Never Going Home: Young Iraqi refugees dream of Seattle, wait in limbo in Syria

Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill received three first place awards for their work on this story package in the 2011 Northwest Excellence in Journalism competition: Online Special Report/Enterprise; Long Newspaper Feature, and  Online Video.


Video by Alex Stonehill

DAMASCUS, Syria — An expatriate holiday party is in full swing in a blocky, Soviet-style apartment building. Syrian hipsters and European travelers hang over the edge of the concrete balcony and gaze out at a comically large Syrian flag illuminated by floodlights.

Inside, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is playing on a laptop and the crowd moshes in time.

At the center is Momo, 29, playing air guitar with his wild black curls smashed into a Santa hat. His wife, Odesa, 28, is clumsily riding a bike in the adjacent hallway.

They both claim never to have heard Nirvana before, though with a move to the Seattle area in their future, they’re happily taking a crash course in grunge.

Momo and Odesa — whose nicknames are being used to protect their families in Baghdad — are refugees who hope within a year to be resettled with an uncle in Kitsap County.

Momo hits the streets of Damascus to deliver his paintings to a UNHCR sponsored art show. Refugees aren't legally permitted to work in Syria. Photo: Alex Stonehill
Momo hits the streets of Damascus to deliver his paintings to a UNHCR sponsored art show. Refugees aren’t legally permitted to work in Syria. Photo: Alex Stonehill

But for now, they continue their five-year wait in the bustling Syrian capital, home to the largest concentration of Iraqi refugees in the Middle East. About 151,000 Iraqis are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Damascus.

These are not the refugees you’re used to seeing on the evening news, standing in front of blue and white tarps in an overcrowded camp. They are dispersed throughout urban neighborhoods instead of in remote refugee camps. And many come from the Iraqi middle class.

Most of them thought their exile, in a country that has offered them relative safety but does not allow them to work legally, would be temporary. Most were wrong.

“Even middle-class families nowadays, four years down the line, have eaten up all their savings,” says UNHCR Syria representative Renata Dubini. “This is a group that is particularly at risk … in terms of what will be their future.”

UNHCR's Douma Center in Damascus, Syria, processes newly arrived Iraqi refugees and distributes aid. Several thousand people pass through the center each day to recieve bimonthly food rations, including rice and cooking oil. Photo: Alex Stonehill
UNHCR’s Douma Center in Damascus, Syria, processes newly arrived Iraqi refugees and distributes aid. Several thousand people pass through the center each day to recieve bimonthly food rations, including rice and cooking oil. Photo: Alex Stonehill

At the center of this uncertainty are young people like Momo and Odesa. People between the ages of 18 and 35 make up the largest group of refugees in Syria — numbering near 42,000. Having fled the chaos and terror of Iraq, they are coming of age in a country where they cannot legally work and can’t see a future for themselves.

Momo and Odesa both attended art school in Baghdad. They support themselves selling art to tourists through a gift shop in the old city.

They spend hours in their living room turned studio: Odesa carefully painting black veils, known as abayas, on small wooden dolls; Momo recreating famous Orientalist paintings or designing shadow puppets.

They still need support from their families back in Baghdad and make regular trips to the UNHCR’s Douma Center, a warehouselike building, where they pick up bimonthly food rations as well as cash assistance.

Momo and Odesa, who have been here since 2006, complain of boredom and stagnation. Their friends are a rotating cast of travelers, aid workers and students of Arabic — all just passing through.

In Saida Zeinab, a Damascus suburb, Iraqi refugees clamor for free lunches. Photo: Alex Stonehill
In Saida Zeinab, a Damascus suburb, Iraqi refugees clamor for free lunches. Photo: Alex Stonehill

“It’s hard to call your family and say, ‘Please send $200, $100.’ I want to live like anybody — have work, have a future, have respect,” says Momo.

“We keep saying, ‘We will get started; we’ll get started,’ ” Momo continues, “but we’re just waiting. Waiting for what, I don’t know — just waiting.”

Scary memories
Around 2 million Iraqis fled their country in the past eight years.

For those young refugees who landed in Syria looking to start their lives, there are two options: go back to Iraq or wait to be resettled elsewhere. Some are resettled to Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

But the majority, about 16,000 per year, are taken in by the United States.

