DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Nahla and her pharmacist husband Malik were prospering in the Shi’ite city of Kerbala, despite the sectarian and criminal violence unleashed by the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. They even bought a new house.
Then one day in 2006, Usama, the eldest of their five children, stepped out to buy a sandwich. He never came back.
A kidnap gang demanded a ransom of 12 million Iraqi dinars ($10,000). Nahla and Malik sold their home and paid up, but 12-year-old Usama still didn’t come back. A week later his naked, mangled body was found in the desert.
Nahla, whose surname is withheld to avoid possible danger to relatives in Iraq, talked as she sat on a plastic mat over the concrete floor of a flat in the poor Damascus area of Sayyida Zeinab, where the family settled after fleeing Iraq in 2008.
“I die a hundred times a day, my husband too,” she wept. “But we have to think of the children and their future. Our only hope is resettlement. We can’t go back to Iraq.”
Nahla’s family are among 165,000 Iraqi refugees currently registered by the United Nations refugee agency in Syria, which also hosts hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis in exile.
At the height of Iraq’s sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07, U.N. agencies estimated that two million Iraqis had fled abroad and more than two million had moved to other parts of the country.
The plight of uprooted Iraqis like Nahla’s family no longer makes headlines, but no end to the refugee crisis is in sight.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says only 100,000 refugees are among the 500,000 Iraqis who have returned to their homes. Iraq still has 1.5 million internally displaced people, a third of them living in squalid settlements or camps.
“This crisis is about the dignity of the people more than their survival — their loss of hope, dignity and confidence in their future,” UNHCR representative Renata Dubini told Reuters.
“They are dying inside.”
Dubini said Syria had pursued generous policies in allowing Iraqis in and temporarily protecting them, despite the strain the refugees imposed on its own health and education services.
“We facilitate returns,” she said. “But we have not entered the phase of promoting voluntary repatriation because it’s still volatile in Iraq, with a death toll of at least 1,000 a month.”
Heading home is not an option for Nahla, whose trauma is still raw despite psychiatric support funded by UNHCR.
In a black robe, with a green headscarf framing her soft, pale face, she wipes away tears as she pulls legal documents, newspaper clippings and medical reports from a faded folder, along with family photos of Usama — and one of his body.
Animals had gnawed his face, so his parents only recognized him by his clothes and a scar on his chest. A post-mortem found the boy had been tortured, raped and mutilated by his captors.
There is also a photograph of Nahla’s brother-in-law, who was killed later as the family pursued a case against the kidnappers, three of whom were caught and are now on death row.
It was not clear if they had sectarian as well as criminal motives in targeting Nahla and Malik, a Sunni-Shi’ite couple.
“I lost everything. My son, my brother-in-law and my house,” said the 38-year-old woman, who is still fearful about the safety of her unemployed husband and children, even in Damascus.
Her family is among 68,000 vulnerable Iraqis who get UNHCR help with food, health care or accommodation in Syria, which hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees, followed by Jordan.
“The Syrians have been good to us,” Nahla said. “Sometimes they give us vegetables for free or let us skip rent payments.”
The UNHCR has recommended Nahla’s family for resettlement in a third country. Some 20,000 Iraqis have already been resettled from Syria, out of a total of 36,000 taken in by the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Britain.
Some have returned to Iraq, mostly due to economic hardship, but the UNHCR’s Dubini said a spike in violence and political deadlock after a March election had reversed the net flow.
“There was a lot of hope at the time of the election,” she said. “Now there is a sense of confusion and loss.”
In Jaramana, another shabby Damascus neighborhood where Iraqi refugees have clustered, a Christian woman named Bushra cannot think of going back, only of finding a new home abroad.
Her family first fled from Baghdad in 2004 after receiving written warnings. “They said we must convert to Islam or they would kidnap my son,” she said, as she embroidered a blouse.
Planning a permanent exile, they returned in 2007 to sell their house, only to lose their 20-year-old daughter.
“They kidnapped her from the door of a church in Doura, where my sister lived,” Bushra said. “She is still missing. We told the police and then we received another threat that my son would be kidnapped. Two days later we were back in Damascus.”
Now she takes care of two teenaged nephews, whose father was killed in a car crash in Syria and whose mother left for the Netherlands and is seeking permission for her sons to join her.
Alan, 14, answers listlessly when asked about his future and his dreams. “My only dream is to reach my mother,” he mutters.
He earns about $3 a day carrying water. His brother Andy, 16, gets the same at a cigarette factory. Both are illiterate. Their 10-year-old sister, Samdi, has been put in an orphanage.
Bushra, who makes $60 or $70 a month selling her embroidery, once worked in a Baghdad eye hospital. Her husband is retired.
“We’ve asked for resettlement in the United States, but then what will happen to the boys? They cry every night,” she said.
“We can’t go back. There are too many bad memories in Iraq. I never imagined things could get so bad. I see no future.”
Editing by Samia Nakhoul