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No Roads Out, No Roads Home

ISSUE:  Summer 2008

Mehyar said he had a car, but he didn’t bring it with him.

“It’s broken,” he told me, and I’m sure my expression gave away my dismay. “We can take a cab, or we can take my bike.”

By spring 2006, getting in a cab in Baghdad, especially as a non-Iraqi, had become a pretty dicey proposition. I weighed that against the prospect of climbing on the back of Mehyar’s bike, a 1000-cc Yamaha crotch rocket.

“There are only four like it in all of Iraq,” he told me proudly. It was painted white and electric blue, and he kept it irreconcilably clean amid the dust and dirt of Baghdad.

Initially, I hesitated. At that point, I was the only Western journalist living outside a fortified hotel complex. The civil war was picking up momentum, but Westerners and the US military remained targets. Almost every morning I had a cup of coffee while mortars sailed overhead toward the Green Zone directly across the river. (One had actually landed on the roof of my building the previous November, fortunately coming down in a large water tank and only destroying that.) Climbing onto the back of an expensive motorcycle might make me more noticeable, but it probably wouldn’t make things that much more dangerous.

I put on my sunglasses and tried not to think about it, gritting my teeth as Mehyar zipped through the traffic. Later, after seeing Mehyar’s car, a beat-up piece of junk with an unreliable clutch (good camouflage but prone to breakdowns), I decided that the bike was by far the better option.

It was the first time I had been on a motorcycle. Baghdad could be vaguely terrifying any time I drove across it, but this was new. No one else wore helmets, so we did not, and I held on to the body of the bike as tightly as I could, fearing we would hit one of the huge potholes in the street and that would be the end of us. We weaved through the traffic jams and snarls, zipping through neighborhoods controlled by rival factions, and made the trip in half the normal time. I took comfort in the fact that we could more effectively evade would-be kidnappers. (It was on this point Mehyar rested his case for taking the bike.) We arrived in Baladiyat, the neighborhood where most of Iraq’s Palestinians had congregated and were hiding, parked the bike, and walked—swaying a little over the suddenly solid ground—into Jaffar’s house.

Jaffar, a Palestinian lawyer in his fifties (whose real name I didn’t learn until later), had taken up the responsibilities of running an informal human rights organization for Palestinian refugees: a living-room office, a computer, and a grim list of names. Such offices are common in Iraq. He gave me a CD of photos and a folder of photocopied documents, including letters from a cleric’s office calling for militias and police to end their campaign against Palestinians. He declined to be recorded on my MiniDisc, he told me, for fear of retribution. The police had threatened him, he said. “They told me ‘Don’t go to the court or your life will be in danger.’” Over the last three years Iraq’s Palestinians had come under increasing persecution from a host of Shiite militias, some eager to gain control of the parcels of land under Palestinian control, others simply wanting revenge for decades of perceived favoritism for Palestinians.

Palestinians first immigrated to Iraq in large numbers in 1948, aided by Iraqi army units returning from fighting the Israeli military in Palestine. By 1951, about 5,000 of them were housed in tents in Basra; the government built Baladiyat—a kind of Baghdad ghetto for Palestinians—in 1962. Over the years, many Palestinians immigrated simply to take advantage of Iraq’s good standard of living relative to other Arab countries. When the US invaded in 2003, there were somewhere between 23,000 and 34,000 Palestinians in the country. By the summer of 2006, after increasing persecution following the bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in Samarra, only 10,000 to 14,000 Palestinians remained. Most have coalesced in Baladiyat, desperate for a sense of security.

Mehyar is half Palestinian. His father, who was originally from Gaza, studied electrical engineering in the UK and then moved to Jordan. In 1978, he took a job in Baghdad, met Mehyar’s mother, who is Syrian, and stayed. Mehyar was born four years later, his brother, Omar, two years after that. “Overall,” he said, “it was an average life. There is nothing remarkable in it. In my case, I grew up in what we considered financially a very good situation. It was a very nice life, my childhood was very good. But everyone was affected by the sanctions in Iraq. And during [the sanctions], the regime was enjoying a really fancy life while you’re not. I grew up actually in what is called a fancy neighborhood, but during the sanctions it was not fancy anymore. During the sanctions, people suffered a lot.”

