On Tuesday I spent most of the day at a food distribution depot outside Damascus. Most of the 160,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria live in the Damascus area as ‘urban’ refugees, which in the jargon means they live in the community rather than in camps.
160,000 people arriving in a country with a population of 20 million has a pretty major impact, but to its credit the Syrian government has welcomed them and worked hard to help them find some sort of temporary home here. The Syrian people have also been incredibly accommodating to an influx that has had a profound inflationary impact on the country’s economy, as many of the incoming Iraqis were relatively well-off and so pushed prices for food and accommodation up. To date there has been little friction between the communities, surprising to me coming from a country where immigration and associated tensions are a significant political and civil issue in many areas.
Partly as a response to this strain on resources and also as an acknowledgement that as the refugees are not allowed to (legally) work and so would soon start to run out of money, they are entitled to a regular food allowance, a package of rice, beans, tinned goods and other staples. This is done in a very sophisticated way, with a text message going out to people saying their allotment is ready, so that they then make their way to one of the distribution points around the city, where a fleet of contracted small pick-up trucks is ready to take them and their food to where they live.
It’s a very slick operation, as the refugees show their registration cards, receive bar code slips and then queue to pick up their allowance.
One of the local members of staff was showing me around the depot and we paused at the point where people were queuing for the trucks. I was able to watch them and to reflect on what I had learnt previously, that many had been professionals in Iraq, such as lawyers, teachers, nurses, dentists and doctors, In fact, pretty much like me and most of the people I know back home. In the chaos that has followed the invasion they packed their bags and left, often leaving their papers and qualification documents behind them in the haste to find safety. Just ordinary people, living out their hopes and fears but unfortunately being ruled by a ‘mean son of a bitch’ who wasn’t the US’ and UK’s son of a bitch.
Anyway, a well-dressed middle-aged man peeled away from the queue to come over and ask my guide about some recent changes in the food allowance. She explained why it had happened, so he thanked her and clasped my hand between both of his, a sign of respect, and said, “Shukran, shukran”, thank you, thank you.
As he walked away the irony of the moment overwhelmed me, that an Iraqi refugee was thanking me, a Brit, for helping him get through. The disgrace of what our government, and Blair in particular, did and for which they resolutely fail to apologise, just came home to me in that brief moment of humanity.