Thursday, October 04, 2007

Common Ground News Service Original Commentaries

Title: Iraqi refugees on the road to Damascus
Author: Sami Moubayed
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 04 October 2007
Word Count: 909

Title: Breaking barriers in Brooklyn
Author: Marcia Kannry and Khader El-Yateem with Stephanie Golden
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 04 October 2007
Word Count: 826

Common Ground News Service


Iraqi refugees on the road to Damascus
Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – For the most part of nearly three decades, interaction between Syrians and Iraqis was minimal, to say the least—restricted to political fugitives from each country residing in Baghdad and Damascus. Anyone who is someone in Iraq today was a resident of the Syrian capital—Nuri al-Maliki, Jalal Talabani, Masoud al-Barzani, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But neither country had an embassy in the other's capital, there were no formal visits, no cultural exchanges, and no linking telephone lines. Syrians wanting a travel permit would get the words "All Arab countries except Iraq" stamped on their passports. The same was done by authorities in Baghdad. Restrictions were briefly lifted in the late 1970s when the two countries teamed up to oppose Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's peace deal with Israel, and Iraqis poured into Syria for tourism, education and business.

Today, there are nearly 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, but contrary to the case three decades ago, they are mostly refugees. They began arriving after the American invasion of March 2003 and are currently entering at a rate of 2000 per day. They now account for about 11% of Syria's 18 million residents. Syria—living up to its Arab nationalist history and convictions—is the only Arab country to allow Iraqis to come freely, obtain temporary residency permits, and own property on its territory.

Within Syria, the Iraqis have had a substantial impact. The affluent minority have caused real estate prices to skyrocket and contributed to growth of over 5%, but collectively the Iraqis have been a drain on an economy that has strained to provide them with basic services like clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and education. Public schools in Syria are stretched to the limit, and so are government resources. Difficulties in obtaining proper school documentation from Iraq has caused many Iraqi students to drop-out of school in Syria, resorting to odd jobs on the streets. Despite that, the Syrians have promised to try and accommodate 100,000 Iraqi children at state-run schools, in addition to the 40,000 Iraqi college students enrolled at Syrian universities.

The rising number of Iraqi prostitutes has led the government to make it difficult for Iraqi women aged 15-40 to enter Syria unless accompanied by a male relative. According to Hana Ibrahim, the founder of Women's Will (an Iraqi NGO), 50,000 Iraqi women have turned to the sex business around the Arab world due to the unbearable conditions of their lives as refugees. Crime—which is very low in Syria—has also risen in recent years in the wild and uncontrolled neighbourhoods of the Iraqis, nicknamed Little Falluja.

Iraqi refugees are costing the Syrian state no less than $1 billion USD per year. To date, the only state-sponsored assistance received by Syria has come from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation: $1 million USD. Although the US has pledged $153 million to all of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to help deal with their refugee problem, nothing of that amount has been delivered to Damascus. UNHCR has provided aid of $10 million for health and education—from its 2007 budget of $123 million.

The bulk of the burden has been, and continues to be, shouldered by the Syrian government and tax-payers. Although, the US has given $700 million since 2003 "to help Jordan offset the economic dislocation it faces due to the conflict in Iraq," no comparable payments have been made to Syria. Other Western governments, which also bear responsibility for the chaos in Iraq, such as Australia, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and Great Britain, have also been unwilling to help Syria support its Iraqi refugees adequately.

The world must not forget that during the Israel-Hizbullah war last summer, Syria received hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees. It is also permanent home to 700,000 Palestinians from a much earlier conflict.

All of this explains why Syria announced that it would be placing strict restrictions on refugees coming from Iraq as of September 2007. The announcement, which had a high tone of regret, said that Syria "can no longer take in any more." Visas would only be given to those coming for educational, business or scientific reasons. Shortly after this went into effect, the al-Tanf border crossing was described as "virtually empty." International organisations, media and states called on Syria to reconsider, making claims that its restrictions would "prevent refugees from fleeing the violence in their country." This scared Iraqis and raised alarm in the international community, prompting the US to announce on September 21 that as of mid-October it would start receiving 1,000 Iraqis per month. By late September 2007, the US would have received 1,700 refugees—a measly number when compared to that of Syria's. Paul Rozenzweig, the Counsellor of the Department of Homeland Security, added, "Next year we're going to resettle 12,000 Iraqis out of a projected total of 70,000 worldwide." For their part, the Syrians changed course briefly by easing restrictions for 'humanitarian reasons' during the holy month of Ramadan (which began on September 13), claiming that this will last only until mid-October, when the fasting period ends.

If Syria were to push further with its measures, or close its borders to Iraqi refugees immigrants, however reluctantly, it would create far more serious problems for all in the region and, ultimately, for the West.

Irrespective of why or how the Iraqi war is being fought, Syria and the US share humanitarian interest in easing the plight of the refugees. On this, both countries certainly should be able to agree.


