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April 19, 2007

In Damascus, a Lot of Uninvited Guests

by Dahr Jamail

DAMASCUS - The massive influx of Iraqi refugees into Syria has brought rising prices and overcrowding, but most Syrians seem to have accepted more than a million of the refugees happily enough.

"I'm looking at it this way," 35-year-old Amri Alaby told IPS. "There are more people who can now consume, money circulation has increased, and it is good for the economy."

Alaby, who owns a sweets shop in the Souq al-Hamidiyya area downtown admitted that prices have increased somewhat as a result of the influx of about 1.5 million Iraqis. That is one reason that not all Syrians are as accommodating towards their new guests.

"The prices are going up, everything is going up because of the Iraqis coming here," said Adel al-Jabbah, 74-year-old owner of a spice shop in the Bab Touma area of Damascus. "A house that was 15 million Syrian pounds is now 40 million Syrian pounds."

Al-Jabbah believes that Iraqi refugees are rich, because they pay the asking price to Syrian landlords, real estate agents and business owners.

"They are people who are going to buy," he said. "Any price you want, you are going to get it from them."

Al-Jabbah was unwittingly describing the escalating problem of Syrian landlords and businesses extorting money from Iraqis desperate enough to pay anything for a secure place to live.

The refugee crisis continues to escalate every day. Suburban trucks commonly hired by Iraqis fleeing from Baghdad to Syria line many streets in neighborhoods of Damascus where Iraqis are congregating.

Adhem Mardini, a public information assistant with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Damascus says the UNHCR is working alongside the government of Syria, the Red Crescent and other groups to bring relief to the rising number of refugees.

Mardini told IPS that at least a thousand Iraqis enter Syria every day, and that the UNHCR is short of staff and funding.

"We have an emergency conference in Geneva Apr. 17-18," Mardini told IPS. "And we are praying that we will obtain more help from it because the Iraqis are suffering so much. The Iraqis coming here are completely desperate, and we need all the help we can get."

In a commentary on the situation of Iraqis in Syria, government daily al-Baath called the situation "a real crisis," and complained of soaring food and rent prices as a result of the huge influx. Iraqi refugees now comprise roughly 8 percent of the Syrian population of about 18 million.

But while many Syrians complain about rising prices and other difficulties as a result of the influx, they are sympathetic towards the refugees, and blame the U.S. government rather than the refugees themselves.

"Bush is responsible for all of this," Adnan, a 51-year-old merchant in the Bab Touma district of Damascus told IPS. "He burnt the Middle East and caused this suffering. We support the Iraqis here, but he is ultimately at fault."

Many other Syrians expressed solidarity with their neighbors from the south.

"We are with the Iraqis, they are our brothers and we believe in one Arabic nation, so they are having no negative impact on the Syrian people," said Abdel Aziz, 30-year-old owner of a stationery store. "We are giving all we can just for the resistance of the Iraqis to withstand this unjust occupation crisis."

Azizi added, "No matter what pressure comes to the Syrians from this situation, they will do their best for their neighbors."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Dahr Jamail writes about the effects of the US occupation on the people of Iraq, since the mainstream media in the US has in large part, he believes, failed to do so.

    Dahr has spent a total of 5 months in occupied Iraq, and plans on returning in October to continue reporting on the occupation. One of only a few independent reporters in Iraq, Dahr will be using the DahrJamailIraq.com website and mailing list to disseminate his dispatches and will continue as special correspondent for Flashpoints Radio.

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