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Iraq Refugees Struggle in Syria

The United Nations warns that the violence in Iraq is leading to a disastrous refugee crisis in the Middle East. The U.N. estimates that out of Iraq's population of 26 million, nearly two million are internally displaced and another two million have fled abroad, mostly to neighboring Jordan and Syria.

It's a long dusty ride from the al-Tanf border crossing to Damascus -- some 275 kilometers across a bleak desert landscape. Yet thousands of Iraqis make the journey every month -- between 30-40,000 of them -- according to United Nations' estimates.

And this is where many end up -- in the Saidah Zeinab district of Damascus -- a bustling, crowded neighborhood of low-rise apartment buildings and small shops.

Sabah Shaffat runs the Ahel a-Sham travel agency. His fleet of cars and buses routinely makes the run from Baghdad through Abu Ghraib and Ramadi to reach the border. His passengers, he says, come from all walks of life and include Shiites, Sunni Muslims and Christians. Passengers pay 40 dollars for a seat on the bus, 80 dollars to ride in a GMC four-wheel drive.

Shaffat is Shi'ite. But he says many of his drivers are Sunni. "There is no problem between us," he says, adding that all the sectarian problems inside Iraq are being caused by "outsiders."

The U.S., Iran and the U.N.

Across town, this Iraqi woman also seems to believe that outside meddling is to blame for Iraq's troubles. She says the Iraqi government is a mere puppet of Iran. "They do nothing for us," she shouts and she curses Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose militia, she says, drove her from her home in Baghdad.

She is among several hundred Iraqis who gathered recently in front of the U.N. refugee agency in Damascus. Zeinab al Melah is also there. She tells how she left Baghdad with her family seven months ago because Shi'ite militias threatened to kill them.

"I have here a passport for me, my husband and my children. I have three kids and until now they have no school. Where shall I go?," asks al Melah who places the blame squarely on the American administration. None of this would have happened, she says, if the Americans had not invaded.

"I'm asking Mr. Bush: What shall I do? Because he was the one who said I will bring democracy to Iraq, I will bring freedom to Iraq, I will bring peace to Iraq. We haven't seen any democracy, any freedom, any peace in Iraq -- only we find killing and only blood," says Melah.

Neglected Refugees

Political actions are at the root of this refugee crisis, acknowledges the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. But, he says it is time for the international community to wake up to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding.

"There is a lot of attention in the international public opinion about the situation in Iraq -- about its political, security, military dimensions. But there has been very little attention about the humanitarian dimension of the problem," says Guterres.

Iraqis are no stranger to refugee crises, dating back to the mid-1970s. Many fled the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime over the years. In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, over one million Iraqis fled to Iran and another half million fled to neighboring Turkey to escape reprisal attacks by Saddam's military, after attempted uprisings against his regime. Iraqi exiles were overjoyed when Saddam was toppled in 2003 and many either returned home or planned to do so. But now, a new exodus is underway instead.

Today's Iraqi refugees are often middle class, educated and skilled workers. Unlike in past crises, they are, at this point, not living in camps or tent cities. The wealthier ones were able to buy or rent homes, but not everyone. The Ibrahim al Khalil convent opens its kitchen three days a week and dishes out free meals of rice and meat to about 500 people, 60 percent of them Iraqis. The Iraqi families who come here are Christian and just like their Muslim counterparts, they fled home fearing for their lives.

Katherin Slebah says she left Baghdad three months ago with eight family members. Her husband, she says, was killed, a son kidnapped, but later released when the family paid ransom. "We couldn't stay back there," she says. "There is no life, the children cannot go to school or outside, there are no jobs." She says American troops in Iraq do offer some protection, but not enough. She fears the violence will get worse when the Americans leave. Other women chime in. They do no not see themselves going back to Iraq any time soon. There is no future there, they say.

A Heavy Burden

Volunteers at organizations like this Christian charity group say they do what they can to help. And, the U.N. also gives high marks to the Syrian government for taking the refugees in. But, that generosity has put a strain on social services. Syria has taken in close to one million Iraqi refugees, with another 700,000 in neighboring Jordan. UNHCR chief, Antonio Guterres says it is time these two countries receive help.

"It's no longer possible to ask Jordan and Syria alone to bear this very heavy burden. There must be a massive mobilization of support from the international community in order to allow them to have the capacity to respond to such a challenge," says Guterres.

Smaller numbers of Iraqi refugees have gone to other Middle Eastern countries. And, the United States has taken in just under 500 Iraqi refugees since 2003. UNHCR is organizing an international conference on Iraqi refugees in Geneva in April. And, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has authorized direct talks with Syria on the refugee situation. The U.S. has little formal contact with Syrian officials because Washington accuses Syria of continuing to allow support for Iraqi insurgents and other militant groups in the region. But for Iraqi refugees in Damascus, every day is one of uncertainty.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.