Foreign Wars

Iraq’s Invisible Refugees

Hardship and trauma mark the lives of 2 million Iraqis — more than a sixth of the population — forced into exile since the American invasion in 2003.
In Damascus, a woman weeps as she describes her family's daily life since they fled Iraq. | Credit: ANN JONES

On May 6, 2007, two men in black visited the Baghdad house Imad shared with his parents and younger sister. It stood in a mixed neighborhood where, for as long as Imad can remember, Sunni and Shiite Muslim families lived side by side with Christian and Sabaean Mandaean families like his own. The visitors invited Imad's father to the neighborhood mosque to become a Muslim. If he failed to do so within three days, they said, he would be killed.

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The family stayed indoors for five days, not knowing even if the visitors and the mosque were Sunni or Shiite. Such things had never mattered before. Then Imad's father, daring to carry on with life, went with his daughter to the market to buy food. Three masked men were waiting for him in a car. He told the girl to run. She heard the shots that killed her father. After the funeral, Imad left for Syria to find refuge. The family, including Imad's older brother, his wife and two young children, reunited in Damascus within days.

Imad had found them an apartment in Jaramana, a run-down section of the city attractive to Iraqis for its relatively cheap rents. Like their father, Imad and his brother had been goldsmiths, a traditional occupation of Sabaean Mandaeans. In Baghdad, it was a very good living. In Damascus, they spent their savings, thinking they would soon be able to go home. The Americans had embarked on “A New Way Forward,” a strategy to restore order to Baghdad with a surge of 28,000 soldiers: one brigade in January 2007; another in February, when Operation Enforcing the Law was launched; and another in March. In April a fourth brigade was deployed to Diyala. By the time the fifth and final brigade arrived in Baghdad in May to complete the surge, Imad's father was dead and his family in exile, counting themselves among 2 million Iraqis who had fled the country and part of the estimated 4.7 million — 17 percent of the population — uprooted from their homes since the American invasion in 2003. When Imad and his family arrived in Syria, there were almost a million Iraqis in Damascus alone, and more were coming every day.

Like most Iraqi refugees, Imad keeps in touch by cellphone and e-mail with friends and relatives back home. I met Imad and his brother in a spartan storefront Internet shop in Jaramana, where he works illegally — refugees are not allowed to hold jobs in Syria, for fear they might be encouraged to stay — and where other Iraqis congregate to contact relatives still in Iraq. Everybody smokes: Gauloises, Gitanes, Marlboros. The density of the smoke registers the level of tension in the air. Yet every day I overheard Skype conversations full of laughter and good spirits. When a caller finished a seemingly cheery chat, I'd ask, “How are things in Baghdad?” The answer was always the same. “Things are terrible.” Callers listed the enduring problems: bad water, little electricity, no jobs, no medicine, cholera, explosions and unremitting random acts of violence. Everyone said something like, “Our relatives tell us not to come back. They want to come out. It is not secure.”

That was a year after Gen. David Petraeus reported to Congress in September 2007 that as a result of the surge, violence in Baghdad had been reduced significantly and that “fragile” and “reversible” improvements had been made. During that year, Petraeus's tentative “improvements” had so solidified into received wisdom that Senator John McCain, in the first debate of the presidential campaign, in September 2008, could say, “Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq.... There is social, economic progress, and a strategy of going into an area, clearing and holding, and the people of the country then become allied with you. They inform on the bad guys. And peace comes to the country, and prosperity. That's what's happening in Iraq.”

Eventually, under intense pressure to accept the official story, even Obama said the surge had succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams.” But the dreams of Iraqis are something else. Maybe from where Petraeus sat in Baghdad, or McCain in Washington, things looked good. But I sat at the edge of the occupation, in shabby neighborhoods in Damascus and Amman and Beirut, listening in places like that smoke-filled Internet shop to Iraqi refugees who had fled their beloved country before the surge and after. I lived among the refugees and interviewed dozens of them, their friends, their families and the aid workers and United Nations officials who try to help them. (To protect the refugees who confided in me, I've changed their names.) And from their vantage point, things didn't look good at all.

