Jonny Abo and Abdul Jalil Mustafa
Damascus/Amman – Surviving 17 gunshot wounds was a feat in itself, but enduring life as a refugee was a second battle for al- Mortaji Abdel-Moneim al-Kaabi, a displaced Iraqi in Syria.
“I still suffer from a lot of diseases, but thank God I’m alive, although I feel like I am psychologically bleeding because I cannot forget the painful memories,” said al-Kaabi, an Arabic language teacher.
The violent incident in 2007 was never solved by police. It came after the slaying of his brother the previous year, prompting al- Kaabi and his wife and flee their homeland – like so many other refugees – for a long journey and clandestine entry into Syria.
The trip saw the two go far south to Basra, along the Gulf, then north-west to Amman in Jordan and further north to Damascus, where they found shelter in one of the teeming refugee neighbourhoods of the Syrian capital.
Ill with breast cancer, his wife requires treatments that cost about 24,000 dollars, of which the United Nations has agreed to pay about 40 per cent. The rest al-Kaabi must conjure from thin air, as his status as a refugee does not grant him the right to work.
“We are still advocating for refugees to have access to employment and livelihood,” said Andrew Harper of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) programme in Iraq.
Millions of Iraqis have been uprooted in seven years of war as they fled sectarian violence and an insurgency that at its 2006-07 height claimed 3,000 civilian lives a month. Leaving behind property, homes, businesses and most of their personal belongings, many also suffered the loss of family members.
An estimated 2.2 million Iraqis have been displaced within their native land, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have to fled to Syria, a similar number to Jordan, and 40,000-50,000 to Lebanon. The UNHCR website says there are 1.8 million Iraqi refugees in the Mideast, but UN officials have recently down-pedalled on that number.
Whatever the exact figure, the refugees pose both a financial and political challenge to the regional governments.
Those countries look sceptically at the US and some European countries – including those that backed the 2003 invasion – which not only reject most Iraqi immigrants but actually continue to deport those who make it in.
In 2006, the US admitted only 202 Iraqis, the Los Angeles Times reported. Between 2007 and early 2009, however, the US admitted 19,900 Iraqi refugees, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
Harper says that given the high number of Iraqi refugees, he is “thankful” that most have access to health, education and some other services.
Jordan, Lebanon and Syria have already been dealing with “hundreds of thousands if not millions of Palestinian refugees” for decades, with little international support to solve their problems, Harper told the German Press Agency dpa.
With the new influx of Iraqi refugees, the governments fear that even more will simply never go home.
“I will always refuse to go back because scenes of displacement, killings and bodies are stuck in my mind,” said Sajida al-Sarai, a 58-year-old mother of three, now in Syria. She and her Iraqi neighbours all fled militant attacks and are now scattered across the region.
Humanitarian agencies agree that in many areas the situation is perilous and often urge refugees not to return. Even those who ache to live in their old homes fear their dreams will never materialize.
In Jordan, Angham, a 20-year-old student with no tuition money, faces uncertainty about her future.
She fled Iraq with her sisters after her parents were gunned down by militants. They have distant relatives in Canada and hope that somehow a family reunification can be arranged far across the ocean.
“I wish we can return to Iraq after the withdrawal of the US-led invasion troops, to lead a normal life as our fathers and grandfathers did,” said Angham. “But we believe the situation will get worse in Iraq after the pullout of the US forces.”
The stalemate in the Iraqi Parliament, where bickering parties have failed to form a governing coalition more than five months after elections, means programmes that would provide enough stability for returning refugees will remain elusive for years. The stagnant economy presents a further hurdle.
“There is a need for long-term thinking,” Lisbeth Pilegaard with the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a telephone interview. “What war and conflict has created won’t be solved in a short while.”
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