Cover Story

Stalked

"Stalked" Continued...

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

The problem is most evident in Syria, where approximately 350,000 Iraqi Christians out of over 1.2 million total Iraqi refugees currently live. The Syrian border is only 80 miles from Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city with at one time a sizeable Christian population. Christians in recent decades made up about 4 percent of Iraq's general population, but according to church leaders in Syria they make up over 30 percent of its Iraqi refugee population.

That's not reflected in the official tally of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where 14 percent of active Iraqi refugee cases across five countries are listed as Christians while over three-fourths are Muslims. Church leaders in Syria contend that locally hired UNHCR case officers, who are predominantly Muslim, routinely reject Christian applicants. UN officials deny that, but case officers who routinely refer Muslim applicants to Muslim help groups do not give Christian applicants church-based contacts. Case officers also do not tell Christians that if they have relatives living in the United States they may apply directly to the U.S. embassy for asylum. Even most church leaders in Syria, when asked, were not aware of that provision.

The Syrian government permits Iraqi passport holders to enter with a visa but does not allow them to hold jobs that could go to Syrians. Syria has no public assistance available for health care, schooling, or the legal services needed to file for refugee status. Syria also will not accept Iraqis as permanent residents. "We are suffering too much and there is no help," said Raad Noori Yousif from Mosul. He and his family came to Syria over a year ago after his 19-year-old son was kidnapped and released. He sold his home to pay $20,000 in ransom, but a week later militants demanded more money. In Syria, Yousif said, "we get help from the UN or from churches, but not much."

In Damascus Iraqis have taken over parts of Jaramana, an urban enclave close to Old City walls where the apostle Paul was lowered in a basket to escape Jews who wanted to kill him. Then, the dusty streets were wide enough only for two camels to pass; today, five-story buildings closely line those same streets, and cars jockey to squeeze by one another. On one corner an Iraqi changes money for evening shoppers, quickly folding thick wads of Iraqi dinars and Syrian pounds into baggy pants pockets. Behind him another Iraqi tosses dough for flat bread into the air, crouching then throwing it inside his street-front bakery.

It's all part of the informal economy springing up among the refugees: They barter with one another as money-changers, barbers, or bakers but cannot integrate their trades into Syrian communities. In that sense it's fitting that the nearly 500,000 Iraqis who pack the close streets of Jaramana have renamed the area Fallujah Place. In crowded walk-up apartments of not more than two bedrooms along what's now called Tikrit Street, extended families of a dozen or more make temporary homes and subsistence livings however they can.

Water comes only once a week in this part of Jaramana, according to Abu Zaid, who arrived in the city 14 months ago and used to own a supermarket in Baghdad. The water supply, always short in late summer, is tapped out by the bulging refugee population. Zaid says some Muslim families have returned to Baghdad, but Christian Iraqis aren't going back; in fact, many are still leaving. Zaid, his wife, and youngest son drove to the Syrian border after militants killed an older son and kidnapped his brother-in-law. The family eventually paid a $30,000 ransom for the brother-in-law's release.

Zaid's extended family remains far-flung: Some family members are in northern Iraq, and two of Zaid's brothers have resettled, one in Detroit and one in Canada. Through Lutheran Social Services, a private refugee resettlement agency that contracts with the U.S. government, Zaid hopes to emigrate, but he believes it will take "at least two years."

In the meantime, most Iraqi refugees say they have been welcomed at existing churches or have formed small fellowships on their own. At least one Baptist church has sprung up in Jaramana: A pastor from Baghdad, himself a refugee, leads in worship about 125 Iraqis who meet in a basement on Sunday evenings.

Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city at 3 million residents, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. In 1915 it became a sanctuary for Armenians escaping the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks: Many Armenians walked across the mountains of southeastern Turkey to avoid the massacres, arriving in Aleppo naked and penniless, and the Armenian population in Aleppo between the world wars swelled from about 300 families to over 400,000. The massacres also drove other Christian communities from Turkey to Aleppo.

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