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Millions of Desperate Iraqis Stream into Syria
DAMASCUS, Syria - Nobody used the word "crisis" when the first wave of Iraqis fled the war and settled here. Most came with deep savings accounts and connections to well-placed Damascus businessmen.
The word didn't crop up when a second wave ushered in the Christians, whose clergy organized them into a vocal, cohesive bloc. Nor did it come into play with the villagers who were simply absorbed into remote desert communities because their tribes straddle the Syrian-Iraqi border.
But the word definitely applies now, as shell-shocked Iraqis of all backgrounds pour into Syria at the rate of nearly 1,000 a day. In fact, "crisis" may not be strong enough, as the flow of Iraqis becomes a torrent. At least 1.4 million are already here, according to the United Nations, each with a story of terror and trauma and a need for services that is stretching Syrians' patience. Many believe the number may be higher.
"What's their future, the 2 million Iraqis here? They can't work, they have to renew their residency cards, they live in poverty. It's an explosive situation," said Lourance Kamle, 32, a Syrian relief worker whose agency focuses on Iraqi refugees. "Make a war? Fine. And what comes after? The Americans should come here and see all these poor people because that's the result of their war."
Bush administration officials have long accused Syria of not doing enough to stop al-Qaida sympathizers from slipping into Iraq, but they barely mention the far larger number of Iraqis who cross the border in the other direction. The United States remains at the bottom of the list of countries that have accepted Iraqi refugees, though the State Department has promised to admit as many as 7,000 this year.
Syrian schools and hospitals are overrun with Iraqis. Housing prices have soared, sowing resentment and anger in Syrians who can no longer afford to live in their neighborhoods. Iraqi refugees have turned the districts of Qudsiya, Jaramana and Sayeda Zeinab into "Little Baghdads," right down to replica restaurants, cafes and clothing stores.
U.N. aid workers who provide services to trauma victims and families with medical emergencies are overwhelmed - nearly every Iraqi qualifies. Syrian relief groups that once catered to needy Syrians now deal almost exclusively with Iraqi victims of violence.
Just recording the arrival of so many refugees has become a Herculean task. As many as 8,000 Iraqis have shown up on registration days at the U.N. refugee center. Since January, the number of registration workers has swelled from two to 30.
Every refugee has a story of desperation, and most come with voluminous files of death certificates, X-rays and medical records to support their claims.
A businessman watched as Sunni extremists gunned down a man at a gas station because he was wearing shorts. A teenager was chatting with a friend on a street corner when a carload of Shiite militants pulled up and abducted the other boy in broad daylight. A father of four was blindfolded, beaten and stuffed in the trunk of a car because insurgents suspected him of helping the Americans. A young woman still fumed over the day U.S. troops kicked down her door and carted off her brother.
Even in this refuge, the trauma of war lingers. "Not Permitted To Work" is stamped in Iraqis' passports. Regular trips to the border must be arranged to renew their residency cards. Then there is the humiliation of standing in line for hours to register for slips of paper that officially declare them homeless.
"We still feel foreign. All our relatives are here, in one house, but every day my daughter asks me when we're going back to Iraq," said Sahar Mahmoud, 30, a Sunni mother from the volatile Adhamiya district of Baghdad. "I tell her we can't go back because the Americans have occupied our country."
Each of Iraq's discordant factions has established a satellite presence in Damascus; many even boast public offices. There's the old Baath Party, the new Baath Party, the Muslim Scholars Association, the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigade, the Islamic Army, the Chaldean and Assyrian clergies, the artists and intellectuals, and a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq.
And then there are the ordinary Iraqis, hundreds of thousands of them from diverse upbringings, all with the same thread of violent displacement running through their stories. The reasons they give for fleeing read like the script of a Hollywood action movie: death threats, kidnappings, car bombings, torture, gunfights, airstrikes, drive-by shootings, mortar attacks and hit squads.
"It was intolerable," said Zahra Jalil, 36, a Shiite from the Karrada neighborhood in Baghdad. "We've had so many relatives kidnapped or killed."
Jalil fled to Syria four months ago with her 16-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, both of whom have cerebral palsy. Her husband was smuggled to Sweden, where he's trying to win humanitarian visas for the whole family. Jalil, essentially living as a single mother, credited Syrian relief agencies with providing wheelchairs and physical therapy for her disabled children.
At home, Syrian men from the neighborhood do her heavy lifting; their wives help change diapers. Jalil is grateful for the assistance, but furious with other Arab nations for closing their borders and turning a blind eye to the refugee crisis.
"The Arab world should help the Iraqis more," she said. "The Iraqis never stopped supporting Arab causes. Never!"
She paused and let out a sudden laugh. A smirk spread across her face.
"Maybe that's why the Americans hate us so much."
At one Christian nonprofit's prosthetics workshop, Syrian engineers used to create three artificial limbs a month for people who had lost an arm or a leg, usually through a medical procedure.
Now the staff struggles to create two dozen artificial limbs each month, with a 30-day waiting list. Nearly all the recipients are Iraqi refugees maimed in bombings in their homeland.
