“We were stranded at the border. We were caught between the armed groups behind us and the Iraqi border ahead of us. But it was closed and there was nothing we could do,” Mohammed Sadiq, an Afghani who left his home in Syria because of violence there and hoped to find shelter in Iraq. Sadiq and his family ended up spending three nights in the desert with his wife and two children near Rabia, the only international border crossing between Syria and Iraq, in the northern state of Ninawa.
“We thought we were going to be killed,” says Sadiq, whose face is badly sunburned because of the time he spent in the desert. “But then buses arrived and we were able to get into Iraq.”
Sadiq recalls why his family left their home in Damascus. “Armed groups started to launch more attacks in our areas. The rebel military were making raids in the alleys as the Syrian army withdrew. So we sought shelter in the shrine of Sayyida Zainab. We didn’t bring anything at all. We left all our belongings and clothes.”
Sadiq looked at his four-year-old daughter, who was talking to her doll. “Don’t worry,” he said. “When we go back home, we’ll change your clothes.”
Sadiq is lying to his child. He knows he and his family cannot return to his house in Hujaira neighbourhood of Damascus. He’s lost everything – and for now, his main concern is how to move his family out of the small hotel room in which they are living in the central Iraqi city of Karbala and into a larger home.
Sadiq and his family are one of many Afghan families who have had to leave Syria for Iraq in order to escape the violence there. In the 1990s, hundreds of Afghan families moved to Syria to escape from the extreme Taliban regime in Afghanistan. And many settled on the outskirts of Damascus near the Shiite Muslim shrine of Sayyida Zainab, because most of them are also Shiite Muslims.
In 1975, the Iraqi cleric, Hassan al-Shirazi, fled Iraq because of a death sentence against him and ended up in Damascus, where he established a Shiite seminary (or hawza) in the vicinity of the shrine of Sayyida Zainab. The seminary attracted many other Shiite Muslim Iraqis who had also fled their homeland as well as Afghan refugees, also Shiite Muslim.
Partially this was because the Syrian government was sympathetic to refugees and asylum seekers, allowing them to live and work in the country as well as the presence of the United National High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) there.
Many of the Shiite Muslim refugees worked at the shrine or the seminary.
Which is why the office of Shiite Muslim religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Husaini al-Shirazi, was co-ordinating this evacuation together with the Iraqi authorities; al-Shirazi is the younger brother of Hassan al-Shirazi, now deceased. The younger al-Shirazi was born in Kabala but now resides in one of Iran’s most holy cities, Qom.
Al-Shirazi’s organisation had taken on the task because it feels responsible for the Afghans, who are unable to stay in Syria but who cannot go back to Afghanistan, a spokesperson for al-Shirazi’s office, Aref Nasrallah, said.
Only a few days ago another bus load of Afghan refugees arrived in Karbala with 120 passengers onboard, most of them women and children. Upon arrival, they were helped by religious organisation in the city, which, because of the sacred sites here, is one of the one of the most important for Shiite Muslim believers.
Buses bringing the Afghans to Iraq used to have to spend six days waiting on the border because Afghans could not enter the country easily. However recently religious authorities interceded with the Iraqi government in Baghdad so that the refugees could enter the country without visas.
“It was very difficult to [bring the Afghan refugees to Iraq] because of the security situation on the Syrian borders and also because of the Iraqi government’s refusal to grant them asylum,” Nasrallah told NIQASH. “And many of the Afghans don’t have passports or identity cards.”
The religious organization is providing accommodation, food and shelter for the Afghan refugees and is also trying to help them with employment. The charitable work was restricted to Karbala. And they are working together with civil and state organizations to do this, they say.
Many of the Afghan families have also come here because of the aid that the Iraqi government is offering.
Some of the religious organisations say that there are now about 500 Afghan families in Karbala. The Karbala administration though says it has no official statistics on this as yet. The UNHCR’s last estimate of how many Afghans refugees and asylum seekers were in Syria, made in October 2012, totalled 2,000.
The fact that many of the Afghan refugees are Shiite Muslims may be part of the reason that some of the buses carrying them were targeted by militias in Syria as they were leaving. “When we reached the Iraqi border they tried to stop us from crossing,” reported another Afghan refugee, Bakir Jafar, who was travelling with his aged mother and his sister. “We were not carrying weapons and we didn’t want to take sides but they fired their guns anyway. The Syrian army stopped them for firing any further. If they hadn’t, then we would all have been dead.”
It’s hard to say whether the buses were fired upon because those firing were possibly Sunni Muslims themselves and knew there were Shiite Muslims on the buses. Or it’s also possible the buses drove through the middle of a fire fight. The situation in Syria is that confusing at the moment.
But at least the Afghan refugees are now relatively safe in Iraq. Many say that one of their biggest problems now is the high cost of living here. “Life is so expensive, especially in Karbala, because it is a city that attracts huge numbers of tourists all year,” one of the refugees noted. “Unlike Damascus where things are cheaper.”
“Renting a house in Karbala is very difficult because the prices are so high,” says Hassan Akhawand, who’s here with his two brothers; all three men have found jobs and are trying to raise enough money to pay the rent on a house where their seven-strong family can live. “A small house costs IQD300,000 [about US$250] a month,” he complains. “That’s already high. And we need to put food on the table too. We need to double what we’re earning.”
“This means that we’re not able to leave the place given to us free of charge,” Akhawand continues. “We’re all still living in a small room in one of the hotels, which is really far too small for all of us.”
As a result the Afghan family is considering returning to Syria. “We’re seriously considering this right now, even though we’re very aware that it might cost us our lives,” Akhawand says.
It is true that the Afghans could move around Iraq if they wanted to seek cheaper living conditions or better paying jobs. However they say that they prefer to stay in Karbala because it feels safer to them.