IRAQ REFUGEE CRISIS - A DIARY FROM DAMASCUS
Today we visited a UNHCR centre at 'President Bridge' in Damascus where registered refugees come to collect food and supplies. Once every two months people are allocated a food ration of rice, tea, oil, sugar, lentils rice and pasta, and items such as soap, blankets and sleeping bags are also distributed.
It's a lengthy process and the refugees queue for a few hours before they can collect supplies. As we toured the white tents set up for the distribution process, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of animated refugees waving pieces of white paper and shouting angrily in Arabic. They'd realised I was either an official of some sort, or a journalist, and were complaining loudly they were not receiving any food from UNHCR. One middle aged woman with big bleached hair spoke English, and asked me to read her UNHCR form. It was stamped with the words "NON-FOOD", and she explained that as she'd left Iraq for Syria as a refugee a few weeks before the 2003 US-led invasion, she was not entitled to food. In that one tent alone there were a couple of hundred Iraqi refugees in the same position as that woman. These people were desperate – but 'rules are rules', I was told later.
In another tent we met with three Iraqi women dressed in black abiyas. We chatted and they invited us back to one of their homes in the Saida Zeinab district of the city, an area home to a large Iraqi refugee population. During our taxi ride, one of the women, Shamsiah, told me that her Syrian landlord wants her family to move out so he can rent the apartment for more money. We have been told that some landlords are cashing in on the refugee crisis by increasing rents in Damascus.
When we arrive, her 27-year-old son Kasim tells us that the family came to Syria from Baghdad in June 2006, after he'd been kidnapped then shot in the foot as he tried to escape. He shows me his right foot which is missing a big toe.
"They (he declines to say who because his two brothers are still in Baghdad) wanted a ransom of $20,000 but there was no way my family could afford that sort of money..so I knew I had to escape or I'd be killed," he said.
Shamsiah said she worries all the time about her other two sons. She laughs when I ask if it would be safe for her family to return.
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