About 60 Iraqi families seek help at the center on any given day, said Father Paul Suleiman, the Syrian priest who runs the group. He can scarcely open his office door before desperate Iraqis catch a glimpse of his white collar and recognize him as someone able to help. "Our father! Our father!" they shout, vying for his attention.
The dramatic caseload increase has taken its toll on Suleiman. He's exhausted from the fieldwork and emotionally drained from the parade of suffering that begins anew each day. His characteristic calm turned to outrage when he showed a visitor a log of all the wounded, destitute Iraqis the center has treated in the past couple of years.
"All the world should have a guilty conscience for what has happened, this destruction of a people with 9,000 years of civilization," the priest said, his voice rising. "Nobody human, not even the strongest of nations, can say God told him to conquer a people and give them democracy by force."
The U.N. refugee agency used to register arriving refugees at its office on a tree-lined Damascus residential street. But as the numbers swelled from a few score a day to thousands, the neighbors complained. The U.N. moved its registration center to a parking lot in the suburb of Duma.
Sybella Wilkes, the U.N.'s regional spokeswoman on refugee issues, said that so far U.N. workers have registered 32,000 Sunnis, 19,000 Shiites, 19,000 Christians and 5,500 members of other faiths. But most refugees don't register; they just cross the border and focus on making it to the next day.
"This is our biggest operation in the world, and there's no camp setting to identify people easily," she said. "They disappear into the landscape, and some of them have very real protection needs."
On a recent day, Wilkes surveyed the throngs of Iraqis waiting for the registration tents to open. Most were women, signaling another batch of female-headed households. In most cases, she explained, the men have been kidnapped, killed or imprisoned. Their distraught wives are left with few options but to flee.
"No menfolk with them. All of these will probably be vulnerable cases," Wilkes predicted.
She was right. Of the 300 or so Iraqis who lined up early that day, many turned out to be the widows of assassinated husbands, the mothers of kidnapped sons and the orphans of bombing victims. They clutched death certificates and photos of their deceased or missing relatives. Collectively, they'd lost enough men to fill a graveyard.
"My two nephews went to work one day and they were killed, just like that, in the street," said Fatima Fadel, 45, who entered Syria a month ago. "I sold all my jewelry and all my daughter's jewelry to leave Iraq. We want stability. We want to feel safe."
Next in line was Nidha Mustafa, 67, whose husband's job as a judge in the former Iraqi regime made him a prime target for revenge-minded assassins. Shiite militiamen had killed his brother, and Mustafa said she knew her husband was next.
"We didn't want to come, but Iraq makes no one happy anymore. No one. We told our children that if we die, we want to be buried in our land, Iraq. We told them they can't leave us here," she said, breaking into sobs.
An unveiled woman in a sleeveless blouse waited in the same line. Until they fled Baghdad at the end of May, Rifah Daoud and her family had been the last remaining Christians on their block in the deadly neighborhood of Dora.
Daoud, 53, said her family had held out hope that the neighborhood insurgents, the local Sunnis they call "the honorable resistance" for targeting only U.S. troops, would prevail over the al-Qaida-allied strangers who were challenging their shaky control of the area.
One day, Daoud said, the nationalist insurgents broadcast a message from the mosque promising to protect Christians and ordering them to stay put. The next day, Daoud's family received a letter on the doorstep that instructed them to vacate their home and turn the keys over to the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni extremists. Daoud said it had become clear who ran her block.
When she was first interviewed in the registration line, Daoud had been sick with worry over the fate of her adult son, Khaled, who'd been kidnapped on April 25 on his way to fix a friend's laptop in Baghdad. He hadn't been heard from since.
But fortunes change fast in Iraq. At a follow-up meeting later that week, Daoud beamed as she passed out candy to celebrate the news of her son's release. He'd just called her from a relative's home in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to tell of his bold escape from the trunk of his kidnapper's car. He promised more details when he joined the rest of the family in Damascus.
Daoud said she hadn't wanted to leave Iraq without Khaled, but that the choice wasn't hers to make. Three gunmen from the Islamic State showed up at her home, ordered her to cover her hair and demanded the house.
"Living is better than dying, and those were the options: death or leaving," Daoud said. "Three hours later, we went to the border."
Daoud's husband, a 66-year-old carpenter named Jamal Karomy, had listened in silence during the interview. He'd scribbled his own account of the family's displacement on the back of a cigarette carton. Hearing his wife describe their helplessness, Karomy rose and screamed his humiliation.
"Am I Palestinian now? To carry my things on my back and march down the street in front of my family, my neighbors?" Karomy yelled. "I witnessed five coups in Iraq and they all lasted four days and it was over. But the Americans have been there four years and they can't do anything!"
As her husband stomped out of the room in tears, Daoud finished the saga:
After the family had fled to Syria, neighbors called from Baghdad to let them know al-Qaida had come back, looking for the washing machine.
McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed to this report.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.