MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Human rights groups are calling it a silent crisis. Millions of Iraqis have fled their country to get away from the violence there. Their plight does not get much attention. There are no big funds drives. Iraqi exiles don't live in refugee camps. Most aren't starving. But their numbers are astonishing. Two million Iraqis have fled to Jordan and Syria, 30,000 more flee every month.
NPR's Deborah Amos sent this report from Syria, where a million and a half Iraqis now live.
DEBORAH AMOS: In this neighborhood south of Damascus, almost everyone is Iraqi. They ran for the safety of the only border still open to them: Syria. But this sound is a reminder of the uncertainty of their lives, a sound that produces deep anxiety about how much longer they can hold out and what happens when they can't.
Haddu(ph) means border. This is an advertisement for an organized bus service. The Syrian government now requires Iraqis to leave the country every three months, a regulation that seems designed to address growing Syrian resentments, to demonstrate that the Syrian government controls the border and those who cross it. For Iraqis, it is a hot, dusty and expensive 12-hour roundtrip to the Syrian-Iraqi border to get their passports stamped again.
Leith Imad Adeen, who arrived a few weeks ago, says Syria is safer than Iraq, but it's a tough place to live.
Mr. LEITH IMAD ADEEN (Iraqi immigrant): (Through translator) Finding a house -we are all here jobless, and it's hard to deal with the Syrian people nowadays.
AMOS: A few doors down from the bus office, another agency offers aid to Iraqis struggling far from home. But it is aid that's also an organizing tool for Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who plays a powerful role in Baghdad politics. Sadr has recently opened an office here in the heart of the Iraqi exile community.
Prayer rugs cover the floor. A creaking fan barely moves the thick air. Sheikh Radi al-Qademi, a cleric in a turban and black robes, is Sadr's representative in Syria. He says his orders come from Sadr - not from the Iraqi government.
Sheikh RADI AL-QADEMI (Sadr's Representative in Syria): (Through translator) We have no relation at all with governmental work, and we have nothing to do with this.
AMOS: Qademi says the Sadr organization pays medical bills for poor Iraqis, performs sharia marriages - religious ones - helps those who want to register as refugees.
Sheikh AL-QADEMI: (Through translator) We look after the large number of Iraqis, trying to solve their problems, sometimes help them. We are trying to offer them the best we could to help them relieving their situation.
AMOS: But many Iraqis say Sadr has another agenda in this large exile community - exporting the sectarian divide that is now tearing Iraq apart. Sunnis are discouraged from living in this predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Damascus, say Iraqis. Shiite businessmen are warned to sever ties with Sunnis. But Qademi dismisses the accusations.
Sheikh AL-QADEMI: (Through translator) Many of our brother Sunnis come to here and we help them. This ethnic split, troubles in Iraq have been created by the occupation.
AMOS: Sadr isn't the only one organizing in Damascus. If Sadr is hard politics, this is a softer version. At midnight, a television technician sets the lights for an all-night production in a Damascus ballroom. Iraqi actors in costume mill around before the action starts. These are Iraq's most famous faces, actors in exile, who are taping a television series for a channel banned in Baghdad by the Iraqi government, but that still beams into the country by satellite.
Actress Maize Gomar, in a very short, very tight military uniform, plays a government minister in the production.
Ms. MAIZE GOMAR (Actress): (Through translator) It's called the "News of the Country."
(Soundbite of laughter)
AMOS: And it's a comedy?
Ms. GOMAR: Comedy.
Mr. AHMAD SHUKRY AL-AKEEDY (Director): (Through translator) The news of home, a black comedy.
AMOS: That last voice is director Ahmad Shukry al-Akeedy. He explains the television series is a savage satire, designed to further increase Iraqi resentment of the government. The plot, he says, involves ministers who know nothing about politics and everything about corruption. It will be broadcast during Ramadan, the month of religious fasting that is primetime television viewing - 30 episodes of ridicule, he says.
Mr. AL-AKEEDY: (Through translator) Ridicule and ridicule and ridicule. Because of this government, I lost my brother.
AMOS: Al-Akeedy's eyes well up. His voice catches, recalling the details.
Mr. AL-AKEEDY: (Through translator) He was an Iraqi officer who was killed in front of his wife and his kid. So how do we not ridicule them?
AMOS: Al-Akeedy turned to listen to the music, while Iraqi dancers practice their routine. Even in this troupe of comic actors, there's enough tragedy for a lifetime. Every Iraqi exile has a similar story.
Many here say they've concluded they're not going home anytime soon, so another kind of organizing has begun - smuggling, human smuggling. The preferred destination is Sweden. It's impossible to confirm the numbers, but many Iraqis here say as their desperation grows, so does the smuggling business. It is a gamble, says Leith Imad Adeen, but one that seems worth taking, a way to move on from Syria as the war in Iraq drags on.
Mr. ADEEN: (Through translator) First, it's quicker. Second, we hadn't seen anybody who had signed up for this refugee thing and that's been taken
AMOS: You're ready, you're ready to try?
Mr. ADEEN: Ready. Yes - so many smugglers.
AMOS: Imad Adeen is willing to risk his lifesavings for a chance to start a new life anywhere else.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
BLOCK: The United Nations refugee agency has invited Iraqi artists in exile in Syria to share their music. You can hear some of it at npr.org.
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