The flight of Iraqis began long before the American invasion. Iraqis fled Saddam Hussein's regime to escape political persecution or military service during the Iran-Iraq War. They fled the Gulf War and the suffering of the sanctions. Some of those refugees in exile nurtured sectarian agendas and, like Ahmad Chalabi, coached the 2003 invasion; 300,000 exiles returned in its aftermath, either voluntarily or because their standing as legal refugees from Saddam's persecution was revoked by host countries when the regime fell. But even as they returned, others left. Those with the most to lose led the way. Hundreds of doctors, academics, judges and lawyers were murdered; thousands of their colleagues left the country. The loss devastated Iraqi healthcare and education — formerly state-subsidized, first-class services — and hastened the death of law and order. According to a report issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), militias and criminal gangs targeted an array of Iraqis for many different reasons: for “their public status, (perceived) political views, sectarian identity, engagement in 'Western' activities or other alleged 'un-Islamic' behaviour, and perceived wealth.” As Iraq descended into chaos, life grew more difficult and dangerous. Analysts usually cite the bombing of the gold-domed Shiite mosque in Samarra in February 2006 as the event that turned random “sectarian violence” into “civil war.” Perhaps more important, it turned widespread flight into mass exodus.

Listen to Iraqi refugees, however, and “sectarian violence” and “civil war” seem like oversimplifications that don't cover what's gone on. Every refugee — every single one — has a story of loss and terror, a personal disaster that inspired flight. Yet as UNHCR reports, “the sheer number of actors actively engaged in violent activities in today's Iraq” makes it almost impossible for their victims to know who attacked them, or why. Many refugees scarcely know what hit them. They don't call it civil war. One explained: “Saddam used to be the bad boss. Now every gang in Iraq has a bad boss. Any Iraqi can be a little Saddam.” Saddam was notorious for wholesale extortion; he imprisoned citizens and solicited bribes for their release. In post-Saddam Iraq, kidnapping for ransom is everybody's game.

Othman, 28, came to the UNHCR office in Amman to talk with me. We sat together on the roof, looking out over the sun-washed city as he told his story. He said he was stopped by Iraqi police on February 10, 2006, as he was driving home from work with his father. They handcuffed him, hooded him, drove him to another location and handed him over to men he couldn't see. Someone lifted his hood, said, “That's the guy,” and knocked him out. He woke up hanging by his feet in an airless cell. He hung for three days; the pressure in his eyes blinded him. His captors — four or five unknown men — beat him with hoses, partially asphyxiated him and jolted him with electrodes attached to his fingers and penis. They phoned his father so he could hear Othman screaming. His father handed over $20,000 and the kidnappers threw Othman out, half dead, into a vacant lot, where a neighbor found him and dragged him from a circle of salivating feral dogs. While Othman was held captive, a Shiite militia seized his father's store, along with all the Sunni stores on their street in Sadr City, and shot several tradesmen who resisted. Three days after Othman was released, the whole family left for Jordan. For months, he was unable to leave his apartment in Amman and unable to sleep. He is still stunned by flashbacks, confused by memory lapses and haunted by the uncertainty of who snatched him — Iraqi police, Shiite militiamen, a criminal gang? — and why. Was the family targeted for their money and property? Their Sunni faith? What?

Sayed, 27, was kidnapped by the Mahdi Army in February 2006, held for a month, beaten and tortured. They broke his nose, his teeth, the bones of his eye socket. When I talked with him at a rehabilitation center for torture victims in Beirut, he couldn't speak of the other things they did to him but said that because they were done in the name of Islam, they had caused him to hate his religion. He was hauled before a Shiite sheik who sentenced him to death by beheading. His family delivered $10,000 for his release, and the kidnappers let him go. His is one of many stories in which money trumps sectarian fervor. Before they turned him loose, Sayed's captors cut off two fingers and the thumb of his left hand, marking him for execution if they catch him again.

The violence done by ordinary men to other ordinary men like Othman and Sayed devastates the victims. Men told me of being kidnapped as teenagers, beaten, confined without food or water and coerced to provide sexual gratification to their captors. They spoke without apparent feeling, having retreated behind some psychic barrier where safety lay. Although most men won't tell — “A raped man is not a man,” one said — UNHCR and its partners recorded 225 cases of sexual violence against men. Kifah was kidnapped at 19 and sexually coerced. Soon after, he was slightly wounded by a bomb that killed his best friend. Kifah fled to Amman and then, after learning that his parents and younger brother had gone missing, returned to Iraq to search for them. For two months he scoured hospitals and morgues but found no trace. Back in Amman, he says, “I can't shed tears. I can't feel anything anymore.” When the Americans invaded, he was studying to become a dentist.

No Iraqi family has been spared. Every Iraqi can name at least one lost relative — dead or disappeared. Most I spoke with had suffered multiple tragedies. Too poor or too damaged to leave after the first assault, they were struck again.

