Fleeing into Limbo

Stories from the Iraqi diaspora in Lebanon and Syria

by Glen Johnson

Haidaa (not pictured) sits on a small plastic chair in a cramped Southern Beirut community centre for Iraqi refugees. He is 31 years old, his hair is cut short and there is a small gap between his two front teeth, one of which is bent back slightly.
Haidaa is dressed casually, his voice is gentle and he has soft brown eyes.
In 2005, his girlfriend Yousra was killed in a bomb blast, Baghdad. She was 27 years old.

He says that her death still affects him and he begins to explain why he fled Iraq.“There were militias in the streets, everywhere there was danger. Americans, Shiite, Sunni: everyone was fighting. I lost too many loved ones. I left my family and friends and I came here, alone.” In Baghdad, Haidaa worked as a prosthetist. In Lebanon, he works as an electrician and volunteers at the Shiyah Community Centre: a centre for Iraqi refugees. He spends his evenings helping Iraqi refugee children with their homework.

But, Haidaa entered Lebanon on a tourist visa, overstaying and working illegally. As such, he faces the constant threat of detention: The Lebanese government, fearful of another ‘Palestinian situation’ developing within its borders, largely blocks the integration of Iraqi refugees. With Iraq’s security situation remaining fragile and the likelihood of violence erupting ahead of the country’s January elections, Haidda cannot return to Iraq.
So his future hangs in the balance. Haidaa’s story is not unique. He is one of more than two million Iraqi refugees displaced by violence.

In Lebanon, there are an estimated 50,000 Iraqi refugees, while in Syria, there are more than one million. The refugees are scattered throughout densely populated urban areas, making it difficult for aid agencies to make contact and yielding what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is calling an “urban refugee crisis”.

Iraq became a republic in 1958 and has been in a state of crisis for most of the time since. After the first Gulf War, Iraq was subjected to economic sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s regime came under increasing pressure from the international community in relation to its – alleged – weapons of mass destruction.

In 2003, a United States coalition force invaded and Iraq descended into a state of perpetual warfare, characterised by wholesale sectarian violence. The armed forces dissolved, militias roamed the streets and suicide bombings became a way of life; allied troops and private security firms were accused of committing war crimes. According to the Lancet Report of 2007, more than 600,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2007. Several million Iraqis fled the violence sweeping their country, settling in cities in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. There they survived on savings or illegal work. Some resorted to prostitution. Many ran out of money and became dependent on United Nations aid.

Beirut UNHCR public information assistant Laure Chedrawi said that one problem facing Iraqi refugees in Lebanon was they were bound by Lebanon’s entry and exit laws, which dated to 1962. “One of the main principles laid down by the 1951 UN Convention (United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees), is that refugees should not be expelled from countries of asylum or returned to territories where their lives are threatened. Because the refugees can’t be sent back to Iraq, and because many refuges overstay their visa and work illegally, they can be arrested and detained indefinitely,” Chedrawi says.
“That is a part of our operation: providing legal assistance to refugees in detention.”

As of September 30 2009, 95 Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers were detained in Lebanon. Chedrawi has a pleasant demeanour and her emotions play obviously across her face. Her office walls are covered with images of refugees from Sudan and Mozambique and internally displaced persons from the Democratic Republic of Congo. One image depicts a refugee woman who was attacked with machetes and lived in a UN tent.

Files cram shelves – one is filled with refugees’ writings – and paperwork lies stacked upon her desk. As donors feel the bite of the global economic downturn, the UNHCR’s budget has been cut. In Damascus, Syria, the UNHCR requested US$166 million to cover its operational expenses for the 2010 year. It received US$55 million, down from US$83 million for 2009.

“The refugees are dependent on our aid,“ Chedrawi says,”so any cuts are felt by the people we support. With urban refugee situations, it is not visible – not like in a camp – so we have had to be very flexible in how we reached out to refugees.”

In response to the crisis, the UNHCR initiated an outreach program in conjunction with local partners. By working through community centres, treatment facilities for torture victims, and church groups, the UNHCR was able to make contact with, and begin registering, refugees. Since 2007, 11,474 refugees in Lebanon have been registered, while in Syria more than 215,000 have been registered and can receive UN assistance.

This includes: education grants, food coupons, rent support, clothing and blankets, support with either repatriation or resettlement to third countries, and health assistance – including mental health support.

Farah Kerdy is a Lebanese social worker at the RESTART centre for torture victims in Tripoli – a city in Lebanon’s north – and in Beirut. In 2007, RESTART set-up a Beirut office to provide psycho-social support for Iraqi refugees suffering trauma, with support from the UNHCR and other partners.
Patients at RESTART have torture’s tell-tale signs: cigarette burns dot hands and anxiety spreads over faces.

