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If a refugee makes it out of Iraq, he or she usually leaves behind the war’s immediate perils. But, for a surprising number of refugees, the conflict’s dangers follow them to their new homes. In Damascus, many Iraqis report receiving messages and calls on their Syrian cell phones threatening torture or death should they return to Iraq. One woman even reported she found the same threatening letter from the same militia group slipped under her door in Damascus that she found while living in Baghdad.

When discussing the war and their own troubles, refugees often evoke an unidentified ominous “they.” While “they” may refer to the Mahdi Army or Al Qaeda, the war’s better known belligerents, they may also refer to any one of a number of loosely organized groups or individuals who threaten, kidnap, extort, torture and kill, usually in a fog of anonymity.

Though Syrian authorities maintain tight security in and around Iraqi neighborhoods – likely a major reason why sectarian violence has not erupted among Iraqis living in Damascus – the influence of Iraqi militias remains palpable in some areas of the city. From high on the tenements’ walls lining the streets of Saida Zainab, posters of Mahdi Army leader, Muqtada al Sadr, and his father, Muhammad Sadeq al Sadr, loom down on passersby. The Mahdi Army also operates an affiliate office in the neighborhood.

Many believe the Mahdi Army and other militias run intelligence operations in the neighborhood. These militias allegedly deploy spies who keep records on Iraqis, noting what they say and do and communicate the information to their counterparts in Iraq.

Falah, who lives around the corner from Mr. Abdullah’s travel agency, insisted that criticizing the militias in Damascus could mean a death sentence upon returning to Iraq. A Shiite from the Iraqi province of Babil, he swore he could never return.

Despite belonging to the same Islamic confession, he said that members of the Mahdi Army began targeting him when they decided selling mobile phones was haram, or forbidden. In May 2006, two masked gunmen drove by his shop and shot him in the back. Unconscious in the hospital for 15 days, Falah woke to learn that the bullet had severed his spinal cord and that he was paralyzed from the waist down, unable even to control his bowels or bladder.

As soon as Falah felt strong enough, he, his wife and two children left for Damascus, hoping to find safety and treatment. Doctors have told him he has a 60 percent chance of walking again if he undergoes quickly the appropriate operation. Unfortunately, the procedure is not available in Syria, and he cannot afford to travel to a Western country where it is offered.

Falah said that resettlement in a Western country represents his only chance to walk again. Soon after he arrived in Damascus, Falah registered himself and his family with the UNHCR. Placed on the list for resettlement in the United States, he interviewed with U.S. authorities in May 2008. But, he said, the officials did not believe his story, telling him “there is something missing,” and denied his application. Now, he said, he only hopes another country will look at his file, but he feels weaker by the day and knows his opportunity for full recovery is closing.

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Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Iraqi Christians Jordan