Hassan, a Shiite, was a driver for an oil company. His schoolteacher wife is Sunni and, as a condition of her state employment, a Baath Party member. When the Americans de-Baathified the country, she lost her job, a serious blow to a family with seven children. Hassan worked longer hours until he was kidnapped by unknown gunmen in March 2006 and held for forty-five days; torture left him partially paralyzed and unable to stand. In April, while Hassan was still a captive, seven armed men entered the family home, shot and killed the eldest son (age 16) and cut off his head. The unknown men remained in the house for seven hours, during which they forced the next oldest boys — 14-year-old twins — to hold their dead brother's body and his head. A month later, a group of unknown men entered a nearby school and forced the students to watch as they gang-raped their teachers. Among the students was Hassan's second daughter, Zahra, then 8. The men kidnapped Zahra and seven other girls, ages 7 and 8, held them in a windowless room, deprived them of food and forced them to watch as they gang-raped captive women. After about a week, the men set fire to the girls' hair, slit their throats and threw them onto a rubbish heap. Foreign soldiers spotted the girls' bodies and noticed that Zahra was still breathing. She was the sole survivor. Eight months later, in January 2007, unknown men for unknown reasons set a fire that consumed the family's house and belongings. Destitute and homeless, they managed to flee to Damascus, where they live in a one-room apartment. Hassan lies on a mat on the floor. His wife thinks of suicide. The children are afraid to go to school. Zahra always wears a tight knitted cap because her hair hurts.

As always in modern warfare, women and children suffer in the greatest numbers. UNHCR reports that about 70 percent of Iraqi refugees are women and children. Haifa Zangana, exiled to London after being imprisoned and tortured as a communist by Saddam's regime, reports inCity of Widows that by 2007 there were at least 300,000 widows in Baghdad. Today there are 3 million nationwide. Their husbands were men like Imad's father. UNICEF estimates that 50 percent of refugees are children. Most of them have been traumatized, like Hassan's children, by appalling events.

We'll never know how many thousands of women and girls have been raped. Rape is commonplace yet scarcely mentioned. For women rape is a shame that entitles men of the family to murder them in defense of “honor.” Of 4,516 cases of sexual violence in Iraq reported in Jordan, women were the victims in 4,233 cases; and for each reported case, there are countless others. So many women are full of sorrow because once-happy marriages did not survive the damage of rape. So many can't forget. I talked to women who were gang-raped — in some cases it went on for hours — and because their children were held hostage in the next room, they never made a sound.

In Damascus many Iraqi women and girls dance in nightclubs and leave in cars with men who pay them for sex. To call it “prostitution” implies a greater degree of choice than they have. “Survival sex” is more accurate. I met many sex workers in the clubs, in their apartments, at the neighborhood beauty shop and at the restaurant where they “socialize” with regular clients during the day. Many sex workers are single mothers, widowed or abandoned — some after having been raped — and desperately poor. They pay club owners for the privilege of sitting at a table night after night and buying bad food. They get up to dance woodenly to deafening music together with 10- and 12-year-old girls whose sad-faced mothers sit on a bench near the toilets, watching and waiting for sex tourists from the Emirates or Saudi Arabia to buy their daughters' virginity.

Sex work is dangerous enough to be almost suicidal. Zainab was beaten and gang-raped for two days, thrown from a car and left for dead by four men from the Gulf who were later sought by Syrian police for gang-raping a 13-year-old girl to death. (The police brought photos of the men to the beauty shops frequented by sex workers, and Zainab recognized them.) Zainab hadn't gone to the police. In Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, any refugee caught working at any job is subject to detention and deportation, and prostitution is a crime. Police often arrest sex workers and use the threat of deportation to extort money or sex; but generally the police seem to go easier on “respectable” women who work illegally — or at least that's what people believe. So in a great many refugee households, it's women who leave the house for work and necessary errands. They go out. The men stay at home, doing nothing, in small, bare apartments sometimes strikingly reminiscent of rooms where they were held and tortured. Men have lost house, land, livelihood, status — all that once identified them as men. Women take on a double burden — their husbands' tasks as well as their own. As the family sinks deeper into poverty and waiting becomes unbearable, men try to reclaim their sense of identity by reasserting control over their wives and children. Domestic violence sweeps through Iraqi refugee communities like cholera. A man afraid to go out and look for work keeps his wife at home too, as if forcing her to return to a woman's traditional role will restore the status and power he once enjoyed as a man. Having a wife at home shows that a man can support the family. But he can't. Amal, who had been a professor in Iraq and the sole support of her husband and four children during three years of exile, finally “surrendered” — after a year of increasing violence — to her husband. When I went to see her, she had abandoned her job with an international NGO that helps refugee women. The bruises on her face from the last beating had faded to yellow. There was no food in the apartment. The children were at home too, withdrawn from school for lack of money. They looked thin and depressed. “They are malnourished,” Amal said. “My daughter cries and cries. And me, I am now a 'good' wife. I am at home. I am dying here.”

