DAMASCUS, Syria — Thirty-eight-year-old Um Mustafa* enters the living room of her Damascus apartment carrying a tray with tea and biscuits for each of her guests. Handing them out, she laughs as she explains that this July day is the third anniversary of her family’s flight from Iraq to Syria.

“Personally, I do not even have a slight hope that Iraq will recover,” she says. “It is impossible because of greed, and the fact that everyone wants to have a piece of Iraq.”

Um Mustafa is one of approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

Um Mustafa and her family set up a temporary home in Damascus, renting an apartment for the duration of their temporary residence permits, which they have renewed at least every three months.

Like many refugees, she has hope for the long-range future of Iraq, but does not wish to return: “This (temporary housing) situation is not going to last forever, which means we will be forced to return,” she says. “But I do not want to return to Iraq.”

With progress painfully slow in Iraq, and with the withdrawal of American forces, most Iraqi refugees in Syria are not optimistic about their futures or that of their country.

The Iraqi refugee crisis is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the Middle East since the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis in 1948.

An estimated 2.5 million Iraqis are displaced abroad, and an equal number are internally displaced. With little hope for immediate return, these displaced Iraqis live in a state of limbo, most unable either to return to their homes or settle in their new locations.

Some Iraqis, however, maintain their right to return to their homeland. Sixty-five-year-old Wajda refuses to register as a refugee with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because she views refugeeism as a defeatist position that could lead to the loss of the Iraqi state.

“I do not want my people to become like Palestinians and lose the right of return and right to our homes so that later we have to ask for the rights to our land,” 

Um Mustafa says. Other Iraqis also hold this ideal; nonetheless, most fear risking their lives if they return to Iraq in the near future.

One woman told of her recent trip to Iraq in the summer of 2009 to obtain an identification card for her grandson. While in Baghdad, Fatima witnessed the bombing of a police car that resulted in the deaths of four people. She said her family never wants to return to Iraq, and is hoping for resettlement in a stable country.

Most Iraqi refugees have similar stories of traumas that they have either experienced or witnessed. A UNHCR survey from 2008 estimated that one in every five Iraqis has been tortured. Many now choose the difficulties of refugee life over the dangers of Iraq.

The volatile security situation in Iraq affects not only the millions of displaced Iraqis, but also the governments that admit them. The Syrian government, which is facing a financial crisis and regional drought, is also struggling to meet the needs of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Currently, the Syrian government provides basic health and education services, and estimates the yearly cost to be almost one billion U.S. dollars. UNHCR is operating at full capacity, processing registration, aid provision, and resettlement among other services. Some Iraqis claim that they are still not receiving the aid necessary for survival.

Many displaced Iraqis would like to be able to return to Iraq someday. But most agree that day will not come anytime soon. In the meantime, they would rather live in exile than risk a hasty and dangerous return home.

*Names have been changed. 

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