GUESTS: IRAQI REFUGEES IN SYRIA
by Gabriela Bulisova
A single refugee is a tragedy; over four million refugees is a statistic.
In 2008, I worked in Syria to document the large number of Iraqi refugees who had fled their homes en masse. By that time, more than 4.9 million people were displaced, and 2.5 million had fled the country, with most settling in Syria and Jordan. My goal was to find out more about those fleeing Iraqis -- and to turn them from statistics into individual human beings.
At first glance, Sayyida Zainab didn’t seem much different from any other bustling, poor Damascus neighborhood, until one listened carefully: the Iraqi dialect spoken here transports one from Syria to Baghdad. This is where Iraqi refugees came to escape war and sectarian violence. But when I asked them how long that may take, their faces took on a look of uncertainty. As one refugee put it, “Iraq’s future is like a long dark tunnel.”
Here, far away from their homeland, desperate, almost penniless Iraqi refugees congregate on “Iraqi Street,” a road that serves simultaneously as a community center, a market, and an access point to nearby living quarters. As one passes the tea sellers and other merchants who are the nerve center of the neighborhood, one can start to imagine what life used to be like in Iraq -- except that many people in this neighborhood are scarred from terrible violence in their homeland and desperately poor conditions in Syria.
The newcomers were called “guests” by the Syrian government, which refused to officially recognize them as refugees. As “guests,” they had extremely limited prospects – they were without the ability to earn a legal income or create new lives. They were so poor and desperate that a father almost tried to sell his son to someone who could provide for him better -- before relenting at the last moment. Many women were forced into prostitution to eke out a basic existence.
Which desperate story to mention? Which door to an unheated room to open first? These photographs were intended to puncture the statistics and reveal human beings who urgently needed real help.