A year after Imad and his family arrived in Damascus, they abandoned hope of going home to Iraq. General Petraeus had told Congress that the surge produced “improvements” in Baghdad in part because it deployed forces to protect Iraqi civilians. But friends left behind told a different story. The number of civilian casualties had increased — to more than 1,500 killed in July 2007 — and so had the number of unidentified Iraqi corpses found each day in Baghdad streets. The International Institute of Migration and the Red Crescent confirmed in August 2007 that the number of Iraqis fleeing the country had gone up with the onset of the surge. At the same time, formerly mixed neighborhoods became distinctly homogeneous. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the surge, which George W. Bush described in his 2007 State of the Union address as an effort to “help Iraqi forces to clear and secure neighborhoods,” had organized the chaotic criminal violence so many refugees describe into efficient ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Historian Juan Cole points out that during the surge, Baghdad's Shiite citizens somehow managed to increase their relative numbers from 65 percent to 75 percent of the population, turning Baghdad into a Shiite city, much like Tehran, in which Sunnis couldn't compete. As for minorities, an estimated 80 percent or more of Sabaean Mandaeans had fled the country by June 2008, when Imad and his family went to the UNHCR reception center in Damascus and registered as refugees. They hoped to be resettled in another country.

It's the job of UNHCR to protect refugees, but not even the most experienced specialists anticipated that the American invasion of Iraq would precipitate what UNHCR describes as “the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.” Iraqi refugees are largely invisible to the outside world because they are not crowded together in big blue-tented camps snapped by news photographers. Iraqi refugees are urbanized, educated people who — before the war, at least — had property, businesses, jobs and savings. Thousands went to Europe or beyond, but most slipped into neighboring countries — Syria, Jordan, Lebanon — where they rented apartments to wait for the war to end. They look like anybody else from the Middle East. They share a common language. To Western visitors, refugees are indistinguishable from local citizens. But their impact on the host countries, and on UNHCR, is huge.

Considering that none of Iraq's neighbors are rich, and that none of them are obliged by international treaties to protect refugees (as the United States is), they have been remarkably hospitable. Jordan, with a population of 6 million, accommodates half a million Iraqi refugees — equal to 8.5 percent of its population — in addition to the 400,000 Palestinians it has harbored for decades. Last year 25,000 Iraqi children enrolled in Jordanian schools. Before the war UNHCR had a staff of twenty-five in Jordan to provide financial support to 800 refugee families; now a staff of more than 140 supports 5,765 families and hopes to reach 8,000. Yet UNHCR is authorized to protect and support primarily those refugees who have officially registered with the agency. So far, in Jordan only about 55,000 have registered — roughly 10 percent of the Iraqi refugees known to be in the country. In Syria, the situation is exponentially worse. With 18 million citizens, it has received an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million refugees, mostly in the capital. (That's the equivalent of the United States receiving more than 20 million refugees in the neighborhood of the White House.) It's no wonder the UNHCR office in Damascus is overwhelmed.

When registering refugees, UNHCR determines whether they should be referred to a third country for possible resettlement. Many have been waiting months or years to be summoned to a resettlement interview, though the percentage of cases considered is in the single digits. Only the most “vulnerable” make the cut. Eleven categories of vulnerability include: female-headed households, persecuted religious and political groups, and those who are on everybody's hit list because they aided Americans, whether from conviction or, more often, need. While refugees wait, UNHCR supports the neediest. In Damascus it provides a monthly cash payment for rent or an allotment of staple foods. Refugees can choose between shelter and food. The terrible irony of UNHCR's underfunded struggle to cope is that its inadequate response so often seems, even to grateful refugees, another almost unbearable trial.

