U.N. estimates 2 million people left Iraq

200900.jpgTina Wolfe THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Steven plays with a toy phone on a sheetless mattress in a tiny room of bare, chipped walls. The 4-year-old’s mother, Nada, looks on while holding his restless younger sister in her arms.

Photographs by David Xavier/Special to The Washington Times Many Iraqi refugee families end up in Beirut’s Al Fanar district, where they live in poverty and with the help of groups such as Caritas, a Catholic charity.

They arrived in Beirut earlier this month from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after receiving a death threat by telephone.

Caritas, a Catholic charity, registers an average of five new families each week in Lebanon. More than 200 Iraqi families have arrived since a violent anti-Christian campaign began in the Mosul last October

Most of the fleeing families received text messages or phone calls ordering them to leave their homes or be killed.

Six years after the U.S.-led invasion, a continuing refugee crisis belies reports of falling violence and improved public safety in some Iraqi neighborhoods.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), estimates that more than 4.5 million Iraqis have been uprooted by the conflict, creating the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the founding of Israel in 1948.

Matta (left) waits for his sister to register at the Caritas center, a Catholic charity, on her arrival in Beirut from Mosul, Iraq, which she fled on fear for her life, like Naima and Najet (above) who fled Mosul with their family after their eldest son was kidnapped. Four-year-old Steven (right) plays in the tiny one-room apartment he shares with his sister and mother.

About 2.5 million are displaced within Iraq, while more than 2 million have taken refuge in neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan. Of those, the UNHCR estimates that Lebanon hosts about 30,000, nearly a third of them Christians.

A hard life

Nada, who like other refugees interviewed for this article asked that her last name be withheld for fear relatives in Iraq would be killed, pays $125 per month for the tiny room. Even by Lebanese standards the rent is enormous. Four mattresses cover the floor, leaving room for two huge suitcases overflowing with clothes.
There are no cupboards, chairs or tables, or family photos on display. They share a bathroom with another refugee family, and a tiny kitchen, where two pots steam on a gas cooker. It is the only appliance that Nada has been able to buy with a $50 coupon donated by Caritas.

“I buy rice and potatoes, that´s what we´ve been eating since we came,” she says, desperation written all over her face.

Sined El Bouchrieh, a predominantly Christian district in Beirut, has become a sanctuary for Chaldean Christians fleeing Iraq.

There are nearby schools, food stores and an Internet cafe, where a sign announces that a 3-minute phone call to Iraq costs 75 cents.

Despite the harsh living conditions, refugees overwhelmingly say they will not return to Iraq. They have sold everything they owned and are hoping to be resettled in third countries, especially the United States.

In 2008, 1,143 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon were resettled to the U.S., a number that is expected to more than double to 2,500 this year, says Laure Chedrawi of the UNHCR.

By 10 a.m., the main hall of the Caritas field office, one of six spread across Lebanon to serve Iraqi refugees, is teeming with women and children waiting to meet with a social worker.

Matta, 38, walks in with his newly arrived sister. She fled Mosul and refuses to have her photograph taken for fear of being recognized and endangering her loved ones left behind. She has come to register at the Caritas center and to take blankets, a gas heater and sanitary supplies.

Matta arrived six months ago with his wife, who is now three months pregnant. He managed to find work as a cameraman at a TV station and earns $400 a month, which he says is not enough to cover their basic needs.

His Lebanese visa expired three months ago and he lives in fear of being deported or detained. His wife, who used to work at a university in Iraq, rarely leaves the house.

Despite reports of some Iraqis returning home, no clear mechanism exists to track their numbers. Moreover, U.N. and other refugee officials say that a massive cross-border return is unlikely anytime soon because most still fear persecution, have exhausted their resources and lack means to pick up where they left off in their pre-war communities.

Legal limbo

As a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Lebanon has no domestic refugee law and does not recognize the status of Iraqis, not even those registered with the UNHCR. Once their visas expire, Iraqis are treated as illegal immigrants and if caught by the authorities, they risk arrest.

Most Iraqi refugees aren’t legally allowed to work in Lebanon, and those who do usually work in an underground economy – taking jobs in construction, in food markets or factories and earning less than $200 a month. It’s not enough to pay for rent, food, utilities and schooling for their children.

This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers and landlords. “You go to the market and you see something you want to buy for $7 and think it´s expensive. But if you try to negotiate [the price], the vendor says he will report you to the police,” Matta said.

Earlier this month, the Lebanese government granted a three-month amnesty for all foreigners, including Iraqis, to legalize their status in the country with a residency and work permit.

But it comes at a high price. Iraqis need to pay a minimum of $1,000 to legalize their status, and their employer must sponsor them with a $1,000 deposit in the bank – investments that most Iraqis can´t afford and few Lebanese employers are willing to make.

Isabel Saade Feghali, Caritas´ deputy manager, said that many Iraqis come in desperate need of medical assistance.

“We have many cases with chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, heart [problems] and asthma,” she said.

Najma, 51, was recently diagnosed with throat cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. So far, her treatment has cost Caritas more than $10,000. She and her husband, Najet, fled Iraq with seven of their eight children.

It was the kidnapping of their 24-year-old son that finally pushed the family to leave home in Mosul last May for an uncertain life as refugees. They sold a prosperous beauty-salon business to help pay expenses, which included plane tickets and a $2,000 deposit per person required to enter Lebanon legally. That was in addition to a ransom of $9,000 for the son’s release.

While leaving their apartment, Najma, who can hardly talk because of her condition, asks whether I could help speed up their resettlement. They hope to go to California, where her husband, Najet, has four brothers.