Tea and sympathy: Iraqis reach out to fellow refugees in Syria

News Stories, 31 December 2009

© UNHCR/F.Dakhlallah
Lamia plays with some children during a home visit to one of the families she assists.

DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, December 31 (UNHCR) The two women in the communal taxi one elderly and clearly distressed, the other younger, well-educated and outgoing were strangers, but the younger one spotted immediately that they had something in common: they were both Iraqi refugees, adrift in Syria's capital.

"I asked her what was wrong," Lamia,* the younger woman, now recalls over a cup of sweet Iraqi tea. Maysoun,* the older woman, "had lost her passport and was going around to different departments. She was very tired, so I took her to my home."

But Lamia didn't stop there; she collected money to help out Maysoun and her family, and even arranged for Maysoun to get a free operation to relieve her kidney stones. It's that kind of resourcefulness, compassion and generosity that won Lamia a position a year ago as an outreach volunteer in Damascus, under an innovative programme that sees exiled Iraqis helping fellow refugees.

Unlike traditional refugee camps where UNHCR can easily deliver services to tens of thousands of refugees on its doorstep, Iraqis in Syria are spread out in many large cities. Not only do they have trouble getting to UNHCR offices because of lack or transport or money or because of poor health but UNHCR may even have trouble finding the refugees.

"One thing the experience with Iraqi refugees in the Middle East has taught us is that we need to offer services in new ways," says Zahra Mirghani, UNHCR's senior community service officer in Syria. "Community services officers and others who do similar jobs are becoming increasingly important as more and more refugees live in cities and towns rather than camps."

That's where Lamia and others like her come in. In Syria, under Mirghani's direction, UNHCR mobilized 80 outreach volunteers, all Iraqi women, to visit fellow refugees in their homes, act as social workers, offer informal counselling and bring their needs to UNHCR's attention. They and 12 support group volunteers enhance UNHCR's ability to care for the elderly, the disabled, children or teenagers on their own, and people with psychosocial problems.

"The joy in this work is that you don't think of yourself, you are entirely focused on others," says Lamia, 40, who was an English teacher before fleeing Iraq.

Being a refugee can be frustrating, she admits, but "being an outreach volunteer gives you a sense of purpose. It allows you to help your people and your country, makes you feel that you are doing something worthwhile."

The kindness she showed to Maysoun has turned into a continuing, deeper support for her extended family. Today she's visiting Maysoun at the single-storey cement-block house she shares with the Syrian woman who was also married to Maysoun's late husband, as well as several of the Syrian woman's sons and their families.

The Syrian woman took in Maysoun and Maysoun's son's family after they fled Iraq. Now Maysoun and her daughter-in-law, Leila,* live in one tiny room furnished with just a refrigerator, a wardrobe and a bed with Leila's four children under the age of six.

Leila's husband is under detention by military forces in Iraq. "The Red Cross, God bless them, give me his letters," she says. "I have to wait five to six months for each letter."

Today, after months of speaking to Lamia on the phone, Leila is happy to see her outreach volunteer in person.

"Sometimes people just need to talk," Lamia says later. "Their problem may not have a solution, but they want to talk about it. So I just listen. I try to let them know that someone is listening, someone cares about them."

* Names have been changed for protection reasons

By Farah Dakhlallah in Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic