UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie called Friday on the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have returned to their country from Syria and other nearby countries over the past year, but many more are unable or unwilling to return to a country still rocked by violence. As the Iraqi story has largely disappeared from global headlines, so has the plight of the refugees.
Jolie, returning to visit Iraqi refugees in the poorest suburbs of the Syrian capital of Damascus after a 2007 visit, said these refugees still needed vital help and support. "Most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will, therefore, be in need of continued support from the international community."
Torture and rape
The acclaimed American actress, travelling with her partner Brad Pitt, was welcomed into the homes of two Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. The first family, grouping seven people, fled to Syria in 2006, while the second family, members of a minority religious group, fled to Iraq in July this year after a son, Waleed,* was twice abducted and his mother, Hoda,* physically abused. The family patriarch, Fares,* had to pay US$25,000 in ransom the first time Waleed was abducted.
The second time, both son and mother were snatched, and Fares had to find US$40,000. The two were released, but they had suffered a terrible ordeal, including torture. "I was assaulted every day for 13 days by up to 10 men," Hoda* recalled, her voice trembling. "I wanted to kill myself and the only reason I decided not to go ahead is because of my children," she added.
On the release of Hoda and Waleed, the family fled to Syria.
"Until other solutions are found ... it is essential that the international community help UNHCR to provide financial and food support," Jolie
"I'm grateful to you for sharing this story," a clearly moved Jolie said, clutching Hoda's hand. "It helps to make it easier to understand your problems. There's a lot of suffering in this part of the world; you're a very brave and strong woman for putting this behind you for the sake of your children."
The family said the Syrians have been very welcoming, but they still find it difficult remaining in the country and wish to be resettled. Meanwhile they are relying on food and financial support from UNHCR.
The refugee agency, working closely with local authorities and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, helps the most vulnerable refugees in neighboring countries, particularly in Syria and Jordan where the largest numbers have found refuge. This includes material, financial, medical and other assistance.
Struggling to survive
Many of the families who have fled to Syria over the past few years, have exhausted their savings and must now rely on the generosity and help of the government and humanitarian agencies like UNHCR.
The first family Jolie visited,mother, father and five children aged seven or under, is a good example. They were crammed into a squalid, stuffy one-room basement apartment with a tiny window. Most of their possessions, including mattresses, blankets and boxes of food, were provided by UNHCR.
They also had harrowing tales to tell, including the kidnapping and torture of the father, Taha, who still suffers from nightmares and finds it difficult to leave the apartment. His wife, Ibtissam, spoke about their struggle to pay the rent and to buy extras such as clothes and medicine. She works as a cleaner in a market, even though she has a degree in teaching.
"I tore up my university degree," she said, adding: "What value does it have when I am just a cleaning lady." Ibtissam told Jolie that her family also wanted to start a new life in a third country. Two of the families that Jolie met during her 2007 visit have been resettled in the United States, while a third family recently returned to Iraq.
The Goodwill Ambassador said the families she visited today, "have not recovered from the trauma they faced," while adding that, "until other solutions are found, or these refugees are able to go home, it is essential that the international community help UNHCR to provide financial and food support so that they can survive. They don't have the right to work, so they have no way of surviving without our help."
A meeting with Syria's president
During her day-long trip, Jolie also met with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma al-Assad, who told her about the efforts being made by Syria to provide health care to the most vulnerable and to encourage refugee children to go to school.
"It is clear that the Syrian people, no matter the challenges or difficulties they may face, have always shown generous hospitality to people in need. I hope that the rest of the world recognizes that we all have to share this burden and continue to take care of Iraqi refugees," Jolie said after the meeting.
UNHCR estimates that more than 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes since the beginning of the conflict in Iraq in 2003. To date, 215,000 Iraqi refugees are registered with UNHCR in Syria, the majority of whom are dependent on food and other material support.
* Names changed for protection reasons