Iraq Struggles to Cope with Returning Refugees

A newly returned Iraqi refugee from Syria shows an envelope containing financial aid. i i

A newly returned Iraqi refugee from Syria shows an envelope containing financial aid promised by the government in Baghdad, Nov. 29, 2007. Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images
A newly returned Iraqi refugee from Syria shows an envelope containing financial aid.

A newly returned Iraqi refugee from Syria shows an envelope containing financial aid promised by the government in Baghdad, Nov. 29, 2007.

Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images
More Iraqi Refugees Returning from Syria

For the first time since the Iraq war began, more Iraqi refugees are returning home from Syria than are arriving. The movement is still a trickle, but growing numbers of refugees are considering going home.

Iraqi refugees from Syria wait at a hall in the al-Mansur hotel for their passports to be stamped. i i

Iraqi refugees from Syria wait at a hall in Baghdad's al-Mansur hotel for their passports to be stamped and to receive Iraqi financial aid, Nov. 29, 2007. Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi refugees from Syria wait at a hall in the al-Mansur hotel for their passports to be stamped.

Iraqi refugees from Syria wait at a hall in Baghdad's al-Mansur hotel for their passports to be stamped and to receive Iraqi financial aid, Nov. 29, 2007.

Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images

Uncertainty and possible danger await the refugees and internally displaced Iraqis seeking to return to their homes in Baghdad. Many will find those homes occupied by others. The Iraqi government appears to have no real plan to deal with a problem that one spokesman is calling a potential national crisis.

On a recent morning, a group of men and women crowds inside the halls of a government office in west Baghdad. The wait is long and they are agitated. Among them is Suad Mohammed, draped in a black abaya, one hand squeezing a tissue she uses to dab tears from her eyes.

"We were kicked out of our home in Dora," she says. "They took my house and furniture."

Suad and her family, all Shia, fled their home in the south Baghdad district of Dora after they were threatened by Sunni insurgents. She says the insurgent leader has already sold the house.

"He forged documents, he was one of Saddam's people," she says. "He threatened the judge, bribed people to have the papers drawn up."

Others standing nearby have similar stories. Some of their homes were burned to the ground. Others' homes were given to people of a different sect.

In a country where so much has been lost, owning a home is often the only real asset Iraqis have left.

A woman who gives her name as Um Ali holds a bundle of papers under her arm. She and her family left the turbulent west Baghdad neighborhood of Saydia six months ago. Since then, she says, she has gone from one government office to another in a bid to legalize her claim to the house they left behind.

"All the documents are finished, they checked everything," she says. "We came here to get them stamped. There's nothing left now but the manager's signature. We're begging him to finish our papers."

Ali Hulmi Abdel Razak, who is in charge of the displacement office, says he sees about 200 people a day.

"We have many families going back to their houses," he says. "The person has to prove he was displaced, we send him to the main ministry office and they do the rest of the procedures over there."

The Iraqi government has given widely different estimates of the number of refugees and internally displaced persons who have tried to return to their homes here. Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh says Iraq has asked humanitarian organizations to help deal with the problem before it becomes a national crisis.

But Jamal al Karbaly of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society said there's only so much his organization can do.

"We are emergency aid, we just give people tents to live in," he says in a telephone interview. "Renting houses for these people, evicting squatters, this isn't our responsibility, this is between Iraqis and their government."

Ali Dabbagh says squatters face arrest if they refuse to leave the houses they've taken over when the original owners return. Iraqi security officials, however, say they've been ordered not to allow any more displaced people to return or to evict anyone, because of the tensions it would ignite.

All that is of little comfort to Suad Mohammed as she paces back and forth in front of the displacement office in despair.

"The man who sold my house sent people to kill my son — my only son," she says. "I want the government to give me back my house. I have no one else."

Suad says she hopes to be able to tell her story to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

NPR's Haider al Jumaily contributed to this report.

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