A Mandaean refugee family in their apartment in Syria gathered around a photo of their murdered son. Photo by Nasir Shathur
More than 1 million Iraqis fled to Syria during the sectarian bloodbath that followed the US-led invasion of 2003. Among them were thousands of Mandaeans, an ethnic and religious minority who have lived on the shores of the Tigris, Euphrates and Shatt al-Arab Rivers since antiquity. Mandaeans, who specialise in ancient trades like boatbuilding and silversmithing, were persecuted during Saddam Hussein’s reign. In his absence radical Islamists have continued his legacy of assaults, abductions and rapes of members of the Gnostic sect.
Today, fewer than 5,000 Mandaeans remain in Iraq, down from 50,000 before the fall of Saddam. Those who fled to neighbouring Syria, one of the last secular havens for religious minorities in the Middle East, are now finding that they left one hellish location for another.
“It was a good life at first, at least better than the one in Iraq, but it’s getting worse every day,” said “Aida” (she didn’t want to reveal her real name), a Mandaean who in 2009 fled to Jaramana, a poor suburb of Damascus. “Food prices and rent are going through the roof, there are daily power cuts and we hear explosions and gunshots on the streets so we only leave the house for emergencies. But that’s normal to me, I’m used to it from Iraq.”
Even before the revolution, the UN warned of worsening conditions among Iraqi refugees – most are only granted guest status at best, and the majority of the chosen aren’t allowed to work, which forces them to subsist on meager savings and foreign aid, resulting in the coercion of many women and children into the sex trade.
Hikmat Salim Abdul, a Mandaean who now lives in Sweden, said it saddens him that a whole generation of Mandaeans will not be given the opportunity to go to school.
“I couldn’t find work and had to survive on donations from Mandaeans abroad, and so did many Mandaean families,” Hikmat said of his time in Syria, where he delivered funds to families in need. “Sometimes it was impossible to deliver money to families living in other areas because of shelling and fighting.”
As the Syrian civil war spirals into sectarian violence, Mandaean refugees will most likely relive the perils of religious persecution, just as they did in Iraq. Aida said that she was less afraid of the regime than of the rebels: “For the time being, the regime is protecting us, while the Free Syrian Army is trying to send Iraqis back to Iraq.”
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria", a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural and religious complexities.