Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near Homs Feb. 13. Intense artillery and rocket fire by government forces Feb. 11 on residential areas in Homs left at least 200 people dead, opposition activists said. CNS photo/handout via Reuters

Iraqi refugees in Syria told to avoid demonstrations

  • February 15, 2012

TORONTO - While Syrians endure shelling and sniper fire from their government, Iraqi refugees among them are hunkered down in the Sayyida Zainab neighbourhood of Damascus hoping they can get out before things get much worse.

“If you stay away from any mass demonstrations, stay away from any political activity, if you stay in your neighbourhood, in your church where the Iraqi refugees are, nobody will target you,” is the advice the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) is giving hundreds of Iraqi refugees that Toronto parishes and religious communities have sponsored to come to Canada.

More than 2,000 Syrian protesters have been killed this year, international embassies have closed and the town of Homs has become a battleground in Syria’s ongoing uprising against Bashir Assad’s regime. But the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees still in Syria are largely bystanders, said ORAT executive director Martin Mark.

Last year Mark’s office brought its total of refugee sponsorship applications to 700. Eighty-five to 90 per cent of the sponsorships are for Iraqi refugees — most of them in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Some of those refugees will get to Canada a little quicker because of the bloody protests in Syria. After closing the Damascus visa post Jan. 16, the embassy fast-tracked about 300 “visa ready” refugee files. Those files have been transferred to Amman, Jordan, for final processing and issuing visas.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) aims to give sponsors 10 days notice before the refugee family arrives, but Mark knows of cases where parishes have been told their refugees will arrive in three days.

For refugee families whose applications aren’t at that visa-ready stage, the news is more grim.

“The remaining refugee resettlement cases for persons residing in Syria have been transferred to a secure location and processing will resume once the visa office in Damascus is able to re-open,” according to the CIC media relations office.

Processing those Iraqi refugees living outside Syria has continued. Files that were being processed in Damascus have been transferred to Beirut, Tel Aviv, Amman and Ankara. While the Damascus embassy remains open with a skeleton staff, it is not processing visas and staff who worked on visas have been sent out of the country.

The situation for Iraqi refugees is better than violence faced by those refugees in Libya during its uprising, said Mark.

But the stress of years spent living as refugees in the midst of chaos is taking a toll on Iraqi refugees.

“Iraqi refugees coming to Canada are over-represented among those with medical needs,” said Mark. “Obviously the average refugee is stressed, underwent torture and all sorts of things. However the Iraqis are, in our experience, they have more medical problems and issues. The suffering level is higher.”

A large proportion of the Iraqi refugees are Christians who are unable to return to Iraq where Christian neighbourhoods and villages have come under attack in tribal and sectarian bombing campaigns.

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