Syria Now Home to a Million ‘Pillow Drivers’

DAMASCUS — More than a million Iraqis in Syria cannot find work. For their idleness, they have come to be called the “pillow drivers”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are at least 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. If they seek work, they will lose their status as refugees.

And so Iraqi refugees who were once doctors, engineers, athletes, artists and businessmen sit it out in Syria with nothing to do.

“They call us the pillow drivers here,” says Dr. Jassim Alwan who fled Baghdad after he was arrested by U.S. forces in 2003. “I was humiliated like an animal by those who call themselves soldiers of liberty, so I decided to flee to Syria.”

He has no work now, he says. “All I do is stay up late at night thinking of myself and my family’s dark future, and sleep all day like a drugged man. Most Iraqis do the same.”

Many Iraqi refugees gather at night at Damascus teahouses. They spend much of the night talking over strong Iraqi tea, some smoking the water pipe.

“Not all of us can afford the water pipe,” Salim Khattab, earlier an engineer from Mosul told IPS. “Most of us have run out of money after the long years of spending while there has been no income. I accepted a job of salesman for 100 dollars a month for a while, but I quit when I was asked to clean the shop and the doorsteps. A hundred dollars would not be enough for more than a few days anyway. Now I spend the days in bed waiting for night so I can meet my new friends.”

Many Iraqis have turned to reciting poems about their condition, or trying to joke about it. Audiences do not always laugh; more often they have tears in their eyes. Some poets and writers frequent particular teahouses, and their fans follow them there.

“Iraq has become the wasteland we’ve been reading about by (English poet T.S.) Eliot, and worse,” said an Iraqi poet, who wanted his name withheld. “Those thieves who took over the country with the help of the bigger thieves, the occupiers, are the reason for our agony.”

From the outside, such thoughts and observations are seen as idleness. Many Iraqi refugees ponder these days over their new status as “pillow drivers”.

“Better to be a pillow driver than worm feed my friend,” Mohammad Adnan, who was a trader in Baghdad told IPS. “I think Americans invaded our country to turn us into good for nothing people. They want us to stay outside Iraq so that it stays retarded until they bring more capitalist corporations to loot what is left.”

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said in a report Mar. 19 that there are 2.7 million Iraqis displaced within their own country, and another 2.4 million who have fled, mostly to Jordan and Syria. The IOM, an independent body that cooperates with the UN and its agencies, said the situation for Iraqis who are outside their country is deteriorating.

“There is very little light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq’s humanitarian crisis,” IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya told reporters. “Conditions for the displaced, and refugees, have been getting steadily worse.”

Yet, bad as it is for the refugees outside, the situation for Iraqis within Iraq continues to be far worse. “Many IDPs (internally displaced persons) live in sub-standard or overcrowded shelters as they are largely without an income to afford escalating rent prices,” the IOM report said.

More than 75 percent of them have no access to government food rations, and nearly 20 percent lack clean water supply, the report said. Some 33 percent cannot get the medicines they need. Only 20 percent have had any help from humanitarian agencies.

(*Maki, our correspondent in Syria, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported from the region for more than four years.)