This post was written anonymously by a journalist in Syria. A few biographical facts have been changed to protect the people mentioned.
Ahmed, an Iraqi in his early 30s, crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border in late November. With him were his wife and his two young sons. They chose Damascus as their destination, a city so flooded with refugees that entire neighborhoods, if it weren’t for the numerous statues and photographs of Syria’s ruling family, would feel more like districts in Baghdad than neighborhoods of the Syrian capitol.
The change in Damascus’s demographic landscape is starting to look permanent. As rates of violence have decreased in areas of Iraq in recent months, many here had hoped that Syria’s massive Iraqi community would move back home. But most Iraqis have stayed put. Many Syrians resent the continued presence of these refugees, and dozens of informal interviews I have conducted with average Syrian citizens over the past three months have revealed strong currents of xenophobia and distrust toward Syria’s Iraqi refugee population. In recent years, the Syrian government has welcomed Iraqi refugees with open arms. But despite this official hospitality, ordinary Syrians are feeling increasingly less welcoming.
When Ahmed and his family crossed the border recently, they were not met with open arms. Their taxi driver, on the road towards Damascus, tricked them into getting out of the car on an abandoned stretch of highway. He then drove off, leaving them without belongings, identification, or money. A Syrian professor (and a friend of mine), out on a late-night drive, happened across them coincidentally, wandering alongside the side of the road. It was a stretch of highway that, as the Syrian professor later described it, was “so abandoned that they may as well have been left to die.”
Ahmed fled the country for similar reasons as many other Sunnis; his relatives had been harassed by American forces in the years since the invasion. His family eventually scattered and lost track of one another. Ahmed’s house in Baghdad, where he lived with his young kids and wife, was repeatedly raided by government troops. His plan was vague — find an apartment in Damascus and look for any type of job to support his family. Being left penniless along the side of the road was an inauspicious beginning, and the weeks since have brought him little relief.
Housing has proved to be a major issue. Few building owners were willing to rent him an apartment outside of the overwhelmingly Iraqi neighborhoods of Sayyida Zeinab and Jeramanah. Many landlords suspected that Ahmed and his family would prove troublesome, stealing from neighbors or engaging in other acts of criminality. He was eventually able to rent a small, unfurnished apartment, but only by concealing his nationality from the apartment’s owner.
Ahmed and his wife have also confronted the daunting task of finding work, since Iraqis are not legally allowed to hold jobs. They have been turned down from even the most low-paying of jobs, and have been forced to fall back on begging and other handouts. But it’s not just the legal issues that are preventing Syrians from hiring them; many employers doubt the couple’s trustworthiness and character based on their nationality alone.
Ahmed’s situation is shared by many Iraqis in Syria, and it suggests that social prejudices and xenophobia, in addition to legal barriers, are proving increasingly problematic for refugees. Some Syrians have begun to use the term “dirty” to describe their Iraqi neighbors. I noticed the term used on multiple occasions, often coupled with descriptions of the refugees as being cheaters, thieves, and prostitutes. Not surprisingly, some Iraqis (though not all) describe feeling unwelcome as well; many lie about their country of origin, explaining away their unusual accent as a product of a village upbringing. It’s a falsehood that allows them to get a job or rent an apartment or, at the very least, escape various degrees of social ostracization.
This changing attitude toward refugees appears to be based, in part, on economic conditions. Gas and food prices have shot up in recent years, and many Syrians citizens are unable to find a decent job. Tens of thousands, many of them with advanced educational degrees, take to the roads every morning to drive taxis for around ten dollars a day, or sell vegetables on street corners.
Unemployment has risen as well, and many Syrians complain that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are stealing any jobs that become available. Hospitals have also become increasingly packed, and social services are strained.
Then there was the car bomb that exploded in a Damascus neighborhood in mid-September. It was a strange attack. With no clear target, the explosion damaged buildings and even a nearby children’s day school. Images from that day were played repeatedly on state television to a horrified audience; a brutal bombing hitting not foreigners or diplomats, but average citizens in a poor neighborhood. In the streets, many Syrians made up their minds immediately. Terrorism had rarely been a problem before the influx of refugees, many argued, and now it had become one. Unsubstantiated rumors circulated about a botched attempt by mujahideen to target the American Embassy in a follow-up attack.
Distrust between Iraqis and Syrians is exacerbated by the fact that the two groups are often geographically separated from one other. Most Iraqis in the capitol live in “their” neighborhoods and face barriers to living outside of them; Syrians generally live in areas designated for native-born citizens, and could face penalties for renting out rooms to Iraqi tenants. The segregation has inflamed the stereotypes and misperceptions that many Syrians feel about their Iraqi counterparts.
When I decided to move to the largely-Iraqi neighborhood of Jeramanah, I was told by several Syrians that I should be very careful of the area, since it was almost entirely Iraqis and other non-Syrian foreigners.
One Syrian, in his early 30s, gave a typical response: “They have no morals in that neighborhood. They think only of stealing and cheating. If you go there, expect to be killed or to disappear.”