A refugee who fled Iraq with her three children in 2010 when attacks on Christians increased. Resources to treat the psychological impacts of trauma and displacement are almost non-existent. Photo: Alex Stonehill
A refugee who fled Iraq with her three children in 2010 when attacks on Christians increased. Resources to treat the psychological impacts of trauma and displacement are almost non-existent. Photo: Alex Stonehill

Syria, a country that has been praised for opening its borders to Iraqis, has no plans to permanently absorb this population.

The end of “official combat operations” in Iraq has not resulted in a mass return of refugees. While the Iraqi population in Syria has declined since its all-time high, UNHCR officials fear they will be entering into a “protracted” refugee situation by the end of 2011.

At the current rate of resettlement, it could take 20 years for all the refugees in Syria to be resettled to new countries. Few speak of returning to Iraq anytime soon.

Momo and Odesa often reminisce about life in Iraq before the war. Fish dinners on the roofs of their homes, listening to heavy metal with friends at college, their first kiss in a private booth at an Internet cafe. But they can’t imagine going back.

“Except some family or some friends, most things that I remember there are scary,” Momo says.

Momo and Odesa were married at a tiny ceremony performed while he was in hiding after receiving death threats. Photo: Alex Stonehill
Momo and Odesa were married at a tiny ceremony performed while he was in hiding after receiving death threats. Photo: Alex Stonehill

When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, Momo was curious about Americans and eager to make money. So he befriended American soldiers in his neighborhood and offered them portraits of themselves and loved ones they had photographs of—for payment and as an opportunity to practice his English.

When the violence increased in 2005, Momo was targeted by groups that were suspicious of his relationship to the U.S. military. Threatening men showed up asking for him at a store where he used to work. They returned and riddled the store with bullets, killing his friend.

Momo went into hiding with relatives nearby. Written death threats appeared on his doorstep and suspicious visitors came asking for him.

Convinced they couldn’t be safe in Baghdad, Momo and Odesa had a small wedding ceremony in hiding, and a few months later fled to the Syrian border by bus.

When they arrived in Damascus they marveled at the freedom that came from feeling safe for the first time in so long. They walked around at night, ate in cafes and pursued their art.

But soon anxiety set in.

“I can’t pretend this is my country,” says Odesa with Momo translating. “This is temporary. I am a guest; I’m not settled here.”

Turmoil, uncertainty
For the couple, Washington state has been a bright spot on the horizon.

Their applications for resettlement to the United States were recently accepted. And they have been waiting to submit to a series of interviews with the Department of Homeland Security in hopes of completing the resettlement process and joining their relative in Bremerton within the year.

“We buy movies about Seattle — the ‘Battle of Seattle,’ ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ — and we search on the Internet for Seattle,” they say, talking over each other in excitement.

“Everybody says that it is one of the nicest cities in the U.S.,” Momo said.

But that hope may have stalled.

Four and a half months of protests and uprisings against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government have destabilized the country.

The government has restricted entry of foreign journalists and has tight control over information within Syria. Despite this, reports have emerged about brutal government reprisals against protesters, including imprisonment, torture and killings. The U.N. and Human Rights Watch have estimated that nearly 1,000 people may have been killed since the beginning of protests in March.

Damascus, where most Iraqi refugees are located, has remained relatively calm, but anxiety is high.

“Like Syrians, refugees are concerned how further developments in Syria might affect their present and future,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Marina Aksakalova, over email. “People minimize their movements outside their homes … general anxiety and nervousness is quite high.”

Momo and Odesa have been waiting for a U.S. Homeland Security interview — the next step in the resettlement process. But in May, the Syrian government stopped approving entry to the U.S. teams that conduct the interviews, leaving their case and thousands of others in limbo.

Momo and Odesa are now lying low in Damascus, hoping that the political situation might improve so they can move on to the next stage of their lives.

Sitting in his living room back in December, Momo could hardly contain his excitement about moving to the Seattle area. He’d heard that America can be hard on new immigrants and that jobs and resources might be scarce.

But those worries were swallowed up in a flurry of daydreams.

“The first thing I’ll do if I reach Seattle is go to a restaurant and eat very delicious American food and then hang out with friends and dance until the morning,” says Momo, rising to his knees on the paint-splattered mat of his studio.

“Then we’ll take hot showers and buy bicycles — I want to go around Seattle, I want to see the buildings, the people … Yeah, I will do everything!”

UPDATE: On March 12, 2012, the editors received word from Momo and Odesa. They shifted their refugee resettlement request from the United States to Canada, were accepted, and are now living safely in transitional housing in Vancouver, BC.

NOTE: This video was produced for VJ Movement. This article was written for The Seattle Times.

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