The Bush administration strictly limited resettlement of Iraqis in the United States. (Families who redeemed relatives from kidnappers have been rejected, under a provision of the Patriot Act found unconstitutional in 2007, for providing “material support” to terrorists; hundreds who sought a waiver on grounds of “duress” remain on hold. Another excluded category, sex workers, eliminates some of the most vulnerable women and men.) By the fourth anniversary of the invasion, early in 2007, the United States had admitted only 463 Iraqis. Even when the number of postinvasion refugees passed 1.5 million, the administration argued that they would return home at any minute and thus were not real refugees. Under intense international criticism, however, the administration announced that it would provide $18 million to UNHCR, which had issued an urgent appeal for $60 million to aid Iraqis, and process 7,000 Iraqis for resettlement in 2007 and perhaps 12,000 more in 2008. It failed to meet these quotas, but it's worth noting that the total number projected is still less than 20,000, the number the Bush administration cited from the beginning as the worst-case-scenario limit. For comparison's sake, consider that the United States has accepted 900,000 refugees from Vietnam since the end of that war, largely at the insistence of President Ford. The equivalent (adjusted for population) would be the resettlement of 300,000 mostly Arab, mostly Muslim refugees from Iraq.

For many Americans, the US failure to respond to the plight of Iraqi refugees adds one more layer of shame to an already sorry load. (George Packer has written movingly in The New Yorkerand in his play Betrayed of the Bush administration's shameful failure to protect even those Iraqis who risked their lives to aid the American enterprise.) Other Americans may be haunted by the specter of a destabilized Middle East. There, an immense displaced population languishes without access to jobs, education, healthcare (which used to be free) or hope for their children's future. Ascendant Islamism chains the most advanced women in the Arab world to the traditions of a previous century, while their daughters eagerly adopt the veil. And once secular, middle-class Arabs turn for consolation to the Koran, while a new generation of angry youth rushes toward religious fundamentalism and revenge. Such things, if one thinks about security, should keep the most hardheaded pragmatist up at night.

What is to be done? Robert Carey, vice president for resettlement and migration policy at the International Rescue Committee and chair of Refugee Council USA, is hopeful that the Obama administration will be freer to face facts and change course. What's needed is leadership at the highest level backing what Carey calls “a Marshall Plan for refugees”: a comprehensive, long-term, multinational plan to help host countries and UNHCR in the Middle East address the needs of refugees — housing, jobs, healthcare and, above all, education for their children — until they are able to return home or, for those who can't go back, to resettle elsewhere.

In fact, President Obama seems to have something like that in mind. The White House Press Office did not respond to questions for this article, but “preventing humanitarian crisis” was part of the plan to “responsibly end the war in Iraq” that candidate Obama announced on his campaign website in September 2007. Now, with the humanitarian crisis in full bloom, that plan has moved to the White House website. President Obama pledges to provide at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and to safeguard internally displaced Iraqis as well; and he promises to form an international working group to address the crisis. In addition, he vows to “work with Iraqi authorities and the international community to hold accountable the perpetrators of potential war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”

For millions of Iraqis uprooted by the war, the very idea of exile is a hardship. The peculiar status of “refugee” is a punishment that exacts gratitude from the sufferer. Some well-to-do Iraqi refugees have lived quite comfortably on their reserves. But in Jordan, even middle-class Iraqis are hurting — their savings depleted and the cost of living rising. Many are moving from Amman to outlying suburbs and villages, where money might stretch further. Some, against their better judgment, have gone back to Iraq for the $800 payment the Iraqi government offers returnees. Some returnees have been killed. Many do not regard returning as an option.

Aziz, who had been an English teacher in Baghdad, tried to help his neighbors by speaking to American soldiers on their behalf. Zealots wrongly accused him of working for the Americans. I visited him and his wife, Nadima, and their four children in a tiny one-room apartment in suburban Damascus. Although they had no furniture — no shelves or chests of drawers — their belongings were arranged along the walls with tidy precision. Nadima took me to see the quarters they'd occupied the year before, when she was pregnant, on the roof of a five-story building at the top of a steep hill. (Still fearing reprisals, Aziz stayed home.) She showed me the storage room where the family had slept. Corrugated plastic covered some sections of the roof, but it was full of holes. She told me that on very cold, wet days a woman in an apartment below had taken her children inside. She was immensely grateful for that, and for their new apartment, which flooded only during heavy rains. She showed me a sink in the far corner of the roof. A nylon mesh body scrubber still hung from a nail on the wall. It was pink. “This is where we bathed,” she said. And then she began to weep.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

About the reporter

Ann Jones

Ann Jones

Ann Jones is an independent scholar, journalist, photographer, and the author of ten books of nonfiction.

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