Iraqi refugees spur housing boom

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis have flooded Damascus and Amman driving up the price of real estate.

When Abu Omar left Baghdad late last year to escape the war, he was desperate to find a safe home for his wife and three children in Syria.

So when he arrived in Damascus he took the first apartment he found - a sparsely furnished one-bedroom in Masaken Birzeh, a working-class neighborhood outside the capital.

What he didn't anticipate was having to pay some $300 a month for a bare, run-down apartment - double the cost of what a modest one-bedroom would have rented for just two years ago.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis have been fleeing the violence and kidnappings for the safety and conveniences of nearby Damascus and Amman. And with their influx to Syria's and Jordan's capitals, the high demand for housing has sent rents skyrocketing and caused a real estate bubble that will probably be deflated only when Iraq is free of the daily barrage of suicide bombings that has made it so treacherous.

While the high cost of post-invasion living has made it harder for poorer Iraqis to find housing, it has been a boon for many Syrian and Jordanian homeowners and real estate developers who are profiting from the influx of Iraqis.

"When they see someone who is desperate, they know they can charge a lot," says Abu Omar, who now lives in a similar one-bedroom for about $220 per month. "When we were in Baghdad all we saw were people with guns. So when I came here I wanted anything. And my financial situation is much better than others."

Just before the invasion of Iraq, rich Iraqis flooded Amman and Damascus' wealthier districts, bought and built homes, and helped raise the cost of real estate prices in both cities - often causing Jordanians and Syrians to no longer to be able to afford the rising costs of homes and putting added pressure on the newer waves of less-fortunate Iraqis also escaping the violence.

"One of my Jordanian friends wanted to buy a home and the real estate agent told him he won't sell except to Iraqis - Iraqis pay with cash and pay high prices," says one Iraqi man who knows the community well, but asked to be called Mr. Ameen because of his sensitive working situation.

Ameen says that Iraqis continue to come to Amman looking for real estate despite the rising costs. Apartments that were sold in Amman for 70,000 Jordanian dinars ($99,000) are now being sold for 85,000 dinars ($120,000), he said.

While the high prices may not deter a wealthy Iraqi Batthist, for instance, from moving to Damascus or Amman, many poorer Iraqis have also begun to trickle into these dense capitals to find there way to neighborhoods now mainly occupied by Iraqi refugees. Unlike their wealthier countrymen, they have been struggling to keep up with the rising prices.

Ronnie Mokhles Harmoz, an Iraqi Christian, is living in a basement with his two children and wife. He pays 10,000 Syrian pounds, or about $200 a month, for the apartment that, like many basements now occupied by Iraqi refugees, wouldn't have even been lived in before the war. And if it was, he says, it would have rented for half as much.

Unable to work under Syrian law, Mr. Harmoz is relying on his parents to send him money from abroad. In Syria, Iraqis often rely on their families to send them money, since they are unable to work inside the country.

"We wanted to find a better house and all we could find were apartments for 20,000 Syrian pounds [$400]," says Harmoz. "My aunts who moved here four years ago are paying 4,000 Syrian pounds [$80] for a better apartment in the same area."

Ali Laith, who works at Al Mona Real Estate Agency in Garamanah, a Druze and Christian suburb that has attracted mostly middle class Christian Iraqis, says prices will continue rising.

"A two-bedroom apartment that used to rent for 4,000 Syrian pounds [$80] before the fall of Baghdad is now renting for 10,000 Syrian pounds [$200.] And now there's a demand all year-round, whereas before the demand was just in the summer. Now people are coming in the winter as well."

Earlier this year, the International Organization for Migration estimated that at least 250,000 Iraqis were living in Syria, but other estimates have the population closer to 500,000. In Jordan, there are an estimated 400,000 Iraqis.

In the Shiite suburb of Sit Zeinab just outside of Damascus, bus loads of Iraqis arrive daily. Many are coming only for the summer vacation (Damascus is much cooler than the Persian Gulf states in the summer), others are here until conditions improve in their country.

While some Syrians are indeed profiting from the Iraq war by renting their homes for higher prices and moving to cheaper places or building new apartments above their homes, other Syrians are no longer able to afford rents or buy homes in areas where they have lived for years.

Some Syrians also complain that their neighborhoods have become dominated by Iraqis, who have also brought in the problem of rising prostitution. This year, in order to control the rising prices, the Syrian government instituted a law that prohibits Iraqis from buying homes.

But, for some, the law was too late to stem the tide of rising home prices.

"An apartment for 2 million now sells for 3 million here in Garamanah," says Itidal Iskander, who works as a translator for a company and has been living in Garamanah for 18 years.

"My sister wanted to buy a home. Before she would look at homes worth 1 million [Syrian pounds] and it was possible. Now 3 million is impossible," he says.

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