Image: Iraqi refugees
Omar Sinan  /  AP
Iraqi refugees Iman Faleh, left, and her granddaughter Rania, 3, pack suitcases in their Syrian house on Aug. 21 as they prepare to return to Iraq.
updated 10/19/2007 7:45:59 PM ET 2007-10-19T23:45:59

Their money gone, Iman Faleh and her family packed their belongings to reluctantly return to Baghdad — a journey they said was like going to “death row.”

The religiously mixed family — Iman is a Sunni Muslim, the others are Shiite Muslims — fled their home in a mostly Shiite part of east Baghdad in July and took refuge in Syria, joining an estimated 1.5 million other Iraqis here.

But in early fall, they became part of a growing wave of Iraqis leaving Syria for home, not because they are confident of Iraq’s future, but because they ran out of money.

Others are returning because the Syrians have made it more difficult to stay. Most Iraqis cannot work legally in Syria and survive on savings or handouts from relatives.

“Going back to Baghdad means going to ‘death row,”’ said Iman’s 27-year-old son, Zaid, as he hauled luggage from the family’s $1,200-a-month apartment in Damascus. “But we have no money left that could allow us to go on living here.”

From their old home in Baghdad, Zaid said Friday that the family was trying to cope. “When we first got here we could not sleep for the first couple of nights because of the blasts and all-night-long shooting, but now it had become a routine,” he said.

Zaid said they mostly stay inside “because its not safe to go out.” And they are trying to collect money to return to Syria — a goal made more uncertain by new visa requirements imposed by Damascus.

Visa requirement slows flow into Syria
No figures are available on how many Iraqis are leaving safe havens in Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries to return to an uncertain future in Iraq.

At the border station at Tanaf, a Syrian immigration official estimated late last month that up to 1,500 Iraqis were returning to Iraq each day.

Just a few weeks ago, about 20,000 Iraqis were entering Syria daily, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to speak to the media.

The number entering Syria has dropped sharply in recent days, however, since the Syrian government began requiring Iraqis to obtain visas first. Most visa applications from Iraqis are denied.

Those who came to Syria before the new rules took effect must leave when their three-month permits expire, unless they have been officially recognized by the United Nations as refugees — a process that can take months.

That leaves many people with the grim choice of returning to the dangers of Iraq or lying low and hoping Syrian authorities won’t deport them.

Few rights, opportunities
Even those who can scrape out a living in Syria find life difficult. Pride takes a battering when Iraqis find themselves in countries where they have few rights and opportunities.

Bassam Meshrif, who shares a Damascus apartment with four friends, said he has decided to go home to Iraq, too, because he is “so fed up with all the humiliation” of life as a foreigner.

Before fleeing Iraq, the 28-year-old software engineer worked for the Ministry of Finance. Now he is the foreman of a cleaning crew in Damascus.

“I know I’m putting my life in danger if I go back. But I’ve had enough and my savings are gone,” Meshrif said. “It’s hard to go, but it is harder to stay. With all these obligations, everything just became too much to bear.”

Others fear they can’t hold out much longer.

“Although we know that we cannot settle here, we can’t go back now, it’s too dangerous,” said Shatha Mohammed, a widow and mother of three who lives in Damascus off money sent by her mother in Sweden.

“I just pray that I will not see that day coming soon, because there (in Iraq) I have no support and no protector,” she said.

For many Iraqis, including Iman Faleh, her widowed daughter, son and granddaughter, that day has come.

“We have to go back, although we don’t want to. We have no choice,” said Faleh’s daughter, Zainab, 25, whose husband was killed this year in a car bombing in Baghdad.

Expensive trip home
Holding her 3-year-old daughter in her arms, Zainab sobbed and cast her eyes skyward as the family prepared to go back to Iraq.

“May God protect us and all other battered Iraqis from any evil,” she said.

As Zainab wept, her mother was negotiating with a taxi driver to take the family to Baghdad — an arduous 600-mile journey across the desert. The driver wanted $600. Eventually, Iman promised to give the driver the cash when they reached Baghdad.

“It’s so very expensive, like we’re going back to heaven. But we still have to pay $600 to go back to hell,” she said.

The driver, 37-year-old Udai al-Ani, said that during the summer, he made good money driving Iraqis to Syria. Now, he finds more fares headed in the opposite direction.

“Last week I traveled back twice to Iraq with my car full of passengers. Most of them are returning because they were broke,” said al-Ani. As he spoke, the Faleh family got in his taxi and the group headed back to Iraq.

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