In Syrian Refuge, Women Find Barest Survival

soguel-refugee-3698.jpgBy Dominique Soguel
WeNews correspondent
Suburbs of Damascus offer a place to explore how Iraqi female refugees in Syria are managing to feed their children. Women whose husbands are dead, missing or disabled describe turning to low-income jobs, international aid and sex work.

DAMASCUS, Syria (WOMENSENEWS)–Iman Mohamed Ali once took care of six living children and an orphaned niece.

In 2007 she lost two sons in a neighborhood wave of militia violence against Iraqis suspected of cooperating with Americans.

In March Ra’ed Al Kerari, her eldest, was abducted, his body never found. Four months later, the body of her second-oldest son, Mohamed Al Kerari, showed up in a pile of garbage in Al Dawra, Baghdad.

An axed back, twisted arms, burnt skin and bones drilled with metal pipes was all that remained.

“There was no facial feature to recognize,” she said. “I just recognized his shorts; 2007 was the darkest year of my life.”

When her husband disappeared a month ago, she didn’t hesitate to flee Iraq with Biras, her single remaining 13-year-old son. One daughter, a war widow like herself, joined her. Two other daughters stayed behind.

The mother and daughter crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border on a transit visa to India. But their real destination was Damascus.

Scraping by to Survive
In a series of interviews with Iraqi refugees in Jaramana, a predominantly Sunni and Christian suburb of Damascus, and Sayyida Zaynab, a primarily Shiite suburb, Women’s eNews spoke with women barely eking out a living from low-income jobs, international aid and sex work. Women such as Mohamed Ali, whose husbands are dead, missing or disabled, were hit the hardest.

Over 2 million Iraqi refugees are estimated to live in Iraq’s neighboring countries, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At least half now live in Syria.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Syria at first was the sole country in the region to receive Iraqi refugees without restrictions. Unable to handle the large influx of over 1 million Iraqis, Syria began requiring visas in October 2007. That slowed the influx of new refugees such as Mohamed Ali, but many still manage to find their way.

Meanwhile, about 50,000 returned home between mid-September 2007 and 2008, according to the humanitarian group Iraqi Red Crescent Organization.

Mohamed Ali spent the first two weeks of July house-hopping in Jaramana. A much anticipated visit for assistance to the U.N. refugee agency resulted in an appointment for Oct. 7, 2008, 7:30 a.m. Until a proper needs assessment is conducted, she has no aid.

On July 17, Mohamed Ali headed back to Iraq to sell her furniture, hoping to return to Syria with enough savings to survive a few months until she finds work, confident she will be able to cross the border again in time for her October meeting.

In a July 2008 report the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, that analyzes conflict prevention and resolution, criticized the United States and Iraqi governments for not offering enough support to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The majority of Iraqis in Syria live in small, overcrowded apartments paid out of savings. Iraqis with children in the Syrian school system or with relatives who need medical care receive temporary residence permits that allow them to travel between Iraq and Syria. But Mohamed Ali doesn’t have one.

Fleeing Threats and Violence
Bushra Youssef, a 40-year-old Christian woman from Karada, Baghdad, has been in Syria for almost a year.

In June 2006, her husband, a taxi driver, left home one morning. Neither his body nor car turned up. A few months later, Youssef says she received a text message threatening her life because she worked at Camp Phoenix, a U.S. military base in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The note, as she remembered it, read: “To the big devil Bushra. Stop working for the Americans or you will be killed and death will be your ally.”

After working for three foreign companies during the first three years of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, Youssef had earned enough money to reach Damascus last July with $4,000.

She and her 15-year-old son were able to survive for seven months. Now Youssef works as a nanny in a private home and lives in a one-bedroom apartment. Her income, she says, is not enough. She has sold all her furniture but a floor mattress and simple couch. Having also sold her refrigerator, she buys pre-cooked food and uses bags of ice to preserve perishables in Syria’s dry summer heat, which can climb up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ibtissam Mayyas Qassim, 35, arrived in Damascus also in July, a year ago. In Dayala, ibtissam-mayyas-qassim-3698.jpgIraq, she left behind marketplaces where women cloaked by their niqabs killed with daggers and suicide belts and bearded Islamists preached that “masculine” cucumbers and “feminine” tomatoes should be segregated into separate shopping bags.

“Our experience was very difficult and very bitter,” she said. “It was just normal to see three to six corpses on your way to school, work or the market. Thank God we are still alive.”

Safe, But Hungry
In Syria, she has found safety and a monthly U.N. ration card from that includes rice, sugar, lentils, oil, bulgar wheat, pasta and detergent. It is not enough. Jobless, she sits at home every day, watching over her three children and disabled husband. A reserved Shiite woman, she lets her husband do most of the talking, interrupting him only to add details.

Her husband, Abu Mustafa Mayyaz Bizari, who has poor vision and back problems, tries to pay the $130 rent for their two-bedroom apartment through odd jobs in masonry.

Abdullah, the youngest of her three children, is almost 4. He has chronic diarrhea. Doctors at the Syrian Red Crescent warn that he is underweight. But over the last year, the family was only once able to afford NIDO, a dietary supplement for children that sells for less than $10 at the local market.

Another female refugee, Sajida Baha Al Deen, is from Mansour, Baghdad, and has been in Damascus for 16 months. She turned to sex work to provide for herself and her two children.

“What matters is that I am still standing on my feet,” she said after a short storm of tears came and went. “Something in your soul gets numb.”

One year after her husband’s death, Shiite militias sprayed her hairdressing salon with bullets and looted the remains. In September 2006, at 2 a.m., 12 masked men barged through her bedroom door threatening to end her life and that of her two Sunni-named boys, Bakar, now age 9, and Omar, age 10, because her husband was an American collaborating traitor.

“I could just see their weapons and their eyes,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking of anything but my kids.”

All 12 men, she said, raped her. They left the house at 4 a.m. after forcing her to stamp and sign documents selling her house and car to one of the rapists. Assisted by a friend, Baha Al Deen fled to Syria.

After two failed attempts to work at Syrian hairdressing salons and a winter that hit her children with the chicken pox, she turned to prostitution for survival.

“I don’t think there is a solution for me,” she said. “I consider poisoning the food of my kids and taking my life. We talk to people. There is no help.”

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.