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Local Syrians fear for family, friends trapped in Iraq

2 November 20230 comments

Melbourne’s Syrian community holds grave fears for family and friends trapped in the Iraqi city of Erbil.

After at first being welcomed and supported by the local population, the mostly Christian Syrians are now being targeted with violent attacks by gangs and subject to a newly imposed residency tax.

And fears are rising that the conflict in Gaza will exacerbate tensions between the local population and the almost 90,000 mostly Orthodox Christian Syrians in the Kurdish enclave of Erbil.

Melbourne Syrian community leader and artist Nouha Saigh told how her brother and his family among those whose lives have become increasingly precarious.

“My brother and his family are struggling to live. He and his family are becoming desperate as their lives become harder, with little money and no chance to earn enough money to survive,” Ms Saigh said.

“Life is difficult for our people in Erbil. They have to work long hours for little money. We have applied for visas for them but we hear nothing or they are rejected and we have to apply again,” she said.

“My brother Razkallah is getting desperate and I want to bring him here. He is just one of many Syrians in this situation.”

Ms Saigh said new residency fee of between $US500 and $US1500 imposed on each Syrian by local authorities was making things worse.

“This is a lot of money for people who are struggling to buy food.”

She said that many Syrians in Erbil were also subject to exploitation by their employers.

“People have no legal rights and so they are often forced to work long hours and for little pay. They cannot say anything because they will lose their jobs,” Ms Saigh said.

She said the daughter of a family friend was one of the Syrians attacked by gangs.

“My friend’s daughter Rita was walking on the street when come men came up to her and pulled off her crucifix. Then they beat her badly,” Ms Saigh said.

She said her community feared that the conflict in Gaza could make things worse for Syrians in Erbil 

Another Syrian community and leader and church official, who lived in Erbil for four years, told of rising fears among Syrians living in the city.

“Life is becoming very difficult for people. Many cannot find work and those who have jobs are being exploited. Things are very expensive and people are struggling to earn enough money to live; some are going short of food,” said the man, who asked not to be identified.

“Recently, the local authorities have banned Syrian children from going to government schools and universities,” he said.

“The United Nations provides some money, but it is not enough to live on and people are becoming desperate,” the man said.

Almost 250,000 million mostly Syrian Christians fled to Erbil, which is controlled by separatist Kurds, after the civil conflict in 2016 which saw the militant group ISIS take control of many towns and cities.

Although many of the Syrians in Erbil were granted visas to resettle in third countries, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and closed borders effectively trapped them there.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR there are currently 88,675 Syrian refugees living in the Erbil district among host communities in urban areas.