Iraq refugees chased from home, struggle to cope

From Arwa Damon
KASTAMONU, Turkey (CNN) — The phone calls were chilling. The voice on the end always delivering the same message: Don’t work with the foreigners.

Gorges Toma, an Iraqi electrician who worked with Western contractors, did what he was told and stopped working. But it did little to help save his brother whose charred body was found in his car. “Right after I stopped [working], they killed my brother,” Toma says.

He sold his car and anything else of value and moved his family of nine to Turkey, where they remain more than two and a half years later. (Watch family eat on floor in cramped quarters)

The Toma family is among the growing refugee population to have fled Iraq since the war began in March 2003. According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 2.2 million Iraqis have sought refuge in neighboring countries, most of them in Syria and Jordan. Another two million Iraqis have been displaced inside their own country, according to UNHCR. (Iraq drives up refugee count)

In Turkey, there are an estimated 10,000 Iraqi refugees. The Toma family, from Mosul, Iraq, are now living in Kastamonu, a picturesque northern Turkish city nestled in foothills near an ancient castle.

They expected to only be here for a few months. But months turned into years of waiting.

“We just want to get out of here. We have no money, nothing. God is kind, we just want to get out,” says the family matriarch, 77-year-old Isin Yelda.

“They killed my son,” she says, weeping as she clutches a childhood photo of her son who drove water trucks for the U.S. military.

When the Tomas left Iraq on December 10, 2004, they spent three months in Istanbul, Turkey, where they say they felt welcomed by just about everyone. But the Turkish government places refugees like the Toma family, who are waiting to be resettled, in 21 locations outside of the country’s major cities.

And so they ended up here, in this small Muslim city of 60,000 without a church. The Tomas are Christians.

‘We are barely getting by’
Assimilating to life in Kastamonu has proven extremely difficult. So difficult, that the family’s oldest daughter, Sura, 25, chose to return to Iraq to a convent.

“I miss my sister,” 11-year-old Raghad says, breaking down in tears in their cramped two-room home.

Her mother, also sobbing, tries to comfort her.

Gorges Toma explains that it was just too hard for his oldest daughter to stay — not able to speak the language, not feeling accepted, and being confined.

“She prefers the hell that is Iraq than Turkey. That was the psychological impact of this place on her,” he says.

Leaving the town without permission is illegal. Every day, with no exception, all members of the Toma family over the age of 18 must report to local authorities. So each day, they head to the police station to sign next to their names.

Under Turkish law, they also cannot legally work.

“We are barely getting by,” says Toma.

The family is able to make ends meet with the help of relatives and others chipping in.

“How am I going to pay off this debt?” the father asks.

“We’re able to get odd jobs once in a while, but sometimes we work, and then they don’t even pay us.”

They all say they never imagined that after leaving Iraq, life would continue to be just as hard, but for different reasons.

“I have to get out [of Turkey],” says 27-year-old Salwan Toma. “I have no desire to go back to Iraq, but here, it’s almost like a prison. I want stability, a house, car. I want to get married, to have a life.”

He spends most of his time at an Internet cafe chatting online with friends. He just found out that a friend of his was killed in Mosul in a drive-by shooting at a church.

Family accepted into U.S.
The life they call a nightmare might be coming to an end. The family has been notified that they will be resettled in the United States, and they are just waiting to complete the final steps. But they remain anxious until they get that final phone call.

“I don’t really have dreams anymore,” says Gorges Toma’s wife, Selwa.

“America — it will be better than here.”

If they do make it to America, they will be one of the few Iraq refugees. According to the U.S. State Department, 701 Iraqi refugees have been allowed into the United States since April 2003. The U.S. government has pledged to let in 7,000 Iraqis this year.

The UNHCR says of the ten thousand Iraqis in Turkey, 556 cases have been accepted to go to the United States.

“Whatever is in America,” Toma says, “it will be a thousand times better than what we had in Iraq or Turkey because there are work opportunities. There is no discrimination, no hatred.”