Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Arrival

Saad came to Damascus with his family 6 days ago to escape threats on his family. For two years he moved around Iraq trying to escape the violence. When a threatening letter appeared on his doorstep along with a bullet he decided it was time to leave. At a time when Iraqi generals are on Syrian TV encouraging people to return to Iraq, Saad’s departure is a warning. In Iraq, fear still greets you when you open your door.
I met Saad at the UNHCR offices as they were closing late Sunday afternoon. We were speaking with a young Sabian man who was waiting for his cousin to renew his papers. He had been waiting since 7:00 am that morning.

As one can tell from these many dispatches, waiting is a theme. For the Iraqi in Damascus waiting is a many layered task. It would drive an American insane. If you are used to instant gratification, the life of a refugee would be intolerable. You must wait for the power to return. Damascus has been experiencing rolling blackouts since the huge influx of people here. You must wait for the water to return- our tap has been dry for 2 days. You must wait for an internet connection, then wait for the page to load (no DSL here). You must wait for cash to pay the bills, wait for phone calls, appointments, visa renewals, resettlement and most of all, answers. Answers require the most patience. “The patience of a saint” as my mother used to say. Many Iraqis have become saints before they received an answer. Waiting is often a denouement as well.

Forgive me, I digress. A friend who has read this blog says my entries are long winded- a failing i am slowly recognizing, but even slower to correct. Changes will come, but you must wait. I hope you have the patience of an Iraqi.

As Saad passed us he stopped and looked up. Perhaps he heard me speaking English. He asked if I worked for the UNHCR. I told him no. He asked if i could help him. I told him no. He said he had been in Damascus for 4 days. His second oldest daughter was enrolled in school, but his oldest daughter was denied- her class was full. He had managed to rent an apartment for his family but it only had 2 beds (and his family was 6, himself, his wife and 4 children) and he needed blankets and winter clothes for his kids as well. The UNHCR gave him an appointment. He needs to return in January.

You know the feeling when you’ve made a life altering decision affecting your whole family, and the very first instant you second guess yourself? The feeling you get on a roller coaster just before you plummet toward the earth? Saad had that look as he turned and walked slowly down the street. I was reminded of the comment another father had made to me, “The children know nothing, the parents carry everything.” And it is a heavy burden.

Saad used to work as a driver in Baghdad. He was afraid because it was known in his neighborhood that his brother was an American citizen. In Iraq, this is enough to get you klled. He was kidnapped and held for 5 days in 2006. He was beaten and abused. He gained his freedom when US forces entered the neighborhood to confront the militias. He moved his family to Al Fallujah, seeking anonymity and safety. One night someone chased him and shot at his car. He moved the family to Al Ramadi. He began receiving phone threats. Then came the threat and bullets on the doorstep. A long bus ride to Damascus was next. Two years of hiding from unknown assailants and moving from one unknown to another has left the family exhausted.

Now the waiting begins.