You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

“Exodus: Where Will Iraq Go Next?” Deborah Campbell on the Iraq Refugee Crisis

Media Options

Refugees International estimates that up to five million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003. That’s one-in-five Iraqis who have had to flee their homes since the US-led invasion of their country. Two-and-a-half million Iraqis have been internally displaced, and an equal number have managed to leave the country to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf States and, most of all, Syria, which hosts 1.5 million Iraqis. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryOct 26, 2007Peace Activists Kathy Kelly and David Smith-Ferri on Iraq’s Worsening Refugee Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to withdraw its fighters from the streets today after six days of battling US-supported Iraqi military forces. At least 270 people have reportedly died in the fighting since the Maliki government launched its crackdown on rival Shia paramilitaries.

While all the attention is fixed on the political actors vying for control of the oil-rich city of Basra, we take a step back and look at the human cost of the war and the many armed groups it’s created.

Refugees International estimates up to five million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003. That’s one-in-five Iraqis who have had to flee their homes since the US invaded, March 2003. Two-and-a-half million Iraqis have been internally displaced, and an equal number have managed to leave the country, to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf States and, most of all, Syria, which hosts one-and-a-half million Iraqis. But these countries are all raising concerns over the influx of Iraqis, and last October Syria closed its borders.

Independent journalist and author Deborah Campbell spent two months embedded with Iraqi refugees in Syria just as the borders were closing. She writes about the people she met in an article published in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine. It’s called “Exodus: Where Will Iraq Go Next?” Deborah Campbell joins us in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the refugee crisis overall, and then specifically in Syria.

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, I spent two months among the refugees, as you mentioned, and I was there starting in the summer of 2007, and then I went again up until January of this year. When I arrived, it was at the height of the exodus; about 60,000 Iraqis were leaving the country every month. And at this point, the only place that they could go was Syria. It was the last country that was accepting them. And most of them were leaving with a couple of days’ notice, just taking whatever they could carry.

And the type of refugee crisis that we’re looking at is largely middle class. These are people who were accountants, doctors, professors, teachers back in Iraq. Essentially, they’re the kind of people that are the basis of civil society. And they are the ones that have managed to leave the country. The very wealthiest went to Jordan. Those with less means went to Syria, where the living standards were a little bit less expensive. And this increased the population of Syria by ten percent within the course of a year and a half. So they arrived to Syria, and suddenly, for both Syrians and Iraqis, rents started doubling, tripling; the price of food was going up by three times. Though Syria has been extremely generous, they’ve been paying a very high price.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did Syria accept so many?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, it has something to do with Syria’s pan-Arab philosophy. That’s one thing. But Syria has a long history of accepting refugees. They have about 400,000 Palestinians living there to this day. And they didn’t want to follow the lead of everyone else and close the border.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from an interview with a woman named Haifa, whom you met in Damascus. Can you introduce this clip for us?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: This woman is from Basra. She’s Shia and married to a Sunni man, and they left about a year and a half ago. And she’s going to tell us why.

    HAIFA: I woke up at 6:00 in the morning. My husband had already gone to work. I opened the front door and found this letter on it. I called my husband and didn’t allow the children to go to school. I started crying and woke up the neighbors. They calmed me down and took me to the police. The police just read the letter and laughed. They said they could not do anything to help me.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Haifa of Basra. And so, what’s happened after that?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, this is a very good example of a very typical situation. The letter that she received — she’s holding a bullet — I met many, many refugees who had exactly this story. It’s part of the sectarian cleansing that began over — after the Iraq war, basically about three years after the Iraq war. They’re also very typical in the sense that intermarriage was widespread. One of the things her husband told me was how they used to celebrate all the religious holidays, including Christmas, with their Christian neighbors. This was very common across Iraq, until the fabric of society began to break down. You see the rise of sectarianism, going along with things like the lack of electricity and water and law and order and militias rising up. And by 2006, it came to a point where they were having their lives threatened. Their daughter, who — because her father is Sunni, she’s Sunni — started to wear a Shia pendant and cover her hair, which was something that they didn’t do in the past. So then they had to leave.

Now, we’ve been hearing a lot about this story of how the refugee crisis has come to a bit of a halt, and of course, with the border closed with Syria, that’s partially true; it’s been a lot harder for people to get out. But at the same time, very few Iraqis have actually gone back. And to a place like Basra, obviously, it’s absolutely impossible. This family will never be able to go back, being a mixed — being a mixed family, they will never be able to go back. One of the things that distinguishes this family is that their family members are still all alive, although relatives of theirs had been killed [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Haifa and the bullet.

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, this is — the bullet was inside the death threat letter that they received to their home, and these letters were a common instrument of the sectarian cleansing that’s going on across Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, once they moved to Syria, what has been their life?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: They’re renting a small apartment. This is an urban refugee crisis, as well. This is not a situation where Iraqis are living in camp situations. They came with any savings that they had. Many people sold their homes, sold their cars, brought what they had. They’re renting an apartment. It’s about $250 a month. The problem is, even if you bring $10,000, how long does it last when you’re paying these kinds of rents, also paying to get your kids into schools? And you can’t work legally in Syria, because foreigners can’t come in and just take a job. So they’re unemployed, and it’s basically a waiting game.

AMY GOODMAN: What about smuggling, human smuggling?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: This is something that is a broad phenomenon across — amongst the refugees, and everybody is talking about it — how can they get out? — because they’re in this waiting game in Syria, they can’t work, they’re running out of money, desperation is rising.

And I met, actually, one of their neighbors, a young man who is nineteen years old, and he was paying a smuggler $9,000 to — he was going to go back into Iraq, go through northern Iraq into Turkey, walk through the mountains and go to Greece. And it was his second attempt. The first one, he had been arrested and jailed in Greece, and the smuggler had run off.

One of the things that’s happening with the human trafficking, as well, is that there’s a great deal of, obviously, corruption, people that believe that they’re going to get documents or that end up giving money to somebody — and I know someone who parted with $26,000, and the smuggler ran away. So this is their life savings.

You have seen most of the Iraqis that are arriving in Sweden are coming through human trafficking networks. There’s attempts to stop them. But there’s a lot of desperation, and a lot of people are smuggling — are being smuggled out so that they can go to university abroad, so that they can establish a life. It’s not simply to commit some kind of illegal act.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a man named Saif, but we have to break. Deborah Campbell, our guest, independent journalist, she spent two months embedded with the refugees from Iraq in Syria and wrote a piece for Harper’s called “Exodus: Where Will Iraq Go Next?” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, independent journalist Deborah Campbell, spent several months with Iraqi refugees in Syria. Deborah, I wanted you to talk about what happened to the family of Saif, the former intelligence officer. We have photographs of his wife, a nine-year-old daughter Asma, and for our listening audience, you can go to our website at to watch or look at these photos.

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Right. Asma is a nine-year-old girl, and two-and-a-half years ago, the farmhouse where she lived with her father and mother in Baghdad was hit by rocket-propelled grenades by the Badr Brigade. This is a militia that’s very close to the current Shia government. It’s also involved in the fighting currently going on in Basra at this moment, the fight for power that’s coming down right now. And at this point, her older sister was killed. She herself was badly burned. And her mother suffered a stroke that paralyzed half her body, so she’s pushing herself up in the picture, but she had been lying on a mat in their one-bedroom apartment in Damascus for the last two years. No medical care has come for either the mother or the daughter. And her older brother was taken and tortured, so now he — the techniques that were used have made it so that he doesn’t speak well, and they have to keep him drugged or he becomes violent. So this is the situation that this family is living in at this moment.

And the youngest — Asma hasn’t been to school; she’s had no education. Also, because the family is living in Syria illegally, they haven’t wanted to make people aware of their presence, because he believes that the Iraqi militias will kidnap him and that they will be paid for this service. So he’s living in hiding, and she’s received not only no medical care, but isn’t going to school.

