Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
On May 6, 2007, two men in black visited the Baghdad house Imad shared with his parents and younger sister. It stood in a mixed neighborhood where, for as long as Imad can remember, Sunni and Shiite Muslim families lived side by side with Christian and Sabaean Mandaean families like his own. The visitors invited Imad’s father to the neighborhood mosque to become a Muslim. If he failed to do so within three days, they said, he would be killed.
The family stayed indoors for five days, not knowing even if the visitors and the mosque were Sunni or Shiite. Such things had never mattered before. Then Imad’s father, daring to carry on with life, went with his daughter to the market to buy food. Three masked men were waiting for him in a car. He told the girl to run. She heard the shots that killed her father. After the funeral, Imad left for Syria to find refuge. The family, including Imad’s older brother, his wife and two young children, reunited in Damascus within days.
Imad had found them an apartment in Jaramana, a run-down section of the city attractive to Iraqis for its relatively cheap rents. Like their father, Imad and his brother had been goldsmiths, a traditional occupation of Sabaean Mandaeans. In Baghdad, it was a very good living. In Damascus, they spent their savings, thinking they would soon be able to go home. The Americans had embarked on “A New Way Forward,” a strategy to restore order to Baghdad with a surge of 28,000 soldiers: one brigade in January 2007; another in February, when Operation Enforcing the Law was launched; and another in March. In April a fourth brigade was deployed to Diyala. By the time the fifth and final brigade arrived in Baghdad in May to complete the surge, Imad’s father was dead and his family in exile, counting themselves among 2 million Iraqis who had fled the country and part of the estimated 4.7 million–17 percent of the population–uprooted from their homes since the American invasion in 2003. When Imad and his family arrived in Syria, there were almost a million Iraqis in Damascus alone, and more were coming every day.
Like most Iraqi refugees, Imad keeps in touch by cellphone and e-mail with friends and relatives back home. I met Imad and his brother in a spartan storefront Internet shop in Jaramana, where he works illegally–refugees are not allowed to hold jobs in Syria, for fear they might be encouraged to stay–and where other Iraqis congregate to contact relatives still in Iraq. Everybody smokes: Gauloises, Gitanes, Marlboros. The density of the smoke registers the level of tension in the air. Yet every day I overheard Skype conversations full of laughter and good spirits. When a caller finished a seemingly cheery chat, I’d ask, “How are things in Baghdad?” The answer was always the same. “Things are terrible.” Callers listed the enduring problems: bad water, little electricity, no jobs, no medicine, cholera, explosions and unremitting random acts of violence. Everyone said something like, “Our relatives tell us not to come back. They want to come out. It is not secure.”