* Sami Moubayed, PhD is a Syrian political analyst and author of "Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000" (Cune Press, 2005). He teaches at the Faculty of International Relations at al-Kalamoun University in Syria. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 04 October 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Breaking barriers in Brooklyn
Marcia Kannry and Khader El-Yateem with Stephanie Golden

BROOKLYN – We write this article on September 11, 2007—an anniversary with particular meaning for us. We are Father Khader El-Yateem and Marcia Kannry, board members of the Dialogue Project, an organisation that works with multi-ethnic and religiously diverse communities in the New York City area. In particular, we bring dialogue to communities where new Arab and Muslim immigrants live and work alongside long-term residents of various ethnicities. We use dialogue to help people learn to value diverse faiths and cultures, and address intergroup conflict.

For both of us—Marcia, a Jewish-Israeli American, and Father Khader, a Palestinian-Christian American—this article represents victory, for we did not allow the events of 9/11 and the continuing conflict in Palestine and Israel to divide us. Instead, we have used the safe environment of facilitated dialogue to address issues that cause agony and suffering, and to share stories that make us laugh. This willingness to tackle our differences in a positive, fruitful way brings us hope.

Marcia founded the Dialogue Project in spring 2001, aware of rising tensions between Jews and many Arabs and Muslims in Brooklyn. She organised an encounter program at a local synagogue, and over 200 community members attended, 85 of whom signed up for the first dialogue circle that May.

Meanwhile, Khader, pastor of Salam Arabic Lutheran church, was developing relationships with local Muslim and Jewish leaders in Bay Ridge—a neighbourhood with many Arab and Muslim immigrants. He helped create a task force that organised bridge-building events. We met at one of them, and Father Khader has since joined the Dialogue Project board.

The Dialogue Project now conducts six dialogue circles focused on the Middle East, plus Speaking Across Differences, a program that uses dialogue to break through barriers of suspicion in neighbourhoods where new Arab and Muslim populations mix with more established Italian, Anglo, Irish, Jewish, Norwegian, African American, Asian and Latino communities.

Our dialogue model emphasizes active, generous and reflective listening to create an environment where people feel free to express their ideas without fear of being judged. Most importantly, we do not invest in, nor expect a specific end result. This means that people who remain far apart politically can still develop warm relationships and trust, precisely because they are not pushed to come to a consensus. Groups ranging from 5 to 20 people meet once a month. Participants are asked to speak from the "I" and avoid claiming that their views represent their entire community. We attempt to really hear and understand the "other", whether we agree or not, and to speak honestly about hot issues, like the Palestinian right of return, Zionism and security concerns.

In these dialogues, Arabs and Muslims learn that they're not the only community that has been excluded or profiled in this country. Some participants discover that their next-door neighbour feels threatened because they wear a hijab, or pray at a mosque; others discover that their white skin has conferred them privileges of which they were previously unaware.

Father Khader was raised in Beit Jala, Palestine, and has found it difficult to speak of his life experiences there to people in the US. He thinks that people often view Israel's actions as justified and take its assertions at face value, while Palestinians must defend their statements. Friends back home in Palestine become upset when told that he meets with Jews and Israelis in New York. Yet despite such challenges, he values the opportunity to share his personal story of being arrested and tortured in Israeli prisons, and to see others in the circle taking in and understanding his feelings.

Marcia has also been changed through this kind of dialogue. She's a former regional director for the Jewish National Fund, but now relates differently to people in her Jewish community about Palestinians and their homeland, Palestine. She better understands the deep fear of both anti-Jewish and anti-Arab attitudes, and instead of arguing with others about the occupied territories, she tries to share what she has learned in dialogue about the reality of people's lives there.

In these ways, we, and other Dialogue Project participants, have seen how regular and sustained dialogue can produce transformation, not just within the circle but beyond—out into the world—as we bring our changed attitudes and insight into our respective communities. People who barely coexisted now move past fear and mistrust—some have created community projects, including interfaith teach-ins and educational forums on immigration.

We see our model as a path toward more joint ventures, perhaps eventually toward adult education programs and advocacy. And we hope to expand our dialogues to include a broader, conservative cross section of Jews and Palestinians—achieving deeper, richer conversations.

The ability to really listen, without making an automatic retort, requires practice. Once that skill is developed, dialogue shows us how to sit together with our differences, rather than storming out of the room. Often we are asked, "How can my one voice make any difference?" We answer, "Yours may be the voice that brings understanding to the other side."


* Marcia Kannry, president of the Dialogue Project board, is a Jewish American whose experience with Christian-Jewish dialogue in the United States and Palestinian-Israeli dialogue in Israel led her to found the Dialogue Project. Father Khader El Yateem, board member and treasurer of the Dialogue Project, is pastor of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 04 October 2007,
Copyright permission is granted for republication.