On the Road to Damascus

Escaping war’s perils, Iraqis find sanctuary and hardship

story and photographs by Spencer Osberg

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“Iraq was my country, but no longer. I cannot be safe there,” said Sister Lynda in a hushed voice as she sat outside her tiny rooftop apartment in Damascus, Syria. Though far from Iraq’s sectarian violence, the Chaldean nun remained cautious when speaking, declining to reveal her real name, identify her Baghdad neighborhood or have her picture taken.

Up until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Sister Lynda recalled she rarely knew whether the people she passed on Baghdad’s streets were Sunni, Shiite or Christian. Back then, she said, people were simply people. As a Catholic religious in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Sister Lynda practiced her faith freely and her church thrived. She did not even know the regime had imprisoned and killed tens of thousands of her compatriots until after U.S. forces toppled it.

But the relative security, albeit naïve, that Sister Lynda and her Chaldean community enjoyed under Saddam Hussein began deteriorating soon after U.S. and coalition troops arrived. By 2004, the sounds of explosions and gunfire were interfering with her final year of theology studies. A year later, a string of attacks on Christian communities swept Iraq, and on two different occasions, Sister Lynda was inside a church when a car bomb exploded outside. On the first occasion, the explosion shattered the eardrums of several victims and showered everyone in the church with shards of stained glass. On the second, the explosion killed a child and severed one man’s legs and hand.

In 2007, unknown perpetrators raped and killed two of Sister Lynda’s close friends – fellow women religious – in Baghdad. Not long after, Sister Lynda narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt. Fearing the same fate as her friends, she fled to Kirkuk, a city three hours’ drive north, where she took refuge in a monastery, which also ran a kindergarten.But when the community there began receiving bomb threats from the Mahdi Army – a Shiite militia – it promptly closed. No longer able to cope with the dangers and unwilling to forfeit her vocation, she left for Syria.

Sister Lynda now lives in Damascus’s Jaramana neighborhood, where many Iraqis have settled. She helps connect fellow refugees with free or low-cost health care, food and other basics. She manages to survive on 4,000 Syrian pounds a month, about $87, which she earns making boxes for a local business. She also receives food assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Damascus.

Fortunately, the Chaldean nun does not expect to stay in Damascus much longer.After submitting a request for asylum to the UNHCR, she was accepted for resettlement in Australia. But she numbers among a handful of lucky individuals. Western countries so far have admitted a staggeringly small proportion of Iraqi refugees fleeing the war.

UNHCR estimates that 4.5 million Iraqis have fled their homes since 2003 and have not returned. Roughly 2.5 million of them are internally displaced people, who have moved elsewhere in Iraq. The remaining two million have sought refuge in neighboring countries, chiefly Syria, which hosts between one and 1.5 million people, and Jordan, which has as many as 700,000 refugees.

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Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Iraqi Christians Jordan