Iraqi Population in Syria Swells as Exiles Flee
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
In the two years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, the United Nations says at least half a million Iraqis have fled to neighboring Syria. They're not officially classified as refugees, so they don't get any assistance from Syria's government or from the UN. Their presence is adding strain to Syria's already overburdened economy. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to the capital, Damascus, and filed this report.
IVAN WATSON reporting:
The bars and nightclubs in Damascus don't really get moving until well past midnight. One of these clubs is a brothel located at the end of a dead-end road overlooking the Syrian capital. Here, dozens of girls in skimpy outfits sway on the dance floor and flirt and negotiate prices to spend the night with male customers sitting around the room. Three of the girls say they're 14 and 15 years old. Some girls look even younger, and all of them say they're from Iraq. Less than 10 minutes' drive but the world away from the brothel is the Convent of the Good Shepherd where Sister Mary Clode Nadaf(ph) says she has witnessed a dramatic upsurge in the number of Iraqi prostitutes in this Syrian capital.
Sister MARY CLODE NADAF (Convent of the Good Shepherd): (Through Translator) We have been working in the women's prisons here since 1996. Until now, we never saw so many women arrested for prostitution.
WATSON: Abdul Hamid il-Wali(ph) is the representative in Syria for the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees. Since the US invasion of Iraq, he says the Iraqi exile population here has steadily swelled from 70,000 to at least half a million. Though the majority have fled the ongoing war in Iraqi, il-Wali says that neither Syria nor the UN formally recognizes these Iraqis as refugees.
Mr. ABDUL HAMID il-WALI (Representative, UN's High Commissioner for Refugees): It's very bizarre situation. You do usually provide assistance directly to the people by creating the camps, by creating services, by assisting directly people. All that will not exist here. People are left to their own.
WATSON: Last year, Kalid Kakud(ph) sold his car, closed his automobile spare parts shop in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and brought his wife and six children to a roach-invested apartment in Damascus.
Mr. KALID KAKUD (Left Iraq for Damascus): (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: Kalid made the decision after insurgents blew up his truck, killed his nephew and then threatened to kill him, he says, only because he's Christian.
Compared to Iraq, Syria is safe, but it also has 20 percent unemployment. So it's little surprise that one year later neither Kalid nor his wife has been able to find jobs. Here only children are offered work. Kalid said he had no choice but to pull his three oldest sons out of school and put them to work. The oldest, 15-year-old Rantz(ph), works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at this Syrian-owned butcher shop for less than $60 a month. The boy's 12-year-old brother Ranni(ph) says he gets Fridays off from his own 12-hour-a-day job carrying vegetables in a nearby market, but he makes even less money. The UN's Abdul Hamid il-Wali says he's seen more and more middle-class Iraqi families in Syria forced to take desperate measures as their savings run out.
Mr. il-WALI: It is known to everybody that we have kids who are competent to work, you know, that you have the prostitution. And it's also one of the reasons why the government, they have started to change their policy.
WATSON: The UN official says Damascus recently began sending some Iraqis home. This is partly a result of the burden of a half-million Iraqis on Syria's limping economy, but Syria also faces intense pressure from the US to restrict cross-border traffic with Iraq and clamp down on insurgents who continue to operate across the frontier. Among those ordered to go home, at least temporarily, are Kalid Kakud and his family. Kalid says he'd rather face poverty and humiliation in Syria than more violence in Iraq.
Mr. KAKUD: (Through Translator) It's impossible for us. Now I brought all of my family in order not to sacrifice any one of them. How could we go back to be killed?
WATSON: Kalid stands on a street corner in a neighborhood that's packed with Iraqi exiles like Sadd Yusef(ph), a Christian dentist who fled the violence in Baghdad with his family more than a year ago. Yusef bristles at the suggestion that Iraq has gotten better since elections were held last January.
Mr. SADD YUSEF: (Through Translator) Our situation is getting worse.
WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News.
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