IOCC Expands in Syria
New Program Aids Iraqi Refugees
Damascus, Syria — It was a cold yet sunny day after Christmas when a young Iraqi woman walked to church in central Damascus, Syria where workers were unloading boxes of hygiene supplies to crowds of waiting Iraqi refugees. An American reporter asked Jeanette to comment on her situation. She responded defiantly, "Everyone knows how bad the situation is for Iraqi refugees in Syria." Then, she began to tell her story.
Twenty-eight-years-old and a college graduate, she worked in Baghdad for a foreign organization that provided computer and English language training for disadvantaged children. Her work was fulfilling. She even traveled to Jordan for further training, but like many Iraqis who work with foreigners, she was threatened by insurgents who view such Iraqis as collaborators. When a church near her home was bombed in 2007, her parents decided to send her and her brother to Damascus. Today, jobless and with little chance of finding meaningful work in Syria, she dreams of getting her parents out of Baghdad and migrating to Canada.
On the other side of Damascus, in the predominantly Shi'a neighborhood of Set Zeinab, a man named Kazin tells visitors another dramatic story of escape from Iraq. Kazin, a tailor who once owned his own shop in the holy Shi'a city of Karbala, was imprisoned and tortured during the Saddam years merely because some of his clients were political dissidents.
He was eventually released and came to Syria where he supports his family in their small apartment by sewing women’s head coverings. "I want to return to Karbala," says Kazin, "but I know that my shop and all my property were taken." When his 16-year-old daughter Fatima steps into the room and shyly greets the visitors, he proudly holds out one of her science books and says that his greatest hope in life now is for her to become a surgeon.
One of the World's Largest Refugee Emergencies
The U.N. estimates that, since 2003, over 4 million Iraqi refugee and internally displaced persons have fled their homes. Of that 4 million, an estimated 1.5 million are living in Syria. However, since Syria and other Middle Eastern host countries do not allow their Iraqi "guests" to work, staying is not a viable option — but neither is returning to an unstable Iraq.
IOCC is addressing this crisis by significantly expanding its humanitarian work in Syria, begun in 2002 with small projects for schools and orphanages.
The current $1.98 million program assists 4,100 Iraqi refugees and disadvantaged Syrians with school tuition, uniforms, supplies and tutoring. Others are receiving the vocational training of their choice including, hair styling, car repair, cell phone repair, sewing, and computer skills.
The program, funded by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM), is also providing Christian, Sunni, and Shi'a Iraqi and disadvantaged Syrian families with emergency hygiene supplies, and 15,000 school kits worth $228,000 are being delivered to schools through the efforts of Orthodox parishes around the country and IOCC's partnership with Church World Service (CWS). In addition, Lutheran World Relief (LWR) has donated 9,500 baby kits worth $358,000 to the program.
Easing Syria's Social Welfare Burden
"IOCC's program eases the social welfare burden on Syria’s central government created by the absorption of so many refugees," says Samer Laham, Director of Development for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch which is implementing IOCC's program in Syria. "It is beyond the capacity of Syria and the United Nations to completely assist all the Iraqis in this country," he continued. IOCC's program is being implemented in other parts of Syria that harbor large numbers of Iraqi refugees including the northeastern city of Al Kameeshly near the Iraqi and Turkish borders and the northwestern city of Aleppo.
One of the most effective aspects of IOCC's program in Syria is the vocational training offered to Iraqi refugees. Several of the components, such as cell phone repair, hair styling and sewing have been redesigned with intensive sessions so that Iraqis, whose living situations tend to be unstable, can complete the courses. This vocational training affords refugees their best chance at finding employment since most of the jobs allow Iraqis to work from their home. Cell phone repair, one of the most in-demand jobs in the Arab world can garner a refugee a monthly wage of up to $500 per month — an average Syrian salary. The program's component that teaches English is also in demand among Iraqi young people who consider English the "language of business" and who need it to make them better candidates for immigration to a third country.
A Sign of Solidarity
On that cold day after Christmas, IOCC provided Jeanette and her brother with a hygiene kit. Kazin, of Set Zeinab, also received hygiene kits and tuition assistance for two of his children. While such aid is a long way from completely solving the complex problems of refugees who can neither return to their homeland nor stay permanently in their host country, it is, as Laham puts it, "a sign of solidarity towards vulnerable Iraqis — to both Christians and Muslims. It is certainly our hope that this first major program with IOCC in Syria will be only the beginning of more to come."