Iraqi in Syria
… I’ll meet you ’round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend…
We chose a hot day in early September and drove the six hours to Kameshli, a border town in northern Syria. My aunt and her son came with us- they also needed an extension on their visa. There is a border crossing in Kameshli called Yaarubiya. It’s one of the simpler crossings because the Iraqi and Syrian borders are only a matter of several meters. You walk out of Syrian territory and then walk into Iraqi territory- simple and safe.
When we got to the Yaarubiya border patrol, it hit us that thousands of Iraqis had had our brilliant idea simultaneously- the lines to the border patrol office were endless. Hundreds of Iraqis stood in a long line waiting to have their passports stamped with an exit visa. We joined the line of people and waited. And waited. And waited…
It took four hours to leave the Syrian border after which came the lines of the Iraqi border post. Those were even longer. We joined one of the lines of weary, impatient Iraqis. “It’s looking like a gasoline line…” My younger cousin joked. That was the beginning of another four hours of waiting under the sun, taking baby steps, moving forward ever so slowly. The line kept getting longer. At one point, we could see neither the beginning of the line, where passports were being stamped to enter Iraq, nor the end. Running up and down the line were little boys selling glasses of water, chewing gum and cigarettes. My aunt caught one of them by the arm as he zipped past us, “How many people are in front of us?” He whistled and took a few steps back to assess the situation, “A hundred! A thousand!”. He was almost gleeful as he ran off to make business.
I had such mixed feelings standing in that line. I was caught between a feeling of yearning, a certain homesickness that sometimes catches me at the oddest moments, and a heavy feeling of dread. What if they didn’t agree to let us out again? It wasn’t really possible, but what if it happened? What if this was the last time I’d see the Iraqi border? What if we were no longer allowed to enter Iraq for some reason? What if we were never allowed to leave?
We spent the four hours standing, crouching, sitting and leaning in the line. The sun beat down on everyone equally- Sunnis, Shia and Kurds alike. E. tried to convince the aunt to faint so it would speed the process up for the family, but she just gave us a withering look and stood straighter. People just stood there, chatting, cursing or silent. It was yet another gathering of Iraqis – the perfect opportunity to swap sad stories and ask about distant relations or acquaintances.
Back at the Syrian border, we waited in a large group, tired and hungry, having handed over our passports for a stamp. The Syrian immigration man sifting through dozens of passports called out names and looked at faces as he handed over the passports patiently, “Stand back please- stand back”. There was a general cry towards the back of the crowded hall where we were standing as someone collapsed- as they lifted him I recognized an old man who was there with his family being chaperoned by his sons, leaning on a walking stick.
By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own… especially their own.
We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.
The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too… Welcome to the building.”
I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.