UNHCR Damascus

December 8, 2007 at 6:56 am 2 comments

I asked for the United Nations Refugee office, and the driver took me way out to the edge of Damascus to the UNRWA office. The UN Relief Works Agency, created for Palestinian refugees after 1949, still only serves Palestinians, who have never received the full complement of rights guaranteed other refugees.

One of the guards at UNRWA found another taxi for me, and sent me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The driver didn’t actually know where the office was, or much about the neighborhood in which it is located. Syrians do not seem to learn map-reading in school, street names are not generally known (or signed), and people navigate by landmarks. Fortunately, taxi drivers here (all of whom are men) are not subject to the same hesitation so stereotypical among American men that it is a common topic among standup comics. The driver stopped every block to ask someone where the building was, at one point picking up his next fare, who helped identify it.

I spoke with Sybella Wilkes at the UNHCR Damascus office two days after busses left Damascus to return hundreds of refugees to Iraq. My only “research” into refugees was in 1998, while I was waiting to read some other documents at the League of Nations archives and found catalogues of the Nansen papers.  Nansen was a Norwegian working to assure rights for refugees from the catastrophic Great War (1914-18). Chief among the protections he advocated was the right of refugees not to be forced to return to a place where they fear persecution. This right was included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  UNHCR’s statements that day were very careful. On one hand, they recognized the political pressures that weighed heavily on all the parties connected to Iraq’s refugees. On the other, as Ms. Wilkes informed me, UNHCR’s mission is based on the Refugee Convention. If Iraq remains too dangerous for their UNHCR staff, making it impossible for them to investigate the safety of local conditions, could they really support the busses carrying Iraqis home?

Ms. Wilkes was very clear about the huge role the government of Syria has been playing. The Assad regime has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their hospitality has been hugely expensive. Food, fuel, medical care, education, and nearly everything else in this country is subsidized by the government. That means Syria is paying millions of dollars to host people displaced by a war in which the Syrians had no part. Their generosity is stunning, especially in comparison with the closed doors of almost every other country in the world. (See Human Rights Watch.)

The outlook for the refugees is growing worse. In the face of continuing widespread violence, Iraqis have nowhere to go.  Syria has just recently begun requiring visas that must be obtained in Baghdad. Jordan has closed its doors. In Iraq itself, internally displaced people fleeing violence are no longer allowed into 11 of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Many of those who made it to Syria were middle class people, professionals, academics, artists fleeing violence. They left behind their homes, their jobs, and all the things that made them like me, Sybella explained. UNHCR uses its limited funds to provide medical care and living expenses to elderly and ill refugees, and to families with no means of support (often women with children but without husbands). UNHCR has produced a CD of Iraqi music by refugee musicians, and there is terrific artwork hanging on the walls in the Damascus office. Ms. Wilkes told me that they had been painted by some of Iraq’s most famous artists, and are available for purchase. (I can’t find a place on their web site where either the CD or the art is sold.)

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Entry filed under: Middle East, NGOs, Syria, Uncategorized, US Government.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lafna Kurd Humanitarian Organization  |  January 22, 2008 at 7:26 am

    We need UNHCR email address in Damascvus

    Reply
  • 2. Ray Taylor  |  July 20, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Dear Sarah,

    This trip obviously required pretty much patience and endurance, I’m sure that it’s outcome is great.
    But do U have Ms. Wilkes’s phone No. or Fax? I’ll appreciate it.

    Reply

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