For Many Iraqis, Homecoming Is Short-Lived
Walking through the Saudi Arabian desert, the six Iraqis finally reached the border. An official welcoming committee from the southern Iraqi city of Samawah waited on the other side.
But the homecoming celebrations were short.
After conferring briefly with an Iraqi army colonel, five of the six men turned around and headed back into Saudi Arabia, having decided that living in a refugee camp there was more attractive than resettling in Iraq.
For two decades, war, persecution and poverty resulted in millions of Iraqis moving abroad. Living among strangers, in unfamiliar surroundings, many of them had longed for their place of birth.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 250,000 emigres decided to return from refugee camps in neighboring countries and comfortable homes farther away.
But for many, coming back to rebuild Iraq turned out to be even harder than leaving.
“It’s not my country anymore,” said Ziat Khadir, who fled to the United Arab Emirates in 2002 to avoid the Iraqi army draft. Returning this year, he found that, in three short years, his homeland, his countrymen and even his family had changed. “I feel like a stranger coming back. Everything is upside down.”
Khadir, who has returned to the Emirates, is one of many Iraqis who have left the country for the second time, further eroding civil society and undermining rebuilding efforts.
One organization, Iraqis Rebuilding Iraq, was flooded with applications when it announced a reconstruction program offering qualified Iraqi emigres work as civil servants. But when officials explained that the job came without bodyguards, many candidates withdrew their applications.
The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement says the Iraqi government does not keep track of how many have left the country since 2003. But an official acknowledged that the government was aware of the steady stream and was trying to stem the exodus by offering jobs, money or plots of land to persuade returnees to stay.
It’s a tough sell.
“The situation is even worse than I had imagined,” Khadir said. “It’s a war zone.”
While working as a barber in the Emirates, Khadir longed for peaceful strolls along the Tigris River. He dreamed of browsing his favorite market on Rasheed Street in central Baghdad. Upon his return to the Iraqi capital this year, he found a city scarred with gunfire, barbed wire and concrete barriers. His brother, a taxi driver, had disappeared, last seen in a volatile Baghdad neighborhood. The market had been closed, and American tanks rumbled through the trash-strewn streets.
“Since I came back, I’ve been living in a state of horror. You see your country being destroyed right in front of your eyes,” said Khadir, who has persuaded his family to join him in the Emirates.
“My country cannot offer me anything right now,” he said. “It’s been wounded.”
At the outset of the war, an estimated 4 million Iraqis lived abroad, at least 150,000 of them in the United States. Some were economic emigres, others asylum seekers, fleeing persecution by Saddam Hussein’s government. At least 253,000 returned to Iraq from various countries after the toppling of Hussein, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Tamara Daghastani, an Iraqi then living in Jordan, was among those who followed on the heels of the U.S.-led forces that swiftly ousted Hussein 2 1/2 years ago.
“The elation as we crossed the border was indescribable,” said Daghastani, 59. For years, other Iraqis had gushed about the beauty of the Iraqi palm trees.
“They’re nuts,” she recalled thinking. “What’s so great about a palm tree?”
Approaching Baghdad, however, “I could have kissed and hugged those palm trees,” she said. “It was the greatest feeling.”
Born to a prominent family close to the monarchy, Daghastani was 12 years old in 1958 when revolutionaries slaughtered the royal family.
“That was the beginning of the end,” said Daghastani, who left for Jordan in 1974.
In the three decades she spent in Britain and Jordan, she dreamed of the boatmen on the Tigris, singing as they returned at dusk, the light of their lanterns reflecting on the river. She imagined falling asleep on a Baghdad rooftop, with a carpet of stars above and the sound of croaking frogs, “like a lullaby.”
But the country she left was not the country she found.
“I didn’t expect to come back and find nirvana,” she said.
Still, she was shocked by what she saw. In the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City, “children were drinking from the sewage,” she said.
As the violence worsened, Daghastani became dismayed by the behavior of American troops.
“The same forces who were greeted with open arms, by their own mistakes lost it all,” said Daghastani, who remained in Baghdad for more than two years trying to build a women’s clinic and an orphanage.
“Young officers were behaving like viceroys,” she said. “It was unbelievable how they turned love into hate. But they didn’t listen. They created enemies where none existed.”
Like many who returned immediately after the invasion, Daghastani said the tipping point was the May 2003 move by then-Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer III to disband the Iraqi army.
This year, Daghastani went back to Jordan for the birth of her ninth grandchild. Her husband, still in Amman, the Jordanian capital, told her he wouldn’t let her leave again for Baghdad until the situation improved.
She has sworn that, if that day arrives, she will celebrate by walking through Baghdad, wearing her white wedding dress, red boots and a red feather in her hair.
Ibrahim Khaled Ibrahim, 55, came back to Baghdad in April 2003 after 22 years in Kuwait and Britain.
“I was very optimistic,” said Ibrahim, who left Iraq after receiving a scholarship to study at a British university. “At long last, we had gotten rid of the regime which was very brutal.”
Ibrahim taught English to teenagers in Baghdad, but soon received threatening letters, he said. Four men came looking for him at his sister’s house. Ibrahim returned from an errand to find his sister, mother and aunt tied up. In August this year, he fled to Jordan. Once more, he is waiting for a time when he can return to Iraq.
“But I can’t see for the life of me how things will get better,” he said.
“I compare it to a year ago when there were so many people I could contact who had come back to Iraq,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who refused to be named. “Now there’s hardly anyone here.
“The other day, someone had a toothache, and we were looking for the dentists we had consulted with before. They were all gone, and this is typical.”
Haider Ramzi fled Iraq in 1999, making an arduous journey with his pregnant wife through Jordan and Europe before arriving in Germany on the first day of 2000. Selling glass trinkets and taking German language courses, Ramzi built a life for his young family in Europe.
In the summer of 2003, he was sitting in a hushed university auditorium in Germany listening to a lecture when his cellphone rang. It was his parents calling from Baghdad, the first contact from them since the war began. Paying no heed to his surroundings, he shouted with joy.
They encouraged him to come back, saying that, with the arrival of the Americans, there was money to be made in Iraq. But, like Daghastani and Ibrahim, Ramzi has been shocked by what he sees as his country’s change for the worse.
“The Iraqis in Germany, they were very eager to go back after the Americans came and toppled Saddam,” said Ramzi, who plans to return to Germany as soon as possible. “But at the end of the day, we discovered that nothing has changed and security has deteriorated.”
Kidnappings and lawlessness are leading many middle-class Iraqis to flee their country; unemployment is driving others away.
After 14 years in an Iranian refugee camp, Jassem Mohammed Mousawi, 38, moved back to Basra. But in that depressed southern Iraqi city, he can barely support his wife, brother and three children on his meager wages as a day laborer.
“Although our life in Iran was miserable, it was a lot better than what we are facing here,” he said. “I say it without any hesitation: I regret ... my return to Iraq.”
There are few jobs and no help from the government in Baghdad, Mousawi said. “I’m thinking of going back to Iran.”