The Digital Journalist
Syria's Iraqi Refugees
July 2007

by Klavs Bo Christensen

Day 1

I arrived in the Sayeda Zainab quarter of Damascus around 9:00 in the evening where an eponymous shrine to Muhammad's granddaughter is located. The streets were very busy, since it is so hot during the day that people tend to go out in the evening when the temperature drops. In the plane from Denmark I met an Iraqi man, Fareed, who fled Iraq about 10 years ago. At that time he walked from Iraq to Iran, from Iran to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece from which he somehow found his way to Denmark. There he obtained what most of the people in Sayeda Zainab at the moment are desperate for: asylum in a European country. Lucky guy. Now he was on his way back to Basra to visit his family and his friends, making a stopover in Sayeda Zainab to buy some clothes and and other things, since prices are cheaper here than in Iraq. I checked into a very small and cheap hotel inside Sayeda Zainab and shared two rooms with Fareed.

I took a walk in town later that evening. I wanted to listen, smell and get into the mood of this town that I was going to spent almost nine days in. I also wanted to find Iraqi Street which was supposed to be a kind of Main Street in this mostly Iraqi part of Syria.

Men at an outdoor tea shop in the Sayeda Zainab quarter of Damascus, Syria, on June 9, 2007. The Iraqi refugees in Syria do not have much to do daily. They are not allowed to work (though some do) and most of their time is spent waiting.
After a while a guy walked up from behind me and introduced himself as Mustafa. He was the first person I had met who could speak English. We talked a little and he invited me to the home where he lived with his friend. Mustafa was a young man, 26 years old, but his eyes were tired and lifeless and he had difficulties concentrating. He and his friend Ali lived in one small room. One bed, one mattress, a small bathroom and some stuff they had with them when they fled Iraq all squeezed into a room that was about 10 square meters (107 square feet) and cost about $140 a month. Both of them had been working as interpreters for the Multinational Forces in Iraq. Ali, 24, had only been in Sayeda Zainab for 10 days. Some months earlier he had been married in Iraq and shortly after he was kidnapped by the Mahdi militia. After more than a month he was freed by the Iraqi intelligence and after receiving a death threat he escaped the country, leaving his wife and family behind. His eyes were tired too. No wonder.

We talked about what to do, if I could help them get asylum in Denmark or Europe. They had been promised asylum in Europe or the U.S. after working as interpreters but nobody helped them when they needed it and now they were stuck here in Sayeda Zainab. They have no hope for the future. The next day they had to move out of their apartment since rent was going up and they couldn't afford it anymore. I could feel their despair, loneliness and sadness.

Day 4

I have been walking around town a lot and have talked to a lot of people and photographed daily life: people playing cards and pool, kids playing football.

Everybody here in Sayeda Zainab has lost someone. Someone who was killed by the militias or the coalition forces. I asked a lot of people about the solution to the problems in Iraq at the moment. The answer is the same: There is no solution; we don't have any hope anymore. One Baathist family told me that the only solution was for all international forces in Iraq to leave and let the Iraqis solve the problems themselves. "It might take 10 or 20 years of civil war," they said, "but look at the situation now."

While I was sitting and watching Iraqi Street a young man came up to me. He couldn't walk properly and he was holding his arms close to his body in a strange position. He was Ibrahim, 23 years old, a victim of severe torture. He invited me and my Syrian interpreter to his home. It was almost as small as Mustafa and Ali's. Ibrahim was living there with a friend who took care of him but in a few days they also had to move out because of rent going up.