This version of events differs a great deal from the propaganda circulated by the regime. Wanting to be seen as an Arab hero, Saddam Hussein styled himself a champion of the Palestinian cause, pledging support and special consideration to Palestinians who joined the Baath Party and championing war against Israel even as his country sank into destitution. Though he won media coverage for supporting the families of martyred suicide bombers in the occupied territories, his perceived generosity—which in reality appears to have meant little more for the average Palestinian than refuge in rent-controlled apartments—provoked envy among many Iraqis, especially those targeted by the government. After the US invasion in 2003, many landlords retaliated by kicking the Palestinians out of their rent-controlled apartments, effectively forcing them into refugee camps around the country. Hundreds of families from west Baghdad ended up in tents on a soccer field at the Haifa Sports Club. These tensions simmered as the Shiite political parties that had formerly opposed Saddam Hussein solidified their power within the Iraqi government and the police.

After the February 2006 bombing of the shrine in Samarra, northeast of Baghdad, militia groups began blockading roads and manning checkpoints, in search of members of the opposing sect or rival militias. Residents of Baladiyat said that there were rocket and mortar attacks on the neighborhood—retaliation by Shiite militias, presumably. The sheikh at the local mosque, an Iraqi, had been threatened. It got so bad that many Palestinians stopped going to work or school for fear of violence.

At the time that I met Jaffar, the lawyer, state-run Iraqi television had begun airing a show called Terrorists in the Hands of Justice, in which prisoners, many of whom bore clear signs of abusive interrogations, confessed on camera to various crimes. Four Palestinians had recently been featured in this macabre parade. “The local media has a campaign against Palestinians,” Jaffar said.

The consensus in Baladiyat was clear. Everyone wanted out. “It’s not because we hate the Iraqis. It’s because we fear the extremists,” he said.

Jaffar was burned alive during the summer of 2007.

Identity is everything in Baghdad. Mehyar did his best to keep his close. This is tough in a place where one’s tribal ancestry is part of exchanging pleasantries. During my short time with him, I witnessed how fast suspicions elevated once someone knew his Palestinian heritage. And it’s not just the Iraqis who exhibit these prejudices.

After the US invasion, Mehyar found a job translating for the American military. Two months into the job, suspecting him of having insurgent links, the military suspended and then arrested him. He spent eleven months in Camp Bucca, a US prison near Basra which now holds about 5,000 Iraqis. Most third-country nationals in US custody after the war were repatriated by the Red Cross, but Mehyar remained a prisoner. As a Palestinian without Iraqi citizenship, he could not be repatriated. He was a man without a country.

The US soldiers at Bucca prison, he said, were unaware that there even was a Palestinian community in Iraq. The way Mehyar tells it, the American soldiers eventually came to see him as less a prisoner than an ally. As he proved himself useful, they brought him a DVD player. After many months, he was given an exalted position as the interpreter in the camp’s hospital. (His familiarity with American troops was evidenced every time his practiced English was punctuated by some slightly mispronounced colloquialism like “dogg” or “whazzup.”) To be entrusted with such a job by the Americans was a high honor but also highly dangerous. Mehyar chain-smokes nervously and rarely sits still. He blames it on his months of incarceration.

Palestinians in Baladiyat say the extent of Saddam’s patronage has been overstated and that under his rule their rights were even less secure than those of other Iraqis. They could not own property or register cars and often had to renew their residency monthly, even if they had been in the country for years, perpetual refugees. But such arguments do little to convince Shiite militias. And the Palestinians are not the only targets; Shiite militias continue to drive out Sunni Iraqis, ostensibly in a campaign of cleansing in response to the destruction of the shrine in Samarra. In taking the houses and land, many Shiites feel they are legitimately reclaiming property confiscated by Saddam, a reminder that wounds can run generations-deep in a region where basic rights are treated as rarified privileges and land is a zero-sum game.

