Syria is home to the largest Iraqi refugee population in the world - an estimated one million people, of whom 102,000 are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
For years, it was a stable and welcoming refuge, but since an uprising against the government began last year, Syria, too, has become a dangerous place.
Among the refugees are 18,000 who were in the pipeline or final stages for resettlement abroad. Initially delayed due to new US security procedures, the cases have now been put on indefinite hold because resettlement countries have had more difficulty conducting interviews amid the unrest. Samia* and her daughter Zeinab* told IRIN their story from the outskirts of Damascus.
Samia: “My brother and his kids were visiting [Samia’s house in Baghdad]. I was making tea in the kitchen. Militias entered the house. I could hear gunfire in the other room. It was as if there was a war in my home.
“I was virtually paralyzed. I wasn’t able to move. I couldn’t do anything.
“Nine members of my family were killed: my brother, his wife, their young kids and my parents.
“Me and my daughter were in the kitchen. My husband and other kids were at the petrol station. That’s why we weren’t killed.
“I couldn’t speak for hours. I didn’t know what to do until the neighbours came to my house… At first, they hid us in the garden, and then they brought us to Syria.
“Until now, I get calls saying, ‘If you come back, we will kill you’… We didn’t know who they were… and I don’t know anything until now.
“Since 21 February 2006, until this hour, I swear to God, it’s as if I’ve been slaughtered. It’s as if I am dead.
“When we came to Syria, we applied for resettlement... We are five: the three kids, and me and my husband…We [were accepted in December 2010] and were supposed to travel in February 2011.
“But someone from the [International Organization for Migration, IOM] got in touch and said the papers for my youngest son were not complete. She said the other four of us could travel, and he would follow in two weeks or a month at most.
“From February to October, we waited for the visa for America for the four of us.”
Zeinab: “In October, they said `Get your bags ready. You will travel to America’.”
Samia: “Then, the IOM got back in touch with us, saying only my youngest son would travel. Now he’s in America and I’m still here… I fled Iraq with my son so that he’s not killed. Now they’re taking him to America and leaving me behind? ... There is nothing dearer than a son… If they tell me I can’t go to my son, I’ll just set myself on fire now. Death is better for me.”
Zeinab: “They shocked us. It was a big surprise to us… People with cases that were [not as serious] as ours have travelled. Why are we still here? What is the secret?”
Samia: “I don’t eat. I don’t drink. Wherever I go, I cry…
“My situation is dire… Help me because I can’t stand it any more. I don’t have a home. I don’t have money. My son is in America… My husband is 60 years old. He has kidney failure. He needs an operation outside Syria.
“My daughter volunteers with a humanitarian organization. We are living off of her stipend: $150 a month [much of which goes towards her expenses].
“If only you could see my daughter, she is extremely thin because we don’t have enough food. We sell the food that comes to us from the UN to pay the rent. I try to manage, scraping a bit from here, a bit from there to make ends meet. Only God knows how much I’m suffering.
Zeinab: “Prices used to be so cheap in Syria. We were comfortable. But now the situation has changed. Everything is frightening. The prices are higher. The situation is different.”
Samia: “I am scared and worried. We don’t want a repeat of what happened in Iraq… My [Syrian] neighbour, who lives below me, was killed. Nobody knows who did it. If they come to kill my neighbour, how do you want me not to be affected? If the violence is reaching the citizens of the country, can’t it affect me too?
“I am not a citizen of this country. The citizens of this country are fighting each other. How can I ensure my security? How can I feel safe? I don’t know where to go. I was safe here, I was comfortable. But now I am afraid. I don’t sleep at night.
“They could come from Iraq and kill me. They can reach me here…We heard of an Iraqi store owner in Syria who was killed. People came from Iraq to kill him… Until now, I am getting threats from Iraq… I’m afraid of everything around me.
“I don’t understand [what the problem with the resettlement is]. All I understand is that until now, the visa hasn’t come.
“What is our fate? They could get us out if they wanted to. They already registered us and accepted us. Why can’t they just take us out of here? The same way some people have been taken to Romania. Why not us?
“My suitcases are packed. I’m just waiting.”
Zeinab: “If we had any way of going elsewhere, we would have left.
“We can’t go back to Iraq, me and my family. We are afraid. What happened to us - we don’t want to go through that again.
“We know people who have gone to Turkey, Jordan… But we have no money… The visa costs money... How am I going to earn a living in Jordan?
“So we’re here, waiting for the visa…
“My mother has psoriasis all over her body. My father’s left kidney failed. My younger brother has no work. He is frustrated. He can’t propose [to any woman]. He has no means to propose… no money, no stability. We are all just sitting here.
“We are frozen. Our lives are frozen right now.
“Day after day, we tell ourselves, `Maybe the visa will come in a day, a week, a month.’ That’s how we’re living. Every day, we hope that nothing [bad] is going to happen… We are wondering where we can go if things get worse. That is what we are worried about. We spend all night thinking.
“We’ve almost lost faith.”
Samia: “Please… Consider me your mother. Do something to help me. Let our voices reach America… so that they find us a solution.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the refugees