“Iraq Is Not a Suitable Place To Live as a Human”

Why more than 1 million Iraqi exiles remain in Syria.

Waleed Arshad

DAMASCUS, Syria—Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. and Iraqi governments claim the country is becoming a less dangerous place. For most Iraqi refugees in Syria, the upbeat assessments don’t count for much. Regional refugee communities are linked to Iraq by cell phone, text messages, and Internet chat lines. Whatever the Iraqi government’s sunny assessment, the opinions that count are reports from the ground: family members who warn that it is still not safe to return.

There has been some movement over the past six months. In Damascus, the number of new arrivals has leveled off. The refugee neighborhoods are less crowded than a few months ago, and rents have dropped, but more than 1 million Iraqi exiles remain in Syria.

Precisely how many Iraqis are here and how many have gone back to Baghdad is hard to say. In every other refugee crisis, “we would count the tents and multiply by five to get the number of refugees,”  says Mark Schnellbaecher of Catholic Relief Services. But this refugee population is different. More than 70 percent of the Iraqi exiles in Syria are from Baghdad’s middle class. There are no refugee camps here; Iraqis are permitted to rent apartments, most often in the poorest suburbs, which can mask the severity of their troubles.

“There will be a large number who will continue to stay, and that is part of our problem,” says Laurens Jolles, head of the UNHCR office in Damascus. He is exasperated by the donor community’s demands for exact numbers. “There is wishful thinking that this population is going home, and there is less and less inclination for the donor countries to continue [giving].”

Waleed Arshad says he’s never going back to Baghdad. He lives with his wife and two children on the outskirts of Damascus in a small apartment at the top of a winding, uneven set of concrete steps. The tiny rooms are separated by nylon curtains. Arshad’s oil paintings are the only decoration on the peeling walls. His art supported him in Baghdad, but it finally drove him out of the city for good, he says.

Arshad was happy when American tanks rolled past his family home in the Dura neighborhood of Baghdad in the spring of 2003. “Art was a lie during Saddam’s time,” he says. Arshad decided to work with the Americans and signed on in November 2003. A graduate of Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts, his first endeavor as an artist in post-Saddam Iraq was painting Arabic-language signs that read, “Halt, do not come closer than 100 meters. Deadly force will be used.” He hated the job.

“After I started working inside the base, I suggested I could paint portraits. I soon became famous, because every soldier wanted one.” Arshad says he painted thousands of oil portraits at the U.S. Army base near his home. When he became overwhelmed with the work, he farmed out portrait commissions to his friends from art school. The American soldiers even allowed him to have a small gallery on the base, he says. But the dangers of working for the U.S. military forced him to live on the base and travel home only sporadically.

In the summer of 2005, two unfamiliar men with long, unkempt beards pulled alongside him in a car as he left the base. “Are you dealing with the unbelievers?” one barked out in an Arabic accent that was not Iraqi. Arshad told the men he was visiting because his cousin had been arrested by the Americans, but one of the bearded men warned him he would be killed if he ever came near the base again.

Arshad was afraid. He says he stayed at home for 10 days, until pleas from U.S. soldiers who wanted portraits convinced him to return to work. When he escaped a second threat from the same bearded man, the soldiers urged him to paint his would-be assassin. This time, intelligence officers at the Army base made sure Arshad’s art received a wider audience, turning his work into a “wanted” poster that soon appeared on traffic circles and blast walls around Baghdad.

“Six weeks later, there was an explosion in the heart of Baghdad. I was shocked that it was the same guy who threatened me,” says Arshad. “He was a Saudi.” His tormentor had blown himself up and killed dozens of Iraqi day laborers waiting for work. Arshad had escaped one threat, but he knew his troubles were far from over.

Within a few weeks, members of the Mahdi militia, followers of Muqtada Sadr, arrested Arshad at a checkpoint. His “crime” was having two full cans of beer in the back seat of his car.

“I was taken to an Islamic court inside a mosque and held for four hours. There was a judge in this prison, and he was handing out sentences: flogging for some, death for others.”

Arshad begged them to let him go, promising to repent. They knew nothing about his portrait work with the U.S. military. But this was one warning too many, and Arshad says he was determined to flee the country. He took his wife and two children to Syria on May 18, 2005. Within a few weeks, his parents were forced out of their home in Dura. This was a mixed neighborhood, and Shiites were being “cleansed” from the area by radical Sunni militants.

Since he had been threatened by both Sunnis and Shiites, I asked Arshad whether he identified himself as a Sunni or a Shiite.

“I don’t really know, but you have to know to live in Iraq,” says Arshad, who has a Sunni father and a Shiite mother—not unusual among Baghdad’s urban elite. “This is one of the reasons I left. One reason I won’t go back. I have to feel myself as a human being, and I can’t be a real human being if I have to declare whether I am Shiite or Sunni.”

This is a common fear among Iraqi exiles. Returning to Iraq means choosing to live in Sunni or Shiite enclaves divided by high concrete walls. It means choosing a side and staking your life on that decision. The real-estate dilemma dictates the choice. Arshad’s family home is now lost, because it is occupied by another family, which is likely to have been cleansed from yet another neighborhood. Moving back to Baghdad means choosing a new neighborhood, a new Iraq.

As difficult as it is to survive in Damascus, Arshad says he will wait things out in Syria. He has joined thousands of other Iraqis hoping for resettlement, a rescue that may never come.

Sam, a lawyer from Baghdad, has another plan for his future. We meet in a busy cafe, where Sam, in a leather jacket and a Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, chain-smokes as he describes his life in Damascus over the past two years. Inflation is rampant; even potatoes are now expensive for the poor. The Syrian government does not permit Iraqis to work, although there is a thriving illegal job market, especially for child labor in factories, restaurants, and street markets. Sam tried to open an Internet cafe, but he ran afoul of the security police. Now, he says, he wants to use what little savings he has left to pay a smuggler to take him to Greece.

Every Iraqi here knows someone who has made it out by the smuggling routes. They also know someone who has been arrested on arrival or cheated out of his or her life savings for a chance at escape. But the underground route is a gamble those Iraqis who can afford it are willing to take.

Greece has become the preferred destination. Sweden was once considered the safest haven, but in February, the Swedish government rejected 72 percent of Iraqi asylum applicants. This winter, Sweden signed an agreement with the Iraqi government to allow forced repatriation, and more than 11,000 Iraqis are likely to be sent back to Baghdad after their asylum claims are rejected. The backlog of Iraqis is still flowing through the illegal pipeline. A new U.N. report shows that Iraqis were the largest group seeking asylum in the European Union.

“Iraq is not a suitable place to live as a human. There are no dreams left in Iraq,” says Sam, who didn’t tell me his last name. “Everything is broken there.” For Sam and thousands of other Iraqi exiles in Damascus, the recent lull in the killings in Baghdad is not enough to entice them home. They have middle-class values and middle-class dreams. As long as Iraq cannot accommodate their vision for an ordinary future, they will struggle in the uncertain life of exile.