Jaffar showed me a document signed by the local representative of Muqtada al‑Sadr, the cleric who is nominally the head of the Jeish al-Mehdi. Sadr is the most anti-Israel of Iraqi Shiite leaders and, in an effort to build pan-Arab solidarity, has forbidden violence against the Palestinians. But such declarations mean little to the laity. Mehyar understood why. We went to visit Shiite refugee camps, where thousands of families, the victims of Sunni and Baathist campaigns, had become refugees.

One such camp is Chikook in west Baghdad. There we sat under tin roofs in the pouring rain and were served tea as refugee families drove in with vehicles piled high with whatever trappings of home they could bring. The families had received notes from groups such as Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic Army of Iraq, accusing them of collaborating with the Iraqi government and the occupation. Many of the notes gave a deadline of twenty-four or forty-eight hours to leave their homes before “God’s judgment” came down. Most of the families arriving in Chikook were from Haswa, a Shiite village near Abu Ghraib. The men said there was a progression—first they became afraid to go to work, then afraid to leave the house at all, then afraid even to stay home. “One hundred families have left [Haswa] in the last two days,” a middle-aged man named Abu Mohamed told me. “One hundred, maybe two hundred more are coming in the next week.”

A Man Shoveling
Workers in Baghdad’s Chikook neighborhood are busily keeping up with demand for housing in this Shiite enclave.

At first I was skeptical about a true escalation of violence; was the exodus simple herd mentality? But everyone I spoke with seemed to have left only after losing a family member or neighbor. The sign-in form in the Sadr office run by the Jeish al-Mehdi, who control the camp, includes—along with lines for names, place of former residence, and other vital data—a line that reads: “ was killed.” The Jeish al-Mehdi point newcomers toward available vacant lots and provide a measure of protection. We soon found ourselves “checking in” at the local Sadr office for permission whenever we wanted to visit the camp. The camp forms a front line of a war in which both sides blame the US for fanning sectarian flames.

One morning, Mehyar didn’t want to go to Chikook and suggested that Haidr, the Shiite interpreter I worked with, accompany me instead. Meeting anyone associated with the Jeish al-Mehdi made him extremely nervous. And likewise, Haidr would not go anywhere near the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters in Qadissiya in west Baghdad, which Mehyar and I visited in order to get the “Sunni side” of the story. This is how Iraq’s civil war is covered, in patchwork visits to the fractured front lines. Other areas, islands in a sea of hostilities, simply shrink into themselves, as is the case in Baladiyat. And the mood in Baladiyat could be read by the way residents didn’t linger in the streets but moved quickly from building to building, like people under siege.

On another afternoon, Mehyar and I visited a group of men living in an old building that served as a squatter house as well as a warehouse and school. The couches in the sparsely furnished room looked old but inviting. When I sat down, my butt sank through the couch and nearly touched the floor. Tea was served. Sitting to my right was Abu Mohamed, who showed us a bullet wound just below the knee of his right leg. The leg was swollen and purple in places, down to the foot.

“I was hit by crossfire in the neighborhood ten days ago. I went to the hospital but left before getting treatment,” he said. “One of the doctors told me I should leave before the Iraqi National Guard came to detain me. That’s what happens to [non-Iraqi] Arabs who come to the hospital with bullet wounds.”

Abu Alaa, a doctor whose mother is Iraqi and whose father is Palestinian, agreed. He said he had recently been threatened by another doctor after objecting to the Iraqi military’s habit of visiting his hospital and abusing insurgents who had been brought in for medical treatment “They came into the hospital, and one of the soldiers placed his finger in the wound of a man we were treating. I told him that if they wanted to kill the man, they should have done it in the street, rather than bringing him to the hospital first.”

“He told me, ‘Keep your mouth shut. You’re not Iraqi,’” Abu Alaa said. The threats became more specific and direct. He left the hospital shortly thereafter and moved to northern Iraq.

