Online Music Proceeds Could Help Iraqi Refugees

The Iraqi refugee crisis has been out of the headlines for awhile. But few of the more than two million people who fled the country have gone back. Aid agencies are looking for new ways to find money to support the refugees who are mostly living in Jordan and Syria.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

And we'll stay in the Middle East now for our next story on Iraq's refugees. More than two million Iraqis have fled their homeland during the past six years of war. And though the violence in Iraq is down, few refugees have returned. Most are living in Jordan or Syria. And NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus on the efforts to help them.

(Soundbite of music)

DEBORAH AMOS: These instruments are as familiar to the Iraqis as the Tigris and the Euphrates: the oud played like a guitar, the khanoon with strings similar to the piano, and the nai, the forerunner of the modern flute.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: These are tunes from an album called "Transitions," marketed by major music sharing sites in hopes the music will become familiar to the rest of the world. It's an experiment in supporting refugees with private money, says Sybella Wilkes with United Nations Refugee Office in Damascus.

Ms. SYBELLA WILKES (United Nations Refugee Office, Damascus): We are also in a really horrible situation in terms of our funding. When iTunes and various other companies agreed to help market the music, we thought this would be a great opportunity for us to raise a bit of funds.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: The Iraqi trio agreed to donate the online proceeds to a UN financial assistance program. A concert in Damascus kicked off the sales. But the nai player, Fadi Fares Aziz was absent for the performance.

A refugee, he was resettled in San Diego, California last month, but his family was in the audience. Separated now, his parents, a younger brother and his sister were denied resettlement by U.S. officials. Given no reason for their rejection, Fares Aziz, the patriarch of the family, encouraged his son, the musician, to make the most of the opportunity for placement in California.

Mr. FARES AZIZ: (Through Translator) I was very happy that he was going and he was going to start a new life, and a lot of pain to lose him. This is the first time in my life that my child left the family, you know, left us.

AMOS: It's a common story for Iraqis. The Aziz family is part of the vast refugee community still living in tough conditions in Syria.

Mr. IBRAHIM AZIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: When Ibrahim, the youngest son, shows his father excellent exam grades, he's showered with congratulations. But there's little else to celebrate. Barred from working legally in Syria, savings long gone, many refugees are destitute and depend on UN food aid.

Some work in Syria's black market economy. Others send a father or a brother back to Iraq to collect a pension or back pay or to stay to work for a few months to support the rest of the family. This transient population makes it hard to estimate refugee numbers, says Philippe Leclerc, the acting director of the UNHCR office here. More than 200,000 are still registered with the UN in Syria. Many more do not sign up at all.

Mr. PHILIPPE LECLERC (Acting Director, UNHCR Office in Syria): The refugees have not disappeared. Perhaps their number is lower, but what we see every day is that there is increased vulnerability among those who are remaining.

AMOS: The remaining refugees are mostly from Iraq's minorities: Christians and Sunni Arabs who say the country is not yet safe for them.

Mr. LECLERC: More than 90 percent of the people we have been talking to do not intend to return in the very near future because of the uncertainty of the political process, the security situation, and the basic services that the country can provide.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

AMOS: Outside the UN Refugee Office in Damascus, tempers are short under the brutal sun as refugees, mostly women, wait in line for a face-to-face meeting with a UN officer. They're here to ask about benefits, check on resettlement to a third country. Some have been waiting for years. Madja Rashid(ph), an Iraqi living in Canada, is here to lobby for her brother's resettlement case.

Ms. MADJA RASHID: This is ridiculous for all of them. Come on. Give them a chance.

AMOS: Fatine Francise(ph), an Iraqi Christian, translates for another Iraqi woman who wants to go to Sweden.

Ms. FATINE FRANCISE: She's here only with her daughter. Her husband is dead. They killed him in Iraq.

AMOS: Francise is waiting for approval to get a monthly stipend the U.S. gives to the most needy.

Ms. FRANCISE: It's still hard, of course.

AMOS: Are people still coming here?

Ms. FRANCISE: Of course they are coming.

AMOS: Still?

Ms. FRANCISE: Still. It's no good in Iraq now.

AMOS: Some come here every week. Others are new arrivals from Iraq. They tell their stories when they get their chance: a brother kidnapped, a mother murdered, a threatening letter - leave Iraq or you will die.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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