DAMASCUS - Salim Hamad, 33, glances at the sprawling buildings of the Yarmouk
refugee camp in Damascus and sees business. He has set up a small tea shop at
"I left everything behind," he told IPS. "I have no idea what
became of my house."
Salim, a railways worker in Baghdad, sold his car and furniture to raise money
to bring his wife and three children to Damascus five months ago. Syria it had
to be, because by then Jordan's government was no longer letting in men his
He found the money to get to Syria, where he has all of a tea shop now, and
that makes him one of the luckier Iraqis who could flee.
Yarmouk refugee camp, on the outskirts of Damascus, has long been home to more
than 100,000 Palestinian refugees. It is a set of tall apartment buildings separated
by small alleys stuffed with shops.
It is one of the better refugee camps. Most refugees have running water, electricity,
and other basic services.
Now tens of thousands of Iraqis have flooded into Yarmouk. The exact number
Iraqis also head for the Jaramana and the Sayada Zainab camps, besides countless
other areas where they gather to live in smaller groups. The refugees are not
allowed to work by law, and most have to live off their savings and are desperate
"I left Baghdad in order to keep my family alive," Qasim Jubouri,
who was a banker, told IPS. "Of course we all fled with none of our belongings."
Now the money he brought is running out, and he has no idea how he will feed
his family beyond survival at a camp.
"I ask all nations, particularly the United States, to do all that they
can to help us," he said. "Since the U.S. government caused all of
this, shouldn't they also be responsible for helping us now?"
Thus far the Bush administration has issued visas to 466 Iraqis since the invasion
of Iraq in March 2003.
A report released March 22 by the group Refugees International calls the flight
of Iraqis from war-torn Iraq "the world's fastest growing displacement
crisis." Displacement is taking place within Iraq as well.
The United Nations estimates there are now 1.9 million internally displaced
Iraqis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says about
12 percent of Iraq's population of about 25 million will be displaced by the
end of the year.
The UNHCR says also that about two million Iraqis have fled the country, mostly
to Syria, Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Turkey. More than 1.5 million
have fled to Syria alone.
And almost all came with nothing except what cash they could find to take.
"I was a financial manager of seven companies in Baghdad, but I had to
leave my house, my car, and just about everything," said 32-year-old Ali
After militiamen fired at his car in the once up-market Mansoor district of
Baghdad, Ali fled to Jordan. He returned, but his car was attacked again. Six
men from his company were killed in the attack. And that was not all.
"We had 11 engineers from one company detained by the Mahdi Army [the
militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr]," he said. "We never heard
from them again. I knew then that I had to drop everything and run for my life."
Ali does not see himself returning soon. "I don't expect to go back for
at least 15-20 years. I have left everything behind, and now I have nothing
but a small food store I run here. But it is not enough. Not the UN, nor any
government, least of all the Iraqi government, is doing enough to help us."
Short of both funds and staff, the UNHCR is unable to provide adequate assistance
to Iraqi refugees. The agency lacks the resources even to process refugees'
The UNHCR budget in Syria for Iraqis in 2006 was $700,000, less than one dollar
per refugee. It is the only UN agency assisting Iraqis in Lebanon and Jordan.
The most desperate Iraqi refugees receive food, but there is no cash available
(Inter Press Service)