One afternoon, back at the apartment, I waited until Mehyar was sprawled on the sofa, smoking and watching MTV, then phoned the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC)—“see-pic” in milspeak. A balanced story needs all sides, I told myself, and surely the refugee problem wasn’t as invisible to the US military as everyone claimed. When the soldier came on the line, I explained the story I was writing and asked for a statement on what the US military was doing for refugees.

The line was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know anything about refugees,” the soldier said at last.

“But the Iraqi Red Crescent said the US has promised to help with tents and potable water.”

The soldier insisted: he knew nothing about refugees in Baghdad. I pressed him. He didn’t just not know what the military was doing for refugees, he claimed not be aware of any refugees at all.

Ask Iraqis, and they tell you it wasn’t always like this. Only those who were particularly loyal to Saddam’s propaganda will now deny that Hussein exploited tribal, political, and religious differences to maintain power. But no one would compare the factions under Saddam to the vicious sectarianism that has emerged since the US invasion and occupation.

A Couple and Their Six Children
A family of refugees in Chikook.

A year after I first went to Chikook with Mehyar, I went back. The camp had grown in size, become a permanent—if dilapidated—neighborhood, and though no one had amenities such as clean water, people were no longer living in tents. Around the capital, other neighborhoods had been built. Getting to the camps was much harder—previously we had just driven in; this time we had to coordinate directly with al-Sadr’s political office, which still controls the neighborhoods. In order to cross neighborhoods that we had once crossed with ease, we were forced to meet up with the militia. The US military’s surge had lessened some of the violence, but primarily by separating people. Baghdad is more segmented than ever before; sectarian divisions and neighborhood takeovers that were beginning in 2006 had solidified by 2007.

I was unable to return to Baladiyat at all. I asked other journalists if anyone had been able to personally make the trip recently; they said they either had tried and couldn’t or hadn’t bothered.

By phone, one of the Baladiyat men I spoke to the previous summer said: “We are miserable. The minute the new security plan started, they implemented it on us. They came to the Baladiyat camp and arrested three of us. In any checkpoint now, they ask for birth certificate. When I tell them I am Palestinian, they arrest me. The death squads, the minute they know you are Palestinian, they think you are a terrorist, a Sunni, you must die. They think we are supporters to Saddam’s government—if I was benefiting from that I would have left for Syria or Jordan. You know?

“Where is our ‘right of return’? It is in the morgue.”

The battles for certain neighborhoods may have quieted a bit, but only because each militia has more completely consolidated local control, most with tacit approval or direct support of the US. The Jeish al-Mehdi is in charge of entire neighborhoods, evicting Sunni homeowners and moving Shiites into the houses and charging them rent. Others areas, such as Sadr City, the US can only hope to keep relatively quiet. Any incursions inevitably mean reprisals. Blast barriers surrounding mosques and public buildings are bullet-scarred. Already a maze of traffic barriers and walls has made Baghdad’s streets a Byzantine exercise in “postwar planning”; new walls seal off entire neighborhoods.

My friend Isam told me, “Call at night. The reception for the phones here is not very good since they built the wall.”

Isam lives in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Baghdad that the US military has recently walled off, a favored strategy to counter the insurgency. In this case, the wall is meant to keep out Shiite militias, but it has the effect of a cage. It’s hard for the residents to leave but easy for police and militias to monitor the activity of the neighborhood by posting spies at the single entrance and exit.

Still, some Iraqis agreed that if the US had not started building these walls and working with guerrillas who had formerly been fighting American troops, the city would have been cleansed of the minority Sunnis by now. Many Sunnis, who once defiantly opposed the occupation, now find themselves hoping that the American military will remain in the country, if only to prevent their expulsion or their extermination. A shortage of water and electricity in the city means different groups battle for control of both, as well as for more lucrative industries such as the oil infrastructure. The American surge has done little to address such local skirmishes, only slow what everyone calls the “Battle of Baghdad”—as if the coming post-American struggle for control of the city were already an historical reality.

In short, political reconciliation among all sides appears, for the moment, unlikely. When Sunni politicians push for more representation in government, they are attacked on one side by Shiite militants and on the other by extremist Sunnis who target the politicians for cooperating to any extent with the US and Iraqi governments. Meanwhile, Baghdad is literally dying. The electricity infrastructure, and with it the water infrastructure, are crumbling. Inflation (especially in fuel prices) is rampant. There are kidnappings and car bombs.

A bomb went off while I was having dinner with a friend named Riadh. The blast was close enough to shatter some of the windows in his house, and it was followed a few minutes later by gunfire (said by residents to be clashes between the US military and the Jeish al-Mehdi). The Iraqi government claimed twenty-five people were killed in the attack, which seemed a low estimate: at six in the evening, when people were shopping on the street, the bomb leveled a four-story apartment building. Four days later, bodies were still being removed from the rubble. But what sticks in my mind was the reaction of my friends to this bomb: while the blast sent me scrambling to the floor, their expressions hardly changed.

“Do you want to go see what happened?” Riadh asked me, smiling a little. He remembered my eagerness from my early days in Baghdad, when violence was still a novelty.

I politely declined, my urge for voyeurism long since stanched.

Five months later, Riadh was killed, along with his brother, when a suicide bomber attacked a funeral they attended—the funeral of a friend who had been killed by a car bomb.

No wonder Mehyar wanted out of Iraq.

He often told me he’d work with me even if I didn’t pay him; he just needed something to do. But I had been around Baghdad long enough to know that nothing comes for free, and as we worked together, Mehyar’s plan slowly unfolded. A group of Palestinians were planning a bus trip to the Syrian border, and Mehyar wanted me to come along. The Syrians had stalled the most recent convoy, but a previous group of eighty-seven Palestinians had been allowed to cross because the presence of American activists had apparently embarrassed the Syrian border officials.

I spoke with an activist named Beth, whose group, Christian Peacemaker Teams, had a flat in the building where I lived. She had made the ten-hour trip to the border, but when she was discovered she was fully covered in an abaya—the long, black, hooded cloak worn by many Iraqi women—and brought back to Baghdad in a local sheikh’s car. The trip across Anbar province to the Syrian border is dangerous, and Beth and the other two CPTers who had done it said they guessed they owed success in large part to being able to “cover up.”

They told me I could not risk being stopped at the border and turned back through Anbar. So Mehyar and I went to the Syrian Embassy, where I applied for a visa. We had tea with the head of the consular section and things appeared to be going well until it became evident, through polite questioning, that Mehyar was Palestinian. Fifteen minutes later someone in Damascus phoned the man in charge of the consular section, and we were told the only place I could apply for a visa was in Washington.

A few months later, the Jeish al-Mehdi left a written threat on Mehyar’s doorstep, and he decided not to wait any longer. His brother and mother had already left for Damascus, but his father refused to go.

“It’s better to die with dignity here than die poor in Syria,” he told Mehyar as he tore up the threat.

So in summer 2006, Mehyar sold his motorcycle, got on a bus, and left his father behind. But the bus only got as far as a desert camp on the Syrian side of the no-man’s-land between Iraq and Syria. A couple of times Mehyar was able to reach me on his cell phone. They were trapped, he told me. They were not allowed to move forward, but they couldn’t go back. He and about 340 others were forced to live in tents in the open desert, exposed to high winds, flash floods, and bitter cold.

In the camp, he also learned from one of Jaffar’s neighbors what had happened to him: Jaffar had been trying to negotiate the release of three Palestinians from a nearby police station. The police were demanding $15,000. Jaffar couldn’t come up with all of the money, but the police took what he had and killed him, too. His family paid $1,000 for the return of his charred body.

Mehyar’s voice on the other end of the line was haunting.

“Please do something,” he said.

I met an Iraqi couple—Salam and Hanan—in their apartment in Dokhania, one of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus that has been built almost exclusively to house Iraqi refugees. The space was small and cramped. Despite money saved up from Salam’s white-collar job back home, in Syria even they were discovering themselves strapped for cash—and the Syrian government was not exactly rolling out the welcome mat. Landlords required six months rent up-front, and Iraqis are not allowed to work, so most live off their savings. Meanwhile, the problems of Iraq have only followed refugees here. In Dokhania, Iraqis have segregated themselves by sect; in some cases, neighbors who left at the same time find themselves neighbors again. Popular Iraqi restaurants in Baghdad have reopened their doors in Damascus under the same names. On “Baghdad Street” in nearby Sayyeda al-Zaynab, the neighborhood that houses the most Iraqis, bakeries churn out samoon, a football-shaped loaf of bread unique to Iraq, and transportation companies ferry people back and forth. Most Iraqi political parties have an office in Syria. All this reinforces the feeling of permanent transplantation, of starting over. People are recreating their home rather than talking about returning.

Salam and Hanan were luckier than most. They had been able to afford passports and travel costs when they were forced to run.

A Shiite political party had targeted Salam for filing a report that implicated members of an Iraqi political party in an embezzlement scheme. Later, in what was most likely an unconnected incident, their house was raided—they don’t know by whom: Shiite militiamen because Salam worked as an accountant for the Iraqi government inside the Green Zone, or the Sunni militia simply because Salam’s family is Shiite. Either way, when Salam and Hanan received renewed threats in Baghdad, they felt they had little choice. Salam took a leave of absence from his job, and they fled Iraq.

As we talked, the lights went out in their apartment. Damascus now has rolling blackouts, a function of the sprawl that is driven in large part by the influx of Iraqis. Hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure, in a country that already suffers from problematic unemployment, are likewise strained. The refugees I spoke to were desperate to get out, especially as food and fuel prices in Syria were spiking, and Syrians, whether jokingly or not, all seemed to blame Iraqis. I wondered how long it would be before Syrians use the qualifier mkhayyam (“camp”) when referring to Iraqi neighborhoods, just as they apply it to the Palestinian ghettos in the country. And just as the Palestinian “camps” are in reality breeze-block shantytowns, Iraqi neighborhoods appear to be taking on tenants as quickly as additional stories can be added to buildings. In Dokhania, new stories are being added from sunup to sundown. Refugees are good business for builders, anyway.

This was August 2007. Less than a month later, Syria would close its borders and impose further visa restrictions on Iraqis. Hanan and Salam paid a bribe to register with the United Nations for resettlement a few months ahead of their appointment, but about a month after that Salam decided to return to Baghdad. Hanan didn’t want to leave, but if Salam stayed away any longer he would lose his job. Their savings were running thin. Better to leave on their own terms than to go back totally broke or be deported for overstaying their visa. Over Hanan’s protests, they went back—but not to their old neighborhood. They are now living on Palestine Street in one of the first Baghdad neighborhoods the Jeish al-Mehdi took over when it began to expand out of Sadr City.

It was reasonable of Salam to give up on the UN process. Five countries—the US, UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Sweden—agreed to take approximately 10,000 applications for 2007. By August 2007, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official in Damascus who was in charge of resettlement, only forty-seven people had been resettled for the year. The UNHCR office in charge of resettlement referrals said that the process of issuing visas has sped up in recent months, though it is still doubtful that the 10,000 mark will be reached by the end of 2008.

No one expects to be going home soon. In Damascus I met a former Iraqi army officer, named Ashraf, who told me he was going to have to return to Baghdad in a few days to sell a piece of land. The location was prime, and another Iraqi sitting with us questioned the decision to sell it. “What should I do?” Ashraf fired back. “It will not be safe there for another twenty, thirty years.”

In April 2008, I met up with Mehyar in Damascus. After he endured four months in the desert camp, his mother’s family in Syria had managed to pull strings with government officials to get him admitted to the country. At first it was strange to see him there, out of the context of Baghdad. We had grown accustomed to being wary whenever we were together, often communicating in whispers and glances on the street, if at all. In Damascus, there was no need to watch ourselves; we could speak freely and openly.

