Please find below a feature of mine that appeared in yesterday's edition of Sunday Herald Magazine, published in Scotland. The article comes ahead of an exhibition on Iraqi refugees to be held in Glasgow as part of UK Refugee Week in June. For the project, photographer Angela Catlin and I visited Damascus and Glasgow to interview Iraq refugees five years after the onset of conflict , and to document the impact of the US-led invasion on their lives.
Names in the article below have been changed as many of the people I interviewed still have relatives in Iraq. We – myself, Angela, Scottish Refugee Council and Sunday Herald – decided not to publish photographs of interviewees on the internet to protect identities and to prevent the possibility of reprisals.
If you're in Glasgow this summer please visit our exhibition. Life after Iraq is at St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art from June 13 – October 26 2008. For more info see www.glasgowmuseums.com Refugee Week Scotland '08 runs from June 16-22. For more information see www.refugeeweek.org.uk
SUNDAY HERALD MAGAZINE – 25TH MAY, 2008.
NASHWAN HADDAD’S hand shakes as he lights a cigarette. The 58-year-old is distraught and breaks down as he shows me the ID card that belonged to his son. From a passport sized photo a young boy’s face stares back at me. The image is of Moyad Nashwan, an Iraqi teenager wearing a blue and white striped shirt. Moyad was the first-born and only son of, Nashwan, and his wife, Roula, who stands beside her husband with her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a black abiya (correct), as does her 12-year-old daughter, Dhikra, who sits with her head bowed as her father speaks.
On March 22nd, 2007, Moyad was playing in a Baghdad street with a friend when both boys were kidnapped by gunmen. A Shiah Muslim family living in a predominantly Sunni area of the Iraqi capital, they’d already been threatened several times, Nashwan explains. That evening he received a telephone call at his home. “He (the caller) said he was with Islamic Jihad and accused me of being a leader of a Shiah militia. I said this wasn’t true and pleaded with him to take me instead of Moyad,” Nashwan says, crying and unable to finish the story.
Roula leans forward and places her hand on her husband’s shoulder. There was no demand of a ransom from the kidnappers, she continues, or any kind of negotiation, only a cold-blooded message that Moyad would be executed. The boy’s ‘crime’ was to be a Shiah Muslim. The next day Nashwan took another call and was told by Islamic Jihad where his 15-year-old son’s body had been discarded.
For a moment there is silence in the room, then our translator stands and embraces Roula. In a corner of the room an Arabic television channel broadcasts news about the unending violence in the homeland this family left for the safety of Syria. Nashwan composes himself and gestures towards the television screen. “Yesterday they killed an archbishop. They are killing children. To kill children, is this Jihad?” he says, angrily.
Five years on from the US-led invasion, the killing continues in Iraq. On the flight to Syria the day before, I’d read about the body of Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Catholic Archbishop of Iraq’s largest Christian community, being found in a shallow grave north of Mosul. The Pope lead the condemnation of the holy man’s murder while the newspaper reported on another day of horrors in Iraq; a car bomb that killed 18 people in Baghdad; US officials having been sent the severed fingers of five kidnapped employees of a security firm.
As refugees here in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Nashwan, Roula and Dhikra, know all too well of the mayhem. It’s a conflict that President George Bush claimed in March to be an “undeniable success”. At this juncture, there are some five million refugees who would beg to differ with Mr Bush’s analysis. Iraq is haemorrhaging and the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis could be about to get even worse.
HUSSEIN YOUSEF keeps in touch with Nashwan and Roula by telephone. In fact, he has little choice but to use a mobile phone to stay in contact with relatives. “We have family as refugees in London, Malmo, Damascus and Baghdad,” the 57-year-old says. We are in Hussein’s home in Blackhill, Glasgow. His wife, Maida, offers us some Arabic tea while a muted television set has Al Jazeera broadcasting graphic images of the carnage from the latest suicide attack in Baghdad. Hussein sips from a glass cup and nods his head towards the screen. “Moyad was shot dead. Two of Nashwan’s cousins were killed, both beheaded – one of them was kidnapped driving on the road from Baghdad to Damascus. His (Nashwan’s) sister was also in Damascus as a refugee but was kidnapped by a Lebanese criminal gang. She was freed but so terrified afterwards she decided it would be safer in Baghdad,” he says.
Hussein explains that his brother is married to Nashwan’s sister; both refugees living in London. Hussein came to Scotland with his family in May, 2002, after his brother, Kasim, walked out on a job at Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad. Fellow employees had been hanged or shot for making the simplest of errors and Kasim could not live under the Sword of Damocles anymore.
His brother left the palace and went into exile, but his desertion meant the lives of his family were also under threat so Hussein left Iraq for Britain. Since leaving he has not seen any of his relatives, including his elderly mother who’s still in Baghdad. He has two sisters in the city, both Shiah Muslims who have had to leave their homes in Sunni areas because of the sectarian killings, now refugees in their own country. “I phoned them two weeks ago and there was heavy fighting. The whole family was hiding under stairs,” Hussein says. Maida has a sister who is a refugee in Malmo, Sweden, and she tells us that both her mother and father – whom she had not seen since coming to the UK – died recently in Iraq. “I used to live about three miles from Nashwan and Roula in Baghdad. Our family would visit each other on a weekly basis, usually on a Friday. I don’t suppose that will ever happen again, ” Maida says. Hussein laughs. “It could happen sooner than we think,” he says. Six years after coming to the UK, Hussein and Maida have not had their appeal for asylum granted. If rejected, they will be faced with the stark choice of homelessness or a return to Iraq.
