Iraqis flee war, run into hostility

Special to The Times

Strolling the alleys and boulevards of this city, Raaid Lafta sometimes thinks he glimpses his old country: in the barber’s face, in the baker’s oven, in the way the restaurant chef serves the spiced dishes he’