We moved like tourists, running into people Mehyar knew as we walked from the Umayyad Mosque, in the center of the old city, to the place he was sharing with his British girlfriend. (Most of the other Iraqis have decamped to suburbs that don’t look much different from Baladiyat.) His flat was simple and sunny. Birds sang from the newly green trees in the building’s courtyard. The weather in Damascus is mildly warm in April, and the fan chattered above us as we talked.

Mehyar drew a map for me, delineating the two camps along the border, Waleed and Tanf. One was on the Syrian side of no-man’s-land, the other, the Iraqi side. There are some 3,000 Palestinians stuck in such camps on Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Syria, and they are described, by the UNHCR spokeswoman in Damascus, who visits them every month, as “dreadful.” Food was so scarce at Mehyar’s camp that people took to hunting small game.

“We hunted scorpions and snakes,” Mehyar said. “Scorpions, we used to play with them. Snakes, we used to eat them. And wild rabbits, they are really delicious. We dig into one of their holes and surround it and capture him. Me myself, I ate a couple of snakes.”

UN officials have described resettlement as the only “durable” solution for the Iraqi refugee problem. UN officials have so far negotiated resettlement of about 300 Palestinians to South America. The fear is that more will appear at the camps after hearing about successful resettlement. If the camps seem bad now, consider that there are approximately five million refugees spread between Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Mehyar grimly reminded me that this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of Israel, making Jordan and Syria, which absorbed the majority of those refugees, the countries with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. What would happen if they decided to flee the region en masse?

Mehyar and his brother now occupy a strange position: they have become the refugees of two nations—Palestine and Iraq—with no country to return to. The country that once took them in is now forced to send its own people elsewhere. According to the UNHCR, more than 4.7 million Iraqis are displaced; more than 2 million have left the country looking for refuge—and are willing to pay any price for passage. Mehyar has considered having himself smuggled out of Syria, but he has heard more cautionary tales about predatory smugglers and con men than stories of people who successfully made it out, and when he began talking to people who offered to get him to Cyprus, they asked for money up-front. Mehyar smelled a rat. Instead he went to apply for refugee status, but learned that doing so would jeopardize his tenuous legal status in Syria. “The UNHCR told me if I would be registered as a refugee I would have to return to no-man’s-land and wait there for resettlement.”

He wasn’t willing to go back. The camp was a dead end.

“We were on the side of the highway,” Mehyar told me. “There were huge trucks.” One of the boys in the camp was crushed by a truck. Mehyar helped the family bury the child on the Syrian side of the road. He overheard what the military border police said to the boy’s family. “They told them, ‘Why the fuck you came over here, why don’t you go back to Iraq? You could bury the kid there.’ Because of that kid’s death, the family was allowed to go into Syria.”

Mehyar pauses.

“We had a joke—we have to kill the kids to get in.”

Mehyar said he can’t cry anymore, that he has seen too much. Without emotion, he told the end of his story:

His father finally had left Iraq and come to Damascus in July of last year. When he arrived, his leg was badly wounded. He told his family that he had injured it while installing a window, but doctors informed Mehyar that his father’s leg had been broken and his foot so badly burned that his house slipper had melted into his skin. They performed surgery to try to save the leg. Coming out of the anesthetic, Mehyar’s father kept murmuring under his breath.

“He was hallucinating after the surgery—‘Don’t burn me,’” Mehyar said. “When he was conscious again, he would deny it.”

His father died shortly after the operation.

“I think he felt after he was tortured that he was going to die, so he decided to come and see us for the last time.”

Mehyar looked hard for some small consolation.

“We know what happened to him,” he said. “Most people don’t have that chance. I know how it feels when you’re not sure that your beloved ones are alive or dead.”

Mehyar can’t go back to Iraq, but he won’t stay in Syria. He’s looking for an escape hatch, a back door, a visa to anywhere. And once he finds it, Mehyar won’t be looking over his shoulder. One way or another, he said, “I’m not coming back.”

David Enders traveled to Iraq on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. For more information on his reporting there, visit


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