He put on a uniform adorned with the slogan “the Servants of Sayyida Zainab,” as we left.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.