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Iraqi Refugees Overwhelm Syria

Migrants Who Fled Violence Put Stress on Housing Market, Schools

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page A18

ALEPPO, Syria -- Sabbah Zaker had a small, sturdy construction company in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and although he did not agree with the U.S. invasion, he accepted a $10,000 contract last summer to renovate schools and health clinics across his ethnically mixed home town. A few months later, his name began appearing on the walls of his neighborhood as a warning from insurgents not to cooperate with the Americans.

Zaker, a Christian, had been agonizing over whether to leave Iraq since August, when a series of church bombings shook Mosul and Baghdad. The graffiti made the decision for him, and last September he sent one of his four sons to this city in northern Syria to find a place for the family to settle. Zaker, his wife and their sons now sleep on the floors of a cramped apartment across from a church.


An Iraqi man at a voter registration center, provided by Syria, hung a poster last month in Damascus that urged Iraqis to cast ballots. (Bassem Tellawi -- AP)

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"Our people hated me, and I didn't even know what was in their hearts," said Zaker, 52, who wore a tightly knotted tie on a recent morning despite having no place to go. "If the situation continues like it is in Iraq, more of us will come. And the money is running out."

Although regional and global concerns about Syria's 450-mile border with Iraq have focused mostly on foreign Arabs slipping across to join the insurgency, a growing number of Iraqis like the Zakers are moving in the opposite direction. U.N. officials say they are witnessing the exodus they had expected 22 months ago, when the United States and its allies invaded, and the Syrian government and international aid agencies say they are seeing the first worrisome social effects of the migration.

Syrian officials say 700,000 Iraqis from various ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds have arrived since the U.S.-led invasion, far more than in any other country in the region. The flow has spiked in the past four months.

The first trickle of wealthy Iraqis, who U.S. officials say may now be helping finance the insurgency, has been followed by a larger wave of mostly Shiite Muslims and Christians -- groups targeted by the daily violence. U.N. officials say many are doctors, professors, business owners and recent college graduates, the intellectual core that officials in Washington hoped would rebuild Iraq. As they settle in the old stone buildings of the Christian quarter here and in the southern slums of Damascus 185 miles to the south, the enclaves are experiencing soaring rents, overcrowded schools, rising crime and health problems.

"We cannot continue like this," said Abdelhamid Ouali, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria. "The situation is terrible, and we are obliged to do something."

Hoping to help the fleeing Iraqis without encouraging their flight, the U.N. agency arranged "temporary protection status" that prevented the Iraqis from being deported but did not trigger the financial aid and relocation assistance that goes to official refugees. Almost two years ago, the agency set up large tent cities and health clinics for thousands of people. The facilities were mothballed when the mass exodus did not immediately materialize.

"What happened? People have started coming now, and we can do nothing for them. It is a disaster," said Ouali, who is designing a $700,000 program to help the Syrian government assist the Iraqis.

Not far from the Circle of the Iraqis, a traffic roundabout in the teeming Damascus neighborhood of Sitti Zeinab, a boy called out in the twilight the other day for passengers to fill the evening bus to Baghdad. Tables at the Baghdadi Restaurant, a kebab and shwarma joint, are nearly always full.

"We thank God that under the dictatorship, the conditions for us were harsh, and are even harsher now that the Americans are there," said Abu Jaffar Khazimi, 35, who fled the southern Iraqi city of Najaf with his family in September. "So we have grown used to not needing a lot of luxury."

Khazimi is the representative in Syria of Moqtada Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric from Najaf. Like many Iraqi Shiites here, Khazimi fled Najaf and his ruined home soon after Sadr's militia reached a cease-fire agreement with U.S. forces in the fall that ended weeks of fighting.

Since arriving, he has been unable to find places in the public schools for his children. A year ago, a two-room apartment cost $110 a month; now the going rate is twice that. Some of Iraq's rising sectarian tensions are also being felt here. While some loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party have been targeting Shiite clerics and political leaders in Iraq, others have found refuge in Damascus, Khazimi said.

"They avoid many Iraqi gatherings," Khazimi said. "We know them. And we would fight them."


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