As conflict rages in Iraq and Syria, the ‘hidden people’ suffer in silence

Taylor Luck
Without legal representatives, advocates or even a voice within their homeland or abroad, one minority group has silently borne the brunt of the aggressions and abuses of both government and rebel militias in Iraq and Syria.

Kurds, Christians, Turkmen and even Yazidis can lay claim to the title of most vulnerable population in Iraq and Syria, but others argue that distinction belongs to the Dom – the most at-risk people the international community has never heard of.

Dom communities – known colloquially as gypsy, nawar or travelling people – trace their presence in the Middle East to their arrival from India during the 11th century. With communities stretching from Iraq to Egypt, they have long provided major contributions to music, literature and even fashion across the Middle East.

Numbering some 200,000 across the region – including 75,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq – the Dom community accounts for a reasonable segment of the Arab world.

Yet due to their nomadic nature and Indo-Aryan language, the Dom community has been denied political representation, access to jobs and even citizenship across the region.

As Syria and Iraq fall further into conflict, those political and social barriers have become de facto death sentences.

Despite ideological, personal and political difference, warring militias have all agreed on one thing: there is no future left for the Dom community in Iraq or Syria.

They have reportedly emerged as a favoured target for rebel militias in Syria and jihadists in Iraq who prey on the community’s lack of arms and organisation and carry out regular raids of their remote settlements.

According to Syrian Dom leaders, more than 50,000 of their number have fled into neighbouring Jordan and Turkey, while 10,000 Iraqi Dom have sought safety in northern Kurdistan.

Iraq’s Dom communities have been placed atop the list of non-believers targeted by ISIL.

Those without personal documents have been prevented from crossing into neighbouring Jordan and Turkey as authorities tighten border security, reportedly leaving several thousand Dom communities stranded in warzones along Syria’s frontiers.

Those who have managed to flee Islamist militias and cross the Jordanian and Turkish borders have fared little better.

The bulk of the Syrian Dom community have existed for years without personal identification, passports or even birth certificates. But, as conflict has intensified in Iraq and Syria, thousands of document-less people have been caught up in bureaucratic red tape and prevented from registering with international aid agencies to receive aid and cash assistance.

With many denied access to UN-run camps in Jordan, hundreds of refugees have erected dozens of “shantytowns”, creating makeshift camps of canvas and cinder blocks in the desert suburbs of Amman and in the Jordan valley.

Far from the reach of the dozens of humanitarian agencies active in Amman and in UN camps, many of these refugees have been left for over a year without basic aid and have, almost inevitably, fallen into criminal activity.

Those who have integrated within the Syrian community both at home and abroad say they remain “hidden,” concealing their true identity and passing themselves off as Kurds, Turkmen or Sunni Bedouins.

Forced integration and abandonment of their culture has posed a fresh crisis to the Dom, whose Domari language is listed as “severely endangered” by Unesco and whose culture is likely to be rendered a relic of the past.

Yet despite being forced from their homelands, there has been no great public outcry.

Dom communities in Jordan and Turkey have proven unable to help their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts, as they also suffer from the “gypsy” stigma and are embroiled in their own struggle for greater civil rights.

Instead Dom communities are, as Jordanian Dom leader Fathi Moussa puts it, “suffering in silence”, quietly enduring the weeks and days as one of the oldest communities in Syria and Iraq inches closer to potential demise.

In spite of their silence, the loss of the Dom community would be one that would echo throughout Syria, Iraq and the greater Middle East.

Taylor Luck is an Amman-based political analyst and journalist