One of the things that really struck me about the refugee crisis is the way — Iraq had once been, before the war, the most educated country in the Middle East, and all of these children that I met, not only her, but those living legally in Syria, were in school before the war. And now, 70 to 90 percent of those in Syria are not in school, although the Syrian government is allowing them. Syrian schools now have sixty, seventy children per classroom. If you don’t have documents, and if you’re fleeing with twenty-four-hours’ notice, you’re not going and getting your children’s report cards before you leave. Or they’ve missed three, four years already, and they don’t go to school. And many of them are starting to work now to support their families, whether shining shoes or selling things on the street.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play parts of an interview with a young Iraqi translator named Ahmad, who used to work with the American forces. Introduce this, Deborah.

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Ahmad is thirty-two years old. He worked with the Army and Marines in Fallujah. And he’s currently also living in hiding in Syria.

    AHMAD: I get threat from unknown people. They came to my family, asking — they just ask them, “You have a guy working with USA coalition forces? You have to tell him to stop this job, to stop this work, because it is very dangerous for him.” Yeah, that’s what made me quit. Actually, I was very afraid, as my work as translator; it is very dangerous to work as translator, and especially if the guys are the people around you — I mean, your relatives or your friends, everybody know that I’m translator. That will be very dangerous.

    Two days ago, I get a phone about my friend. He was working translator before in 2004, but he quit from a long time. And they told me he was killed in front of his house; about twenty meters from his house, he was killed. And this is very, very sad thing happened to me. I don’t ask about — I don’t insist to go to as — or I don’t choose specifically a specific country. I just want to be in a safe place and living in peace. That’s all what I need, no more else.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad was interviewed by Deborah Campbell and former Democracy Now! producer Jen Utz in Syria. What has happened to him since then, Deborah?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, this is a little bit of a good news story. Right now, very few Iraqis are finding places abroad to be resettled, but he, shortly after this interview, got his phone call, and he’s gone through six rounds of interviews over the past sixteen months and finally has been accepted for resettlement in the United States. So he’s just waiting for that to go through, but it looks positive, unlike the situation for a lot of Iraqis.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about the situation here in this country. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California, a Republican, said, “I don’t think it’s the time that we should be accelerating our refugee efforts… Now is the time that we should be calling on the refugees from Iraq to go home.”

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, I think we’ve seen the clips from Basra, and we know what home looks like. The majority of Iraqis said to me that they can never go home. Even — there were less than 50,000 that went home at the end of last year during this great story about how Iraqis were going home to peace and stability. Even that small number of people that went back said that they did so because they had run out of money and because Syria had stopped renewing their residency permits. So the majority say that they may never be able to go back to Iraq, and they’re facing death if they do so.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the material support been here?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Well, after 9/11, the — this is legislation that was expanded after 9/11, such that those refugees that are going for interviews to be resettled, and, you know, they have claims and so forth, if any — the material support ban essentially means that any refugee that has assisted terrorists is denied entry into the United States. That makes a lot of sense. How it’s being interpreted, however, is that any refugee that has paid ransom to a kidnapper who’s on the list of terrorist organizations is considered then to have materially supported terrorists, and you won’t meet very many Iraqis who haven’t had a family member or friend kidnapped that they’ve had to ransom in some way. Now, the material support ban is so broadly interpreted that one senior United Nations official told me that even if a woman has been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by one of these groups and she’s forced to cook for them, this is considered giving material support to terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: This point, for Iraqi refugees, they’re barred from going to — blocked from going to Syria, Jordan and where else?

DEBORAH CAMPBELL: Everywhere else. There is no exit. However, in January, there was one report that 1,200 a day were still leaving Iraq from Syria. How they’re doing so, I’m really not sure. Whether they’re — they’re finding their own way in at this point. You’re seeing, as one diplomat said to me, mortar finds cracks to flow into. When people are desperate, Iraqis will do anything to get out.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Deborah Campbell, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Deborah Campbell, independent journalist and author, spent two months embedded with Iraqi refugees in Syria, wrote a piece in the latest Harper’s magazine called “Exodus: Where Will Iraq Go Next?”

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Cesar Chavez Day: United Farm Workers Co-Founder Dolores Huerta Reflects on the Life and Legacy of the Legendary Labor Activist

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation