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Syria - Iraqi Refugee Crisis -

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Syria - Iraqi Refugees

Broadcast: 22/10/2007

Reporter: Matt Brown


BROWN: [Introduction] Hello I'm Matt Brown. I'm on the border between Iraq and Syria. By any
measure this is a God forsaken place, but for 1.4 million Iraqis, it's also been a crucial gateway
to relative safety. Understandably, very few of them ever want to go home but Syria is now at
breaking point.

They've come through Iraq's deadly Anbar Province, down the long road from Baghdad.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: It breaks my heart. I forced to leave my home, leave my country.

BROWN: Every refugee has a story about the mess that Iraq has become and in some cases, we've
changed their names due to security concerns. Many have endured death threats. Around a quarter of
the Iraqis fleeing to Syria say they've been tortured or otherwise abused.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: They kidnapped me from the main road, four cars attacking me and take me as a
hostage. And I find out after I've been released, that my family have to pay fifty thousand
American dollar in money to release me for my life as a ransom and one condition, that I have to
leave Iraq or I will be killed. From the first moment I recognise that I will never return home.

BROWN: The route is never safe. The transport is rarely reliable and yet a growing number of Iraqis
have left behind all they know.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: The Iraqi civilisation is so old, more than three thousand years but now they
want to destroy it.

BROWN: Kadija um Hassan was forced to flee Iraq. Shiite militiamen threatened to kill her because
she worked for an American funded community welfare centre.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: After that I figured out that life is so hard here, so hard and if I want to
survive with dignity for my children I have to work.

BROWN: In Damascus she's taken to her cause once more, seeking out the needy and the sick - and
they are not hard to find. Um Randa is caring for three children on her own.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: How old is she?

UM RANDA: She's four and a half.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: [Sitting with girl on couch] Oh my God, what a bride!

BROWN: Um Randa's husband is in hiding.

UM RANDA: Last year in December five of my husband's family were killed in the street by a suicide
car bomb.


UM RANDA: It was al Qaeda terrorists.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: What did you do to them?

UM RANDA: We didn't do anything to them. It was just because of the sectarianism there is now in

BROWN: Kadija um Hassan is at the heart of a loose community network. Others have been called on
for advice and medicine and Kadija gathers basic supplies for the needy. At least seven hundred
thousand Iraqis have fled to Syria this year alone. More than two thousand people left Iraq and
crossed the border every day.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: So many cases. So many poor people out of money. What percentage of people can
depend on this help? I think nothing.

BROWN: There are so many Iraqis in Damascus these days that the taxi drivers know the streets in
some parts by Iraqi names. The newcomers are concentrated in a low-rise concrete jungle on the
outskirts of town. Ninety per cent of the Iraqis here have been getting by without any form of aid.
Instead, they rely on each other.

Fatima Tammami has done her best to keep her children up to speed while they've been staying in
Damascus. This mother of two is still struggling to rebuild her life and put the memory of her
husband's murder behind her. She was a Shiite while he was a Sunni so he was targeted for
assassination by Shiite gunmen.

FATIMA TAMMAMI: Some barbaric people shot him - bullets all over his body... because he was Sunni.

BROWN: After the murder, her husband's relatives tried to abduct her children and Fatima was forced
to run.

FATIMA TAMMAMI: Believe me I honestly, I prefer to commit suicide with my children rather than to
return to Iraq because Iraq for me means death.

BROWN: It's a common tale in this town, one of grass roots ethnic cleansing. And Fatima has been
forced to hide from her husband's family who've been in Damascus looking for her.

FATIMA TAMMAMI: [Looking at photographs] This was during a wedding.

BROWN: Do you think there'll ever be a time again in Iraq where Sunni and Shiite...


BROWN: ... will get married like this?

FATIMA TAMMAMI: No. No of course not. Iraq damaged, declined. No more. Just finished. Iraq

BROWN: The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR and the local Red Crescent have been providing
food and medical aid to tens of thousands of Iraqis.

RED CRESCENT WORKER: It's not about Syrians or Iraqis - in the end we are all human. So I am so
proud that I can give these people some help.

BROWN: The UNHCR is being swamped. It can take months for an Iraqi to get an appointment, a make or
break chance to argue the case for asylum. The overwhelming majority believe they'll soon be
resettled in another country, but nearly all of them will be disappointed.

LAURENS JOLLES: [UNHCR] It's not going to make a big dent on the one and a half million people that
are here now.

BROWN: As the wait goes on, frustration and hopelessness grow hand in hand.

LAURENS JOLLES: They're no longer living in their own houses and they don't have a job that gives
them stability. They don't know what's going to happen in the future and that is very frustrating.

BROWN: It's not just the refugees who are frustrated.

