DAMASCUS â€” For a while in postwar Iraq, life looked up for Ahlam Jibouri, who found a well-paid job working with the US authorities after the 2003 invasion.
Now she is an impoverished refugee living in a Damascus slum, along with thousands of her compatriots.
Fluent in English, Jibouri worked at an assistance centre set up by the US occupation authority, helping former political prisoners who opposed Saddam Hussein and coordinating with scores of civic groups that formed after the invasion.
“I never felt I was working for the occupation. I was proud that I was helping Iraqis of all sects,” said Jibouri, a Sunni who belongs to one of Iraq’s largest Arab tribes. With the United States pouring billions of dollars into reconstruction, she was earning far more than in the Saddam era, when UN sanctions choked the economy and the dinar collapsed.
But two years into her job, Jibouri began getting threats from anti-US Sunni rebels who warned her to quit. Undeterred, she sent her three children and unemployed husband to Syria and worked on until masked men with assault rifles kidnapped her outside her home in Baghdad’s Taji area.
She spent a week blindfolded in captivity until her three brothers won her release with a $50,000 ransom payment.
“My captors said I was a spy. I had no alternative but to leave Iraq,” said Jibouri, who is in her 40s.
She joined her family in neighbouring Syria, which has opened its borders, schools and public services to anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million of the 2 million or so Iraqis who have fled the bombings and bloodshed in their homeland.
But there are few opportunities for the newcomers in Syria, where unemployment is estimated at 12 to 20 per cent and authorities are now cracking down on illegal Iraqi labour.
Out of work, Jibouri saw her savings dwindle. She depended on money from her brothers in Iraq, but their own fortunes plunged as sectarian killings spread in Baghdad and they lost contacts that had helped them win government business.
Eventually Jibouri found a job at a textile factory which pays Iraqis $80 a month for working 10 to 12 hours a day.
“The salary doesn’t cover half my rent, and I couldn’t leave my children unattended for all those long hours,” she said.
To make matters worse, her 12-year-old son Anas died in a Syrian state hospital last year, on the day he was admitted.
“He complained of pain in his side and back. Doctors X-rayed him and gave him a shot. He died shortly afterwards,” said Jibouri, adding she had lost a lot of weight since Anas died and had become estranged from her husband.
She has health problems of her own: She needs $4,000 to pay for an operation to repair a blocked heart artery.
She is pinning hope for a future for herself and her two surviving children on an application she submitted months ago with the UN refugee agency seeking asylum in Europe.
“I know a few Iraqis who were awarded asylum legally, but many reach Sweden through smugglers,” she said. “I know English and have a university degree. At least there I have a chance of finding a job and my children can get a decent education.”Â
Jibouri’s children attend a state school in Sayeda Zeinab, an area near a Shiite shrine frequented by Iraqis and Iranians.
Two Iraqi Shiite groups accused by Sunnis of waging sectarian warfare, the Sadr Movement and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have offices in the district.
“Sayeda Zeinab is not the atmosphere I want my children to grow up in. It is all sectarian, although Syrian authorities deport those who try to make trouble,” Jibouri said.
“I never felt a Shiite-Sunni divide in Iraq before the invasion. My sister is married to a Shiite.” The conflict in Iraq has affected all Jibouri’s brothers.
Samir has sent his 18-year-old son to Syria to shield him from what he said was growing Al Qaeda influence. Saadi was badly wounded by a recent bomb blast.
A third brother moved to Syria, but works as a driver on a risky Damascus-Baghdad route.
“Every time he leaves to Baghdad, I pray a thousand times for God to keep him alive,” Jibouri said.
Unlike her brothers, who say the United States is responsible for the upheaval in their country, Jibouri blames no one. “I know one thing,” she says. “I am no longer Ahlam.”