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IRAQ REFUGEE CRISIS - A diary from Damascus.

Yesterday I met with three refugee families living together in only one flat in the Jeramana area, east Damascus. In total there are 14 people sharing one living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. These people are Sabians from the Karada area of Baghdad, who regard John the Baptist as their prophet.

As Sabians, they have always suffered persecution because of their religious beliefs, but under Saddam Hussein's rule they could report attacks to the police with the knowledge that offenders would be harshly dealt with. Now, with Iraq in chaos, there is no protection for these people and they are regularly targeted by both Shiah and Sunni militias.

Neigal Aboid Alah was a priest in Baghdad and he showed me a photograph of himself in his white, biblical robes. Neigal explained that he came to Syria with his family after his son was kidnapped and held hostage for 15 days in September, 2006.

"They (a criminal gang) asked for $40,000 or they would kill my son Haibal. I had no money so I had to give them my home. We went to live with my sister then decided to leave for Syria," he said.

Neigal told how he left with Baghdad with his family at 5am and drove on the notorious 'Road to Damascus' , a highway that is now the haunt of criminal gangs who murder and rob refugees trying to escape. Fortunately, Neigal and his family encountered no problems and arrived unharmed in Syria at 7pm that same evening.

Neigal, his wife, Ragaa, and three children, Haibal, Danyal and Zakaria, now live on UN rations, supplemented by wages from Neigal's illegal job as a waiter in a Damascene restaurant. Their rent is $160 a month and they always struggle to pay, Niegal said.

Paying for healthcare and medicine eats up much of the family's budget as Haibal has a heart problem and also suffers from asthma.

I ask if Haibal, 11, ever speaks about his 15 days in captivity as a hostage?

"No. In school he cannot focus anymore and he is badly traumatised. There is no specialised help for him either," Neigal said.

I asked if it would safe for the families to return to Iraq and Neigal sighed and showed me a video on his mobile phone documenting the aftermath of a suicide bombing.

"It's all US spin. It's a lie. I know of one family that was given $700 to return and as soon as they got back they were killed. We will never go back to Iraq," Neigal said.


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