FAISAL MIQDAD: [Deputy Foreign Minister, Syria] Imagine half a million refugees flood Australia in
a matter of four or five months, what the repercussions are going to be. We have a big problem.

BROWN: Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Miqdad, says Syria lacks the financial resources to
handle the crisis on its own.

FAISAL MIQDAD: They expected help from the international community, including from Australia has
not come despite the fact that Australia is involved in military operations and we hold, I mean
those countries as being responsible also for the consequences of their military actions in Iraq.

BROWN: Syria's calls for assistance are complicated by its rogue state status in the eyes of the
west, but there's no doubt the Iraqis flooding in are a major financial burden.

The government subsidises many basic goods like fuel and flour, so when these refugees prepare some
traditional fast food, they're costing the Syrian Government serious money.

The influx of new neighbours is affecting Syrian families as well. Rents and prices have all gone
up and the locals are feeling tense. The refugee crisis is testing a venerated tradition, Arab
hospitality. Syria usually offers an open door to its Arab neighbours.

Some of the best-known leaders in the Arab world used to gather here when they were young men. In
fact as a student, Saddam Hussein use to sip coffee at these very tables. They'd all talk about
politics of course and that meant maintaining solidarity across the Arab world. It was decades ago,
but Syria kept Arab solidarity as a guiding principle long after its neighbours let it fade away.
But now that commitment has been stretched to the limit.

FAISAL MIQDAD: Can you imagine a country whose population has increased more than ten per cent in
two, three years to continue shouldering its regular responsibilities towards its own population
and towards the refugees? It's impossible.

BROWN: It all came to a head in September. The Government announced it was all but closing the
border to Iraqi refugees. Those waiting outside the UN's registration centre in Damascus, grew ever
more desperate to have their refugee status confirmed.

IRAQI REFUGEE: They are moving people just according to their whim!

BROWN: The government says it is still committed to helping its Iraqi guests, but Syria is also
clearly prepared to use these people as a bargaining chip.

FAISAL MIQDAD: These alternatives may be painful for the Iraqis themselves so we have to pay
attention to this. Imagine if we sent back to Iraq one million and a half people who are not
satisfied with the United States policies or with its allies.

BROWN: The mosque of Saida Zeinab is one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam, in tribute to the
profit Mohammed's granddaughter. The numbers in the prayer hall have been swollen by Iraqis fleeing
the religious conflict at home. On the surface it looks peaceful enough, the Syrian Secret Police
are monitoring the community closely.

FAISAL MIQDAD: It's our hope that our Iraqi brothers do not bring with them the troubles that are
taking place in their mother country.

BROWN: But it is already too late. Many refugees are still in danger from the very people they
fled. Several told us they've received death threats while in Damascus. One of them worked as an
interpreter for British and Australian troops in Southern Iraq and he's requested anonymity. He
says the Iraqi militias operate freely in Damascus.

EX INTERPRETER: They have some spies, some of them ex-Baathists, and some of them militia.

BROWN: He fled Iraq after militiamen kidnapped and tortured him because he supported the foreign
forces. Before he left, he got a token of appreciation for his work with the Australian team.

EX INTERPRETER: They are very kind people. Always they support me and they try to help me but they
have no authorisation to help me.

BROWN: But his effort to get the British Government to pluck him from danger in Damascus has so far
been a losing battle.

EX INTERPRETER: I feel that the British forces - or British government - use us like dogs, use our
flesh and our meat and throw our bones to the dogs. It's unfair.

BROWN: They're not safe where they are and they can't go back and the majority of Iraqis in Syria
expect those who invaded their country to offer them refuge. Kadija received a death threat after
she was overhead speaking English on a mobile phone in a cafe.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: I was so scared, so shocked because I thought I am in the safest place in the
whole world.

BROWN: The strong will continue to brave the dangers and help the weak.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: Nobody can stop me. Nobody. I love my work. I love helping people. I do nothing
wrong. I believe in what I'm doing so I will continue it.

BROWN: But it's a heavy load to bear.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: Take care, the Iraqi woman is in danger. Now the Iraqi woman is the father, the
mother, the sister, the friend of the whole family, of her own family but who will support her? Who
will come and stay beside her? Who will push her in the right way? Nobody. She's alone.

BROWN: The future of the refugees isn't all that's at stake because their future is intertwined
with the future of their nation and Iraq has suffered a massive brain drain.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: It's destroying Iraq. The doctors, the engineers, the educated people, the
academic people, they just left. Who will have this community together? Who will teach? Who will

BROWN: Hundreds of thousand of Iraqi children are missing out on an education, but Syria has
squeezed tens of thousands into its schools. It's now running classes in two shifts a day. Kadija's
children have made it in. So much about their lives is uncertain, but Kadija can still see hope.

KADIJA UM HASSAN: We have to make this generation ready to rebuild their own country because it is
their future.