Housing has proved to be a major issue. Few building owners were willing to rent [a man named Ahmed] an apartment outside of the overwhelmingly Iraqi neighborhoods of Sayyida Zeinab and Jeramanah. Many landlords suspected that Ahmed and his family would prove troublesome, stealing from neighbors or engaging in other acts of criminality. He was eventually able to rent a small, unfurnished apartment, but only by concealing his nationality from the apartment’s owner.
Ahmed and his wife have also confronted the daunting task of finding work, since Iraqis are not legally allowed to hold jobs. They have been turned down from even the most low-paying of jobs, and have been forced to fall back on begging and other handouts. But it’s not just the legal issues that are preventing Syrians from hiring them; many employers doubt the couple’s trustworthiness and character based on their nationality alone.
Ahmed’s situation is shared by many Iraqis in Syria, and it suggests that social prejudices and xenophobia, in addition to legal barriers, are proving increasingly problematic for refugees. Some Syrians have begun to use the term “dirty” to describe their Iraqi neighbors. I noticed the term used on multiple occasions, often coupled with descriptions of the refugees as being cheaters, thieves, and prostitutes. Not surprisingly, some Iraqis (though not all) describe feeling unwelcome as well; many lie about their country of origin, explaining away their unusual accent as a product of a village upbringing. It’s a falsehood that allows them to get a job or rent an apartment or, at the very least, escape various degrees of social ostracization.
This dynamic, of course, is not simply attributable to racism. With a substantial refugee presence for over five years, coupled with the job-tightening of the global economic downturn, the situation of many Syrians is unenviable. But so too is that of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, still living in a country not their own, but not yet able to return.
And for those of you in DC, tonight Refugees International is hosting a presentation of Betrayed, George Packer’s play about the difficult experiences of Iraqis who worked with Americans in the country.
(image of an Iraqi refugee in Syria, from flickr user catholicrlf under a Creative Commons license)