“I got a death threat,” begins Azar, 26, explaining why in April of last year he fled Iraq and joined the ranks of Iraqi refugees in Syria, now numbering 1.5 million. “I had no choice but to leave.”
On a July afternoon in the Christian quarter of Damascus’ Old City, he describes his difficult journey. It is easy in Damascus to find Iraqis with much more tragic stories than Azar’s but his provides a rough sketch of the ubiquitous danger of central Iraq, the ordeal that many Iraqis face as they flee their homeland, and the precarious life that they lead in Syria.
Armenian Christians, Azar and his family received death threats from both Shia militias and al-Qaeda style jihadists, or “the terrorists” as he calls them. His family lived in Khaldiya, a small town 50 miles west of Baghdad, where they owned and operated four air-conditioning repair shops. Two of the shops were blown up. Afterwards, his family received a leaflet warning them to leave within three days or risk being killed. They were told not to sell their home or take any of their possessions with them. “We knew that it was not from the mujahideen in the village. We know them,” he says, “they are our friends.”
In Khaldiya, explains Azar, Christian families lived next to Muslim ones, Sunnis lived alongside Shia. But, that was before the war. Now, he says, perhaps two Christian families remain out of the sixty or so who used to live there. Some of them where killed. Most left Iraq or traveled north to Mosul, where there is a large Christian community. But there, too, they have been targeted.
According to recent UN figures, Christians make up roughly twenty percent of Iraqis registering with the organization as refugees. Yet they about three percent of the total Iraqi population.
Transport Azar to America and he would pass easily as just another late-twenties hipster. Dressed in a pink cowboy shirt and blue jeans and sporting thick sideburns, he closely resembles a young Nick Cave. As we talk, he sits resting one hand on his big Harley Davidson belt buckle while the other scratches nervously with a set of keys at the tablecloth.
“I was doing really good with work at the time and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving,” he says. “My father asked me to leave even if I did not finish my studies.” Azar was studying accounting at a technical institute located near his home. He had less than a year of school to complete before graduating.
Reluctantly, he followed his father’s advice and, along with two friends, left Khaldiya. They each paid $100 for a ride in a GMC truck to the Syrian border. The trip typically takes a few hours, but because of roadblocks set up by the US military, the journey took 18. At the border, the trio paid a bribe to the guards, who, as the stream of fleeing Iraqis has increased, have been rumored to extract stiff fees from Iraqis desperate not to be turned away.
Despite the risks, the extortion, and the difficulty of leaving his family, Azar says he was glad to have reached the border. “When I entered Syria, I felt safe because I didn’t know if I would survive the trip.”
But, his relief soon gave way to fear and disorientation at the reality of life in a new country. Upon arriving in Damascus, he quickly applied his skills as an air-conditioner repairman. But after working for two months, he had only been paid a portion of what he was promised. Recalling that time, Azar says: “I felt that I was lost, that I had no future.”
Now, Azar’s work situation is quite good compared with that of other Iraqis. After quitting his repair job, he quickly found a position as a waiter. Legally, Iraqis are not allowed to work in Syria. Many live off of the savings they brought with them. Others work under the table, where discrimination and exploitation are widespread; prostitution is on the rise among Iraqi women. But Azar’s pay is the same as that of the Syrians with whom he works. He acknowledges his fortunate situation at the restaurant: “Here, I am treated the same as everyone else, but at other places Iraqis get paid less than Syrians.” Although the owner knows that Azar is Iraqi, Azar must disguise his identity by speaking with a Syrian accent as he waits on tables.
Like a lot of the refugees, Azar is trying to resettle in another country. He’s applied to Australia and to Sweden. “I gave them all the proof, all the documents and I was refused.” Australia took less then a month to pass along their rejection, despite the fact that Azar’s sister lives there and that he provided proof of the threats on his life. “I’ll try again,” he says before adding quickly that he’ll also try applying to the United States.
What will he do if he has to stay in Syria? “I don’t know,” he says slowly, shacking his head. But he will not go back to Iraq, adding: “No, if I go back, I will go back to death.”
Just as we’re about to finish our conversation, Azar reveals that he’s left something out, something important. He has a girlfriend; she lives in Mosul and he wants to marry her. “I last saw her two years ago,” he says, then takes a deep breath. A long silence follows. Then, he resumes working away at the tablecloth with his keys.
ROBERT S. ESHELMAN can be reached at email@example.com.