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ON "Why We Should Listen to Scott Ritter": Norooz among the Iraqi Refugees in Damascus

By Roksana Bahramitash, Ph.D.


I came across Fatemeh Keshavarz article and thought that I would share parts of my article on Iraqi refugees in Syria with Payvand readers.


I was in Syria during Norooz  and received a furious call from my mother "Didn't you think we would worry about you, it is Norooz and you have not called us and you are not in your hotel!" she screamed over the phone. Indeed, I had failed to call my mother; having lost myself in South Damascus, among the refugees of Sayyed Zeinab.


"Last week, my feminist economist friend R. discovered this first hand when she visited a refugee camp housing 35,000 displaced Iraqis in Said Zeinab, one of the poorest suburbs of southern Damascus in Syria." Keshavarz quotes me.


Sayyed Zeinab gave me a glance at the extent of the disaster that has befallen Iraqis. One in five Iraqis is a refugee. According to the estimates of Amnesty International, 1.5 million refugees are in Syria and 0.5 million in Jordan. It is now five years after the war and Iraqis continue to flee their country, 30,000 every month to be exact. The situation has worsened since the sectarian war in 2007. Nearly all who are leaving Iraq are now heading to Syria, Jordan having closed its border and having begun deporting Iraqis from the country. In some cases even orphans are left at the border and sent back to Iraq. Jordan has been offering little by way of subsidized health care and education.


Up until 2007, in spite of the fact that close to 2 million Iraqis were refugees, they were not regarded officially as refugees, (I suppose they were "tourists") in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and  other neighboring countries. They were not regarded as refugees because this would entitle them to 80 dollars a month per family. Iraqis have to stand hours if not days, fighting for a spot in the queue in order to receive their refugee status. Sometimes fights break out in these long queues; people are being insulted and humiliated. Enough reasons for some Iraqis not to bother to register.


I was shocked by the number of Syrian night clubs throughout the main streets of Damascus. Every day many women are raped sometimes before the eyes of their children and husbands, and many are kidnapped. Some Iraqi women end up in the hand of human traffickers and brought to Syria, where they are forced into prostitution. Sometimes girls as young as thirteen years old work in these night clubs. I asked Thomas, a Ph.D. student who is writing his thesis on Iraqi refugees in Syria, to take me to one of these clubs. He refused by saying that they were dangerous even for men. "If I go there and do not buy sex I would be suspicious and I can not take you as a woman" he told me, shaking his head.


The presence of at least 1.5 million refugees in a country of 19 million has put a huge strain on the Syrian economy. The refugees are now competing with the Syrian poor for the worst jobs. Syria has traditionally had a system of heavily subsidized health care and education system, but economic problems and the rising number of refugees quickly deplete available resources and the Syrian poor feel the consequences. It may not be long before Syrians, particularly the poor who now have to compete for jobs and pay higher rents because of the rising number of refugees, turn either against their own government or against the Iraqis.


Still, those in Syria are much luckier than those who stayed in Iraq. Some of the people in Sayyed Zeinab have lived through the horrors of refugee camps inside Iraq, where millions of Iraqis, close to 2 million according to estimates, are displaced internally. They live in these camps, set up by the refugees themselves, often with no immediate access to water and electricity.


Yes, do read Scott Ritter to remember that another human tragedy can still be prevented: a war on Iran.


Roksana Bahramitash, Ph.D.

Directrice à la recherche

Chaire de recherche du Canada en Islam, Pluralisme, et Globalisation Faculté de Théologie et de Sciences des Religions Université de Montréal


About the author: Roksana Bahramitash graduated from McGill Department of sociology in 2001. In 2003 she won a post-Doctorates from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRCC) and Eileen D. Ross award for her project on female poverty, globalization, Islamization and women's employment. This was chosen as one the three most distinguished SSHRC post doctoral research in Canada and submitted to the Canadian Parliament. Bahramitash has taught many courses at McGill and Concordia University and has worked with international development agencies such as the Canadian Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the United Nation Development Program UNDP.  She produced a documentary on Afghan women "Beyond the Burqa". Bahramitash has won several research grants among them a three-year grant from the (SSHRC) for research on Globalization, Islamism and Women in Iran and the Canada Council for the Arts 2008.  She is the author of several publications, her book is "Liberation from Liberalization: Gender and Globalization in Southeast Asia"  published by Zed in 2005.

... Payvand News - 04/28/08 ... --

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