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A complicated relationship

DAMASCUS // The relationship between Iraqi refugees and their hosts in Syria and Jordan is complicated.

On the one hand, I have heard much talk of Arab brotherhood among both officials and ordinary people in the two countries. On the other, Iraqis in both countries are blamed for rising prices and housing costs.

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Salaam Marougi says he understands the negative reactions he occasionally encounters.

"There's no shame in being annoyed by high prices," the Iraqi Christian told me today in Jaramana, a suburb or Damascus with a high conentration of refugees. "We are like guests who have stayed too long."The government here estimates that 1.5 million Iraqis now live in this country of 20 million. Laurens Jolles, the representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, describes two main themes running through Syrian perceptions of the influx.

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"There always has been a certain sympathy and empathy and recognition of the reasons for which people have had to leave" Iraq, he told me yesterday. "But I think nearly every Syrian you talk to will have a story to tell you about Iraqis. There is overcrowding, it's hard to go to schools, or the prices have gone up, it's dificult to find an apartment.

"I don't agree with all of it. Some of it might be true. Having whether it's one million, one and a half million, but a very large number of people concentrated in Damascus will of course create some problems."

As it will in Amman.

"The prices of homes and land has gone up," Mohammad Al Beer told me last week at the landmark newstand his father runs in downtown Amman. "This is not an opinion, it is a reality. Of course there is resentment."

A popular impression in both countries is that the Iraqis who have come are wealthy. While in reality many are impoverished, some Iraqis do have money, and have been able to fund luxurious lifestyles in exile.

They are the ones Victor Baa Soulou has in mind when he says he thanks God for the newcomers.

The Syrian spent 11 years operating a jewelry store in Hackensack, N.J. He describes calling his brother, who owns a jewelry store in Jaramana at 11 p.m. Syrian time. When his brother said he was too busy to talk, he knew it was time to come home.

"Business was never so good in New Jersey that I couldn't talk at 11 p.m.," Soulou said. "Iraqis all have money. On the weekend, they have five or six hundred dollars in their pockets. They go to bars, they go to shops. Iraqis are good for us, thank God."

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