Syria Tries to Cope with Influx of Iraqi Refugees

Cannon booms across Damascus signal the start of Ramadan, a month when Muslims fast during the day and feast after sundown. It's a month when the rich feed the poor in mosques all over the city.

It's also a time to reflect on charity and compassion, but charity and compassion are strained in Syria as the country aims to uncover how to cope with more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.

One of the last routes for Iraqis to leave their country closed this week. Entry into neighboring Syria has been effectively cut off since Syria imposed new visa restrictions.

More than 30,000 Iraqis had been crossing every month. Syria has taken in more Iraqi refugees than any other country, but the cost has been enormous – and the welcome has worn thin.

The strain is evident in the stories that Iraqis and Syrians tell.

Arabesque, one of the most popular new radio stations in Damascus, has thousands of listeners to a morning call-in show. In this security state, Syrians don't often express controversial opinions, but Lena Showaf, the station's director, recalls a recent morning when the talk turned to the refugees.

"All the people want to talk," she says. "We had enough — we don't want — it's not good for the Syrian people."

Rime Alaf, a Syrian political analyst, says pressure has been building over the past year.

"We're talking about inflation — an increase in rentals and in real estate, an increase in the price of most things — overcrowding in schools," Alaf says. "Overall, they realize it has affected them adversely."

Some Syrians take advantage of the refugees, Alaf says, hiking prices for customers who speak with the distinctive Iraqi accent.

"We hear a lot of complaints about taxi drivers who prefer to pick up Iraqi passengers, leaving Syrian passengers, because they know they can overcharge the Iraqis," Alaf says.

Many of the early Iraqi arrivals came with money, wealthy Saddam loyalists, who fueled a boom in the economy here. However, the latest wave of refugees is nearly "out" of money – moving gradually to smaller rooms and rougher neighborhoods.

Rebecca Joubin, an American, lives in an apartment building with her Iraqi husband and their daughter. She says the neighborhood has changed as it saw an influx of Iraqis.

"Our whole building is Iraqi practically — it's 20 people in each room," Joubin says. "They are all, you see, it's economic desperation."

Her husband, Monkith, is an Iraqi artist. His sculptures are displayed in a gallery in the front room. The themes reflect his life – an Iraqi exile for 30 years. He was finally able to get other members of his family out of Baghdad but the reunion was unsettling.

"For example, I have a very bad experience with my brothers. You know — shantashi — blackmail from your own brothers. Yeah, everybody thought I'm rich," he says.

Survival is the preoccupation of these refugees. Living next door to them, Rebecca Joubin has complaints.

"Kids are out so late at night. I can't imagine, again, because they had no freedom there. The mothers want to give freedom here. Our building is a mess now," she says.

The alleyways are soccer fields with teams of Iraqi children who do not go to school. Many parents are too poor to send them — or have to send them to work instead.

The hard feelings go both ways, says Nazar, an Iraqi filmmaker from Baghdad who will not give this last name.

"Well, I don't hate Syrians, but I prefer to stay away from problems in a country like Syria. It is a security state — you guess that everybody works for intelligence, even if they don't work," he says.

Nazar lives in an old Damascus apartment with high ceilings and a courtyard fountain. Syria allows refugees to live wherever they want — and that has made contacts more personal, he says.

"When you're talking about 1.5 million persons in one country — that came in three years — it could not happen in any country in the world," Nazar says. "This huge increase ... It's crazy.

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