Ibrahim, 23, victim of torture, in Sayeda Zainab, Damascus, Syria, on June 10, 2007. He came to Syria in November 2006. In Iraq, the Badr militia attacked a mosque during prayer and Ibrahim was captured. He was tortured severely. He cannot afford proper medical care so he is wearing his bandages as long as possible and he cannot afford to go to The Italian Hospital where he can receive help. If he doesn't get asylum outside the Arabic world before November 2007, he says he will go back to Iraq and become a suicide bomber.
Ibrahim had been living in Jordan from 1999 to 2004. He went back to Iraq after the collapse of the Saddam regime. I never found out the exact reason for him going back to a country at war. Maybe he thought it was going to be better. Not being able to find a job, he ended up calling people to prayer at a Sunni mosque. One day at prayer the Shiite Badr militia attacked the mosque and Ibrahim was captured. He was horribly tortured. Gasoline was poured over his upper body and he was set on fire. Then they drilled into his chest and arms. He also had the heavy marks of strangulation. During the torture he went into a coma. The militia thought he was dead and dumped his body. A taxi driver found him and took him to a hospital where he was treated. During his recovery the hospital was attacked by the Shiite Mahdi militia and Ibrahim succeeded in getting away. He entered Syria in November 2006.

The room we were sitting in was extremely humid and Ibrahim's wounds were infected and smelled a lot. He told me that he couldn't afford bandages as often as he should change them so he always waited as long as possible.

I had to hold back my tears. How can people do these things to other people? How can you drill into another person? How can you set another human being on fire? How can people do this to another person and after that say that they are true believers? I was really shocked and very angry at the same time. If this is what's going on in Iraq, I really understand why people have no hope left. I deeply understand why people want to get out of Iraq and this complete insanity. And I understand why some of these men just sit at an outdoor tea shop day after day, all day long, not being able to do anything. I have seen Ibrahim after he was tortured. I wonder what they saw.

Ibrahim wanted me to help him get asylum in Europe or the U.S. He wanted me to go with him to the UNHCR to get them to help him get asylum. It was very hard for him to understand that I had no authority within the United Nations and that I couldn't help him right here and now. I told him that the only way I could help was to tell his story.

Day 8

Abu Hassan working as a nightshift guard at a small sheep farm in the Sayeda Zainab quarter of Damascus, Syria, June 7, 2007. Abu Hassan is from Basra but always lived in Baghdad. He owned Al-Walid Company for sailing supplies in Basra. After the occupation, his company was robbed and looted. "The law did not help me to recover my possessions. The law was not implemented in a way that helps the poor or weak in Iraq. I have no money to bring my family here. I came here to work and to provide for them. Syria is the only country that is taking care of us."
I'm going home tomorrow. Tired and not in the best mood. It has been hard working in Sayeda Zainab and I am deeply moved by the stories I have heard from these Iraqi refugees. I haven't even mentioned Abu Hassan, who escaped the sectarian violence after his company for sailing supplies was robbed. He is now working as a night shift guard in Sayeda Zainab guarding a small sheep farm. During my stay I was stopped several times in the streets by different men who were very excited and told me angrily how much they hated America for the chaos in Iraq.

Every night around 1,000-1,500 refugees arrive by bus in Sayeda Zainab after 12-18 hours on the road. Sometimes the buses are stopped by militias searching for people and when they are found they are executed right outside the bus.

I am very surprised about the few articles I have read in Danish newspapers about this refugee crisis, which is apparently the largest ongoing refugee crisis in the world at the moment. And have I mentioned that Ibrahim will go back to Iraq in November and become a suicide bomber if he doesn't get asylum before that?

I am going home tomorrow. I have the possibility of choosing whether I want to be in Sayeda Zainab or not. Lucky me.

© Klavs Bo Christensen

Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen picked up photography as a hobby after graduating from The Royal Academy of Music. Ten years ago he began to work freelance for various Danish magazines and organizations. His work is based on social and cultural issues in his local neighborhood of downtown Copenhagen and has been exhibited in various museums and galleries around Denmark. A few years ago he decided to do more work on stories of international interest but still with a focus on cultural, social and political issues. These have taken him to Iran, Egypt and Syria. He began working with WpN in January 2007.

To view more of Christensen's work, visit his Web site:

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