Some were hung – under Saddam’s regime – from steel bars and beaten for hours. Some were shackled, drenched with cold water, hooked up to car batteries and electrocuted. Other instances are the result of post-2003 violence. One man at RESTART’s wife and daughter were kidnapped by a militia that demanded money for their release. His wife and daughter were sexually assaulted and beaten with rifle butts. His daughter was shot dead and his wife released: after being told that her daughter was alive.

“The aims of torture are usually to get information out of someone, by using violent physical and mental methods,” Kerdy says. “ The effects are enormous, and the victim will deal with the them for the rest of their life.”

RESTART is staffed by 13 psychologists, neurologists, physiotherapists, speech therapists and psychiatrists. “We have a comprehensive treatment system,” Kerdy says. “Patients are evaluated and referred to the relevant workers, depending on their needs. We have a multi-disciplinary approach, so that we can provide a wide-range of support to the patients. The speech therapists help with communication. One expression of trauma is the inability to verbalise what has been experienced.”

RESTART supports around 450 victims of torture and trauma sufferers in Beirut each year. “One man from Iraq came in yesterday. I had never seen him before but he is a vulnerable person dealing with a specific kind of trauma. He has been accepted for resettlement to the United States. Despite the relative certainty in his life, he is experiencing massive levels of anxiety. Everywhere he goes he believes that he is being watched. Whenever a car horn goes off or a door opens he becomes very edgy.”

In 2008, 2,400 refugees were put forward for resettlement by the UNHCR Lebanon. However, only 1,300 departed for third countries. Since 2007, UNHCR Syria has submitted 34,000 refugees for resettlement. As of September 2009, 15,000 had departed.

Overwhelmingly, third countries accept refugees from minority religious groups : Christian Arabs. A spokesperson for the UNHCR in Damascus said that refugees were selected for resettlement according to vulnerability, rather than by religious orientation.

Sagid (pictured) is a 35-year-old Iraqi refugee. In December he will be resettled in the United States. He fled Iraq in 2003 after he received death threats from the Failaak Badda: a Shiite militia from Iran. Although Sagid was a Shiite, he had worked for the Iraqi government and the Failaak Badda accused him of sympathising with Saddam Hussein , who had a long – United States backed – record of persecuting Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish communities.

The militia killed Sagid’s wife Nagaam, shot dead his mother and brother, and burned his home to the ground. After their deaths, Sagid stayed in Iraq for another month, then fled overland through Syria and into Lebanon. He entered on a tourist visa and overstayed.

“I came here and worked in a supermarket. I didn’t know anyone, so it was very lonely. I felt like I was worthless – I have a degree – and kept thinking of my family, my wife. I was having very bad thoughts. Over time, they got better, but it is still difficult for me. I miss my family. I am happy to be leaving, to be going to the United States, but also nervous because I don’t know anyone there.
For me, this is a new life. When I go to America I want to work with refugees: to help them.”

However, there are those refugees waiting for resettlement. One of these is Hussein, from Baghdad, or what he calls “al-Sadr city”: a reference to the Shiite cleric and leader of the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr. I met Hussein late one night at the final of a football tournament that he had organised for Sudanese and Iraqi refugees in Southern Beirut.

Hezballah flags hang from windows and images of the Shiite organisation’s leaders plaster buildings’ walls. The football ground is run-down. Spotlights illuminate the turf pitch and people sit on plastic chairs around the edge of the ground. The netting hanging above the pitch has holes in it and the soccer ball keeps passing through them, getting stuck on the netting’s upside.

Speaking through a translator, Hussein says that he organised the football tournament to try and bring refugee communities together. “Iraqis love football. This tournament encourages solidarity and teamwork. It promotes non-violence and acceptance of each other.”

Hussein spent two weeks organising the tournament, which attracted eight teams from refugee communities scattered throughout Beirut. Like Sagid, Hussein received death threats from the Faidlak Badda. Hussein fled Iraq after the militia killed his cousin. He took few clothes with him and entered Lebanon illegally: crossing the border on foot.

“It is a constant fear that I will be caught and sent to prison before I am resettled, “ he says. “If I go to the United States, I know that my life will be better. I feel like my life will progress. But, now I am just waiting. Maybe I will leave tomorrow or maybe I will be arrested and sent to prison. I am just waiting.”


Glen Johnson is a 26-year-old New Zealand journalist based in the Middle East.