For Iraqi Refugees, Survival Can Come at a High Price


I am among the estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees still living far from home more than seven years after the U.S.-led coalition took over Baghdad. This is one story among hundreds of thousands.

In August, I visited my family in Syria and Jordan, where they have been residing since they fled Iraq in 2007 after a series of threats and losses of loved ones. A few months earlier, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and had moved to New York City where I was later granted asylum.

In my last weekend in Syria, a group of young Iraqi men suggested we go to a party at a night club on the outskirts of Damascus. One of my companions said to me: “Here you’ll find the most beautiful Iraqi refugee women … and they are very affordable.”

As we walked in, the stage was packed with women wearing heavy make up and revealing clothes. An Iraqi singer was performing live and the surrounding tables were occupied mostly by Arab men from the wealthy Gulf States and surrounding countries. Alcohol was being served and smoking was permitted.

A couple of hours into the night, the singer stepped aside and men from the crowd started joining the women on stage. Two women approached our table, asking if they could join us. From their accents, we knew they were Iraqi. Once they realized we were Iraqi too, they started talking about Iraq, the war, President Bush, Iran, al-Qaida and their lives in Syria.

The two women were cousins: Ananas, a 34-year-old pharmacist, and Dunya, a 28-year-old poetess. Ananas first came to Syria in 2006 after her brother and father were shot dead by a U.S. military convoy while he was driving during curfew hours. “They were all I had. Once they were gone, my uncles were forcing me to marry my cousin. He was 21 years older than me and already married. I escaped two days before the wedding date, got on a bus and came to Syria,” she said.

As for Dunya, she got married at the age of 16. “My husband was killed by armed militiamen in our front yard. I saw it … I was looking from the kitchen window. They stormed into our house after and raped me. I didn’t try to resist because I didn’t want them to go upstairs and find my daughter and hurt her. She was only 9 at the time.” Dunya then fled to Syria with her daughter in 2007 and united with her cousin Ananas, who had already found her way into the sex industry.

When I asked about Dunya’s daughter, she said, “Her name is Tamara. She is doing alright now. Oh, she is right there in fact,” as she started waving at a young girl, now 11-years-old, with wavy hair and wearing make up.

Tamara was on the stage dancing and was occasionally joined by men to talk or dance with her. When I asked Dunya whether she worried about Tamara losing her innocence, her reply was: “Innocence? That is not something for our children. It may be for the children in America or Europe but not us. Tamara is going to grow up in a society that judges her, restricts her and takes advantage of her. Being innocent is only going to make it worse and turn her life harder.”

Dunya said she is willing to marry Tamara to a man who would look after her.
Displaced Iraqi women — once removed from the support system in their homeland — become easy prey for the sex industry. Home, tribe, community and extended family are what provided that support system, and without it they sometimes turn to prostitution for survival.

A Syrian security official, who asked not to be identified, said thousands of Iraqi women have faced arrest, jail and forced deportation after being charged with prostitution.

A few days after meeting Ananas and Dunya, I drove to Amman, Jordan, the host country of the second largest Iraqi refugee population, after Syria. During my two weeks in Amman, it became clear there was a class division within the Iraqi community.

Jordan, like neighboring Syria, admitted Iraqis as “guests” or “tourists” and did not grant them refugee status, as neither one of these countries ratified the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees. Jordan, however, has set up a system in which Iraqis are granted residency once they deposit $100,000 in special government accounts.

So while Jordan can be a safe haven for investors and businessmen, the high cost of living and lack of access to legal work have imposed serious financial challenges on the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees living there today.

There also appeared to be two groups of Iraqi refugees: those who lost everything and have nothing left to return to in Iraq, and others who fear losing everything if they return. And for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families in Jordan and Syria, the uncertainty over their future is far from over.

Hamza is a freelance writer living in New York City. Under a grant from the Ford Foundation, he accompanied NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro during his reporting on the struggles of Iraqi refugees now living in Jordan:

Hari Sreenivasan contributed to this post.