URGENT aid is required for Iraqi refugees. That was the message this month from the refugee agency UNHCR. “Without this, the humanitarian crisis we have faced over the past two years may grow even larger,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, appealing for £65m.
Soaring global food and fuel prices – the former up 83% in the past three years according to the World Bank – are exacerbating a dire situation as refugees are running out of savings. In April, UNHCR fed 150,000 refugees daily in Damascus, compared with 33,000 people last September. There are 1.5 million refugees in Syria and more arrive on a each week. Staff at UNHCR’s registration centre tell us they process up to 130 new families each day.
The influx has placed tremendous strain on services and rents across the Syrian capital are rising rapidly. Nashwan and Roula are only able to pay their monthly rent of 10,000 Syrian pounds (£100) with financial help from ’s sister in London. “My savings are gone, we only get food from the UN and are not permitted to work. It is not safe to go back to Baghdad – what are we supposed to do?” Nashwan says.
If you were to believe the US government then it is safe to return to Iraq. Shortly before Christmas, a much-trumpeted bus convoy was organised from Damascus to Baghdad, carrying 800 Iraqis home as a propaganda exercise designed to show that peace was being restored. But in April, a survey published by UNHCR said that 89.5% of refugees were not planning on returning. Baghdad, Karkh, al-Anbar, Rasafa, Adhamaiya, Kadhimihay, Sadr City, Diyala and Ninawa, were all places said to be too dangerous. Of the 4% of refugees intending to go back, 26% were returning because their money had run out.
UNHCR’s findings chime with our own experience in Damascus. Of the dozens of refugees we interview not one person said they could return. Moreover, the majority of interviewees – clearly traumatised by their experiences – say they would never go back. These include; Falah Hassan, whose daughter, Neigal, died in a bomb blast in Najaf in June 2005; Zeinab, whose 16-year-old daughter, Zahraa, was raped in front of her and then abducted; Ahmed, a refugee who works with Clowns Without Borders at UNHCR reception centre and who left Iraq after colleagues from his troupe were murdered.
THE situation for civilians in many parts of Iraq is horrendous and in stark contrast to what has been portrayed by both the US and British governments. While President Bush was waxing lyrical about the war in March, the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband MP, said it had been a “remarkable victory”. “It is striking that the number of attacks are down,” he added, despite the fact that Iraqi government statistics showed that civilian deaths had more than doubled from 460 in January, 2008, to 947 in February, 2008.
Both governments have been strongly criticised recently for their attitudes towards Iraqi refugees. With the former, it was a scathing attack by Anastasia K Brown, director of the US Bishops’ Refugee Programme in the US, who described her government’s response to the refugee crisis as “shockingly inadequate”. While UNHCR had referred 24,000 vulnerable cases for resettlement, she said, only 4000 have entered the country. Ms Brown pointed out that 135,000 Vietnamese refugees had been resettled in one year at the end of the Vietnam War, while in a six-month period in 1999, 14,000 Kosovars were accepted. But the US government says it remains committed to resettling more refugees and a target of 12,000 has been set for the end of September.
In the UK, the Home Office is still refusing the majority of applications from Iraqis for asylum. According to the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC), of the 1355 Iraqis who applied for asylum in the UK in 2007, around 80 per cent were refused first time. By comparison, in both Sweden and Germany, more than 80 per cent of those who applied were approved. In a scathing report recently the Independent Asylum Commission said the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK falls “seriously below” the standards of a civilised society. Despite this figures published last week show that for the period January to March 2008, the number of Iraqi asylum applications to UK was up 122 per cent on the previous quarter to 700.
In March it emerged that more than 1400 rejected Iraqi asylum seekers would be told they must go home. Before they leave, however, they will be asked to sign a waiver agreeing the government will take no responsibility for what happens to them once they return. A spokesman for the Home Office, said that the government does not accept that it is unsafe for Iraqis to return home. “Over 3300 Iraqis left voluntarily between 2000 and 2007,” a spokesman said.
But given the government’s active role in Iraq, said John Wilkes, chief executive of SRC, it has a responsibility to take more asylum seekers and to stop returning Iraqis to a country which is “blatantly unsafe”. “When the international community is calling on Iraq’s neighbours to keep their borders open to refugees, the UK is responding by making it increasingly difficult for refugees to claim asylum. In Britain, there is a growing number of Iraqis who have been refused, but as a result of the continued violence in Iraq, are unable to return home. They are being forced into destitution. In a snapshot survey of destitute asylum seekers in Glasgow we carried in 2006, Iraqis were the largest group.”
WHILE Syria has granted Nashwan and his family refugee status from a British-backed war, the UK government says it is safe to return people to Iraq, and will decide on Hussein’s fate soon. Hussein wants to work as a carpenter again but if his application for asylum is rejected he faces losing state support and homelessness, or a return to Iraq. Nashwan has no money left and if UNHCR stops providing aid then he also faces a very bleak future.
The first anniversary of Moyad’s death was two days after the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Nashwan and Roula initially welcomed American soldiers and invited them into their home, but the situation deteriorated when the Jihadists arrived in their country. “We did not have Al Qaeda in Iraq before. What has the US created? ” Nashwan says. Whatever your opinion is on the rights and wrongs of the US invasion of Iraq, it has been catastrophic for Iraq’s five million refugees.
Life after Iraq is at St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art from June 13 – October 26 2008. For more info see www.glasgowmuseums.com Refugee Week Scotland '08 runs from June 16-22. For more information see www.refugeeweek.org.uk
Thanks for reading this post. Billy Briggs.
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