Baghdad may be safer, but few Iraqis in Syria risk returning

Iraqi refugee Shymaa Ali and her 8-year-old son, Muntathar, at their apartment in Damascus, Syria.
Iraqi refugee Shymaa Ali and her 8-year-old son, Muntathar, at their apartment in Damascus, Syria. Hannah Allam / MCT

DAMASCUS, Syria — On a recent chilly afternoon, Bahija Jawad, an Iraqi grandmother living here, was out for a stroll when she noticed drivers looking for passengers to fill several large, white GMC trucks destined for Iraq.

"Baghdad! Baghdad! Rides to Baghdad!" the drivers called. Jawad began to feel faint at the mention of her beloved hometown, which she fled earlier this year after gunmen forced her from her home.

"When I heard those drivers, I could barely stand, and I started to cry," Jawad, 61, recalled this week at her apartment in Damascus. "One of the boys came up to me and said, 'Auntie, it's OK if you don't have the money. I'll take you for free.' I told him it wasn't a matter of money. We just can't go back now."

Despite reports of more Iraqis returning to Baghdad in response to the drop in violence there, there's no flood of Iraqis leaving Syria to go home. Interviews with refugees and aid workers indicate that most Iraqis share Jawad's opinion — that the current letup in violence is fleeting and that it's wiser to stay put than return to neighborhoods still controlled by the same unpredictable militants who forced them to flee.

The numbers bear that out. While estimates from aid groups indicate that 60,000 Iraqis have returned home from Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries, that number represents only 2.4 percent of the 2.5 million Iraqis who've fled their country.

Jawad, a Shiite Muslim, cites her daughter's recent experience as reason for caution. At the insistence of her husband, the daughter went back to Baghdad last month, only to find Sunni Muslim strangers occupying her home. Now the daughter lives in a rented apartment in an unfamiliar district populated exclusively by fellow Shiites. In tearful telephone calls, she told the rest of her relatives in Syria to forget about returning.

"We've heard there are fewer kidnappings, fewer murders, but they're still happening," Jawad said.

According to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, September and October were the peak months for Iraqis to return home, but the numbers tapered off in November. About 25,000 of the 1.5 million refugees in Syria have returned to Iraq, the Red Crescent said, and about 20,000 of those went to Baghdad.

Even the Iraqi government has softened its calls for displaced families to return, with officials admitting that the country isn't prepared for a large influx of returnees. Many of the families who returned to Baghdad in September and October couldn't go back to their original residences, the Red Crescent said, meaning they joined the estimated 2 million Iraqis who are internally displaced.

Refugees in Syria closely watched on satellite and Iraqi television last week as several hundred refugees returned to Baghdad aboard a convoy of buses paid for by the Iraqi government. But few said they thought it was safe enough to give their homeland another try.

"Go back? I'll be the last to return," said Nouhad Ibrahim, 30, a Sunni Muslim from the Salahadin province north of Baghdad. "I lost six of my relatives: my father, my brother-in-law, my uncles, my cousins. Now I should take the risk and go see if it's really better?"

"Iraq is not for us. It's for Iran and the others now," said another refugee, Zaidoun Saad, 30, a Shiite Muslim from the dangerous Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. "I should send two big trucks of coffins for the people who went back on those buses. They're digging their own graves."

Humanitarian workers, travel agents and displaced Iraqis said that the emphasis on the drop in violence in news stories on returning refugees masks the real reasons most Iraqis have gone home. The first is the Syrian government's stricter visa regulations, which have left many Iraqis unemployed and with no legal status. The second is the poverty that even formerly middle-class or affluent Iraqis face now that their savings have run out.

"The main reasons for leaving appear to be the difficulties in making ends meet, as well as inability to renew visas, rather than considerations of improved security in Iraq," according to an assessment by the U.N. refugee agency.

Down a narrow alley in the Damascus district of Seyyida Zaineb, home to one of the largest Iraqi enclaves, Basma Ahmed sang Iraqi folk songs as she plucked the eyebrows of a client at the beauty salon where she works. Most patrons are too poor to tip, and Ahmed's meager salary isn't nearly enough to pay rent and buy groceries for her ailing husband and their three children. She said it's been three months since she was able to buy meat.

Ahmed, a Sunni, said the family is dangerously close to being forced into returning to their hometown of Baqouba, where militants from al Qaida in Iraq have shut down salons and threatened beauticians, including Ahmed. She couldn't make the December rent and prepared to leave for Iraq until sympathetic co-workers pooled their money and bought the family another month in Syria.

"And what about next month's rent?" Ahmed said, working her tweezers. "People say Iraq is safer now, but we wonder if it's the calm before the storm. And even if I do have to go back, I'd be starting from zero. I have nothing."

"Yeah, let's just say we'd all be packing light," her Iraqi customer interjected, drawing bittersweet laughter from the other women in the salon.

Aid workers note that there are several categories of Iraqis who'll probably never be able to return home. They include Iraqis who worked as interpreters for U.S. forces, informants who helped authorities pursue Shiite or Sunni militants, and former employees of Saddam Hussein's government.

Abdel Redha Abboud, 45, said he's unable to return to his home in Karbala, a relatively safe city in the southern Shiite heartland of Iraq, because of his job as a security officer under Saddam's regime. He said Iranian-backed Shiite militants razed his home and shot his brother, mistaking him for Abboud.

There's no place for him in the new Iraq. As a Shiite who worked for Saddam, he's considered a traitor to his sect, and as a Shiite, he can't move to a Sunni area.

"Karbala is 99 percent safe. But if you come from the safest province in the country and can't live there, how can you go back and try to live in Baghdad?" he asked.

Jawad, the Iraqi grandmother, faces a similar predicament with another daughter, 32-year-old Shymaa Ali, who lives with her in Damascus.

Ali's husband was a translator for Titan, a major American contractor that provides interpreters to the U.S. military in Iraq. In December 2004, gunmen killed him, according to the death certificate Ali keeps in a folder. It's the same one where she keeps the ID badges her husband was issued by Titan, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Army's 350th Civil Affairs Command out of Pensacola, Fla.

Ali said she received about $8,000 in compensation from Titan and bought a small house near Jawad's as an investment for her two sons, Kaysar, 12, and Muntathar, 8. Then gunmen seized Jawad's house, and Sunni militants painted the front of Ali's home with the warning, "Leave, you rawafid," a slur against Shiites that refers to deviants from Islam.

Ali, her two sons, her mother and her adult brother fled for Syria days later, in early February of this year. They now live together in a cramped but clean apartment in Seyidda Zaineb, a world away from their spacious white villa in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adil.

Ali said she watched with sadness the coverage of last week's convoy to Baghdad. "My son tells me, 'Mommy, I want to go back to my bedroom, to my house,' " she said. "I told him, 'Don't you remember what the bad men wrote on our wall?' He looked at me and said, 'Can't you just erase it so we can go back home?'"

(Leila Fadel contributed to this report from Baghdad.)