Hassan eagerly shows off a little notebook where he has been learning to write in English and proudly shows off how to spell “Nurredin” his younger brother’s name. They are kicking a ball around in a small space adjacent to the kitchen, where their mother has hung out the washing under a makeshift canvas covering. Born as refugees in Syria, the two boys and their baby sister have never set foot on Iraqi soil. In 2006, a few months before Hassan’s birth, his parents fled from Iraq to seek safety in Syria.
The family’s decision to leave was spurred by violence. Their father, Salah, was kidnapped from his barber’s shop in Baghdad. He was held for several days and tortured. The reason for this torture was the rise in sectarian violence and an intolerance of mixed marriages. Salah is Sunni and his wife, Nour, is Shia.
After three months in hiding at his in-laws and pretending to be Shia, Salah made the decision to escape to Syria. They arrived in Aleppo in 2006.
They live meagrely in a densely populated neighbourhood in Aleppo. Currently, they live in one room; it serves as a lounge during the day and a bedroom at night, with a small kitchen and bathroom attached. Without a proper roof, the extreme weather conditions in the Middle East – hot in the summer and cold in the winter – can make it just as unpleasant to be indoors as outside.
As a consequence of the torture he suffered, Salah is unable to do physical labour, which makes it more difficult to make ends meet.
“When I have dreams or think about what happened, I can feel pain here”, he says, gesturing to his shoulders.
Evidently his psychological scars are worse than his physical wounds. In the years that they have been in Syria, both of his parents and his brother have passed away, and he was not able to return home to bury them. He now fears he will never be able to return to Iraq.
Many Iraqis feel a sense of déjà vu as media suggestions of deteriorating security bring back memories, even nightmares, from the recent past. The security situation in Iraq is still worrying, and many refugees in touch with JRS show no desire to return home for fear of becoming victims once again. Moreover, moving to a neighbouring country is not an ideal option as their resettlement applications to third countries (Australia, Canada and the US) are at risk of being delayed, or worse, nullified.
An uncertain future. Like any ordinary parent, Salah is worried for the future of his sons and daughter. At the moment, they are still under five, but soon he will have to be concerned with sending them to school. Both boys are lively, curious and intelligent. While Nurredin is quiet and earnest, Hassan is boisterous. They are fascinated by the camera and its display screen, eagerly trying to press all the buttons.
As a mother, Nour expresses concern for her children, their nutrition, health and the need for her husband to find work. In addition, their daughter is ill, suffering from a fever. Her dark eyes are glazed over and she cries meekly on her mother’s lap.
The JRS team regularly visits Salah and his family. It is part of JRS mission of accompaniment, to bear witness and listen to them. It is this approach that informs the organisation’s service and advocacy. Where necessary, and possible, teams refer refugees to doctors, legal advisors and other specialists. For Salah, this means ensuring his daughter receives medical care and warm clothing and blankets for the children as the winter cold worsened.
Accessing other services, including those managed by JRS, can be a real challenge. Distance is an obstacle for many urban refugees who live far from the centre of Aleppo. They are unable to pay transport costs to get to the JRS centre, which could provide them the opportunity to meet other Iraqis and feel part of a community.
Looking for ways around this transportation obstacle –often a cause of their isolation – is high on the JRS list of priorities and would enable us to expand services to those in the most vulnerable circumstances.
Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and North Africa
Countries Related to this Region
Jordan, Syria, Turkey