Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Salwan and Danny

Danny sits on the end of the couch on the opposite side of the room and looks on as his older brother Salwan revisits the day their father was killed. His father Husqail and other family members were going to visit relatives in Northern Iraq. I ask which family members were present . “My mother, my sister, and Danny were there.” Salwan says as he looks up at his young brother. I ask Danny if he can recount what happened next. “Three men were walking toward us near the barricades that the Americans had set up to keep terrorists out of the neighborhood. They signaled the car to stop. Two of the men approached the car from the front, one came from behind. One of the men was looking at a photograph in his hand. He tells my father to get out of the car and come get his picture”. Danny says this was the signal to the gunman that they had the right man. “The next thing I remember is my father on the ground.” Husqail was executed by a shot to the head. The gunmen fled in different directions, leaving the shocked family sitting in their car.

Danny's father was a mechanic for the municipal sewer department. The crime for which he was executed in cold blood was working in the Green zone in Baghdad. He left a wife and five children.

Salwan asked a friend who worked in the Al Dora police department if he should mention the fact that his father worked in the Green zone- the motive for his murder. The friend counseled against it. There were many Sunni and Shia factions in the department and it would not be wise to advertise where his father worked. That very day the family abandoned their home and went to stay with friends in the Zeiuna district. His neighbors called to tell him that someone had taken over his home. Salwan naively went back to the Al Dora police department and filled out forms stating that unknown persons had occupied his home. He was told to report back to the police station the next day and they would go to his house. His friend called him later that night and warned him if he returned he would be killed. Salwan never went back.

The Al Dora neighborhood is very close to the green zone and people are closely watched. In 2006 Shia and Sunni militia groups began to grow more prominent in the neighborhood. Many residents of Al Dora have been killed, either executed in the streets, or killed in crossfire between the militias and the US army. Salwan says that in the twenty three years his family lived in Al Dora they had never had a problem. The neighborhood was a mixed neighborhood with Sunni, Shia and Assyrian Christians all living together.

It took the family one year to raise the necessary money for passports and papers so they could escape Iraq. They arrived in Damascus in November of 2007. One brother remains in northern Iraq. Having recently fled the militia violence in Mosul targeting Christians, he is trying to raise the money to get passports for his family so he too, can flee. Seven family members currently live in a small furnished apartment in the Jeramana district. All the relevant papers were provided to the UNHCR regarding their father’s death- the family hoped they would be resettled quickly due to the circumstances of their father’s death. The family has had no interviews since the refugee application was completed. Danny is not attending school. He stopped attending in 2006 after his father was killed. Now 16 years old, he is too old to attend the 8th grade in public school and would need to pay for classes. Since their arrival in Damascus he has also been diagnosed with blood sugar issues and needs medication. The family needed to make a choice between his education, medicine, and the rent. No one is currently working in the family. The family receives food aid from the UNHCR but no monetary assistance. When the family registered, Salwan was told he would need to separate his case from his families in order for the family to receive monetary assistance, since he was an adult male who could work. But because Syria does not officially recognize the UNHCR designation of refugee status, all Iraqi refugees have tourist visas stamped in their passports and are not permitted to work. Those that do work are subject to arrest and deportation. Those who take the risk are rarely paid more than five dollars per day.

Salwan’s family rarely leaves the apartment, visiting the church in the afternoons, occasionally visiting friends or spending time at the internet cafĂ©. Mostly, they sit around the apartment with nothing to do but watch TV. “We need to work, to occupy our time, to help us forget.” Salwan says. As they spend their days idly, it is hard to forget. It is especially hard for Danny. He tells me he is angry and confused. Two years since he witnessed his father’ killing and he has not received help. Like many of the young people who have been exposed to horrific violence, he has no outlet, no way to come to terms with his situation. “What can I do?” he asks quietly. On Christmas day Danny will be 17 years old. He tells me, “One day I would like to continue my studies and work in a pharmacy. But right now, I’d work at anything.”

Salwan is confused about staying. Because their father worked in the Green zone and because the family is Assyrian, Salwan believes that the family can’t return to Baghdad. “We can’t return. All Iraq is partitioned and we don’t have a place in Iraq. We need a new life.” In the next moment Salwan says, “I haven’t seen anything in my life but war, sanctions and more war. I’m 30 years old and I don’t have anything, yet I am now responsible for my family. Everything in this apartment belongs to somebody else. I don’t know the future- if we will go back, stay or be resettled. I don’t know anything.”