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Tuesday, August 21, 2007 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: "Iraq Does Not Exist Anymore": Journalist...

Report from Damascus: Iraqi Refugees in Syria Speak Out Against U.S. Occupation

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Over four years of brutal warfare in Iraq has spawned a refugee crisis of staggering proportions. Two million Iraqis have been forced to leave their country and are now scattered across Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. There are an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. This report was filed by Democracy Now! correspondent Jen Utz. [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Over four years of brutal warfare in Iraq has spawned a refugee crisis of staggering proportions. Two million Iraqis have been forced to leave their country and are now scattered across Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. Another 1.9 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes and join the growing ranks of the internally displaced. Since 2003 the United States has accepted only 701 Iraqi refugees.

In a moment, we will be joined by journalist Nir Rosen. He has just returned from Beirut. But first we’ll turn to a segment on Iraqi refugee crisis with a short report from an Iraqi family displaced in Damascus, Syria. There are an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. This report was filed from Damascus by Democracy Now! correspondent Jen Utz.

JEN UTZ: Mohamed is celebrating his 14th birthday. His family is among the 1.4 million Iraqi refugees currently estimated to be living in Syria. The electricity went out in the middle of the party, as it often has over the course of the last year and a half that they’ve been in exile. But life goes on.

With the war entering its fifth year and over four million people displaced, those who wonder how an American journalist visiting a family of Iraqi refugees would be treated might be surprised. Mohamed’s family of five lives in Daf Al-Shawk, a poor neighborhood of Damascus, where they pay $250 USD per month for this one-bedroom apartment.

Upon my arrival, Mohamed’s mother Heyfa immediately began preparing a large meal.

HEYFA: [translated] This is our custom. When a guest comes to our house, we give them the best we have, no matter what situation we’re living in.

JEN UTZ: After our meal, the family sang me a traditional song from their region.

Originally from Basra, Heyfa is Shiite, and her husband Omar is Sunni.

OMAR: [translated] When I went to ask for her hand in marriage, her parents didn’t ask me what sect I was from. Our neighborhood was middle class with nice houses and gardens. One of my neighbors was Christian, another was Armenian, and Sunni and Shia. We shared everything. We ate together, we celebrated together. We even shared all religious holidays together.

JEN UTZ: Things changed dramatically after the war, they say, and Omar bought a Kalashnikov to protect his family. However, they decided to leave when Heyfa found a warning from the local Shiite militia on her front door, insisting they leave their home or the entire family would be killed.

HEYFA: [translated] My husband was at work, and I opened the front door and I saw this letter. So I kept the kids home from school. I started to call my neighbors. They tried to calm me down, and then they took me to the police station. The police read the letter, and they laughed and said, "We can’t do anything for you."

JEN UTZ: At the time, militia groups were taking over vacated homes, so Omar paid an armed guard $250 USD a month to keep an eye on their house. On the day of my visit, Heyfa had just paid $350 USD to enroll her two eldest children in private school for one year, because public schools, burdened by the growing number of refugees, are full.

OMAR: [translated] We appreciate that the Syrian government and its people have been so generous to the huge number of Iraqis.

JEN UTZ: However, Iraqi refugees are forbidden from working in Syria, and the family’s savings are running out. Plus, they tell me that life in exile is emotionally crippling, and they have no hope they’ll go home anytime soon.

OMAR: [translated] Our hope is that the situation will get better and Iraq will return to the way it was and that everyone can go back to their homes and their jobs. But this is just hope. We see this is something impossible, and now we are just hoping to move to any country just to live our lives.

JEN UTZ: We continued our conversation, and as I was wrapping up the interview, Omar wanted to ask me a question.

OMAR: [translated] What’s happening in Iraq is because of your president. He’s the main reason. Most of the Iraqis have been forced to leave their homes and their families. They have had family members kidnapped or killed. There is no house in Iraq that doesn’t have a problem like this. There must be a solution for the Iraqi people. Why don’t they find a solution?

JEN UTZ: After all they had shared with me, I wanted to give something back, but I had nothing to say.

From Damascus, Syria, this is Jen Utz for Democracy Now!

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