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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Iraqi Refugees Live in Limbo

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | July 12th, 2008 | Comments No Comments

The last time he was in Syria, Andrew Griffin found himself sitting in a blacked-out police station surrounded by men he could identify only by the lit tips of their cigarettes. In a small town on the Iraqi border only eight months after the US-led invasion of Baghdad, the Montreal resident had wandered too close to some sensitive location and raised suspicion.

Or, perhaps the men had been bored. Once the electricity was restored, so was his Canadian passport, and the men passed around tea and pictures of their families.
Five years later, Griffin, now 40, is volunteering to help Iraqi refugees who seek assistance from the Greek Orthodox Church in Damascus. Participating in an international immersion program coordinated by the American-based Middle East Fellowship (, he is living in Syria for one month this summer, taking Arabic classes and assisting the Church’s refugee relief efforts. Joining him are 20 other participants from New Zealand, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, the UK and the US.

Well more than a quarter of the 4 million internally and externally displaced Iraqis have fled to neighboring Syria, which has opened its arms to 1.2 million Iraqis, according to the United Nations. A country of 20 million people, Syria is in the throes of its own economic crises: soaring inflation estimated as high as 30%, gas prices that quadrupled literally overnight two months ago, disheartening unemployment pegged at 20%.

Iraqis walk into this economic chaos without homes or a homeland. They are forbidden to work legally, and the shrinking American dollar is denting the resources of the United Nations and other NGOs to provide relief. Many Iraqi families languish month after month, waiting for visa approval to resettle in Europe, North America or elsewhere in the Middle East, while burning through their meager resources.

Griffin spends his mornings supporting Iraqi women who attend the Greek Church’s health awareness program. Each week, dozens of women join a class that’s part information and training, part appreciation for the handouts of food staples and cleaning supplies, and part socializing. There’s no avoiding the pain and hardship the women recognize in each other’s tired smiles and forced perseverance.

“There’s a sense of desperation they’re feeling. Their husbands have died, terrible stuff,” Griffin says, his deep voice trailing off. “’My child has cancer, I’ve talked with the UN, what can you do?’ they ask me. I’m just a volunteer, but it’s hard to explain.”
A large proportion of Iraqi refugees are single mothers, women whose husbands were killed during the first Gulf War, or under the Sadaam Hussein regime, or during the current war, or by insurgent thugs. These are women who are raising an emotionally scarred generation of children while dealing with their own emotional, physical and economic traumas. Many of these women are successful professionals – architects, engineers, teachers – now unable to live purposefully.

They continue to live in limbo.

Griffin stuffs their care packages, while stuffing his own helplessness at not being able to do more. “I feel I haven’t gotten to know their situations well enough. But, the [Church’s] health program is an opportunity to see the reality of the Iraqi refugees.”

In addition to the women’s health classes, the Greek Orthodox Church sponsors food assistance, vocational training for young adults whose education was aborted by the war, and tutoring programs for children who have dropped out of school.
This is Griffin’s sixth trip to the Middle East. On previous trips, he’s dug into the past, participating in archeological excavations. This trip, he’s more focused on the future, and on what impact Canadians can have to brighten the lives of individual Iraqis.

[For more information about the Middle East Fellowship’s Damascus Summer Encounter, visit For fun blogs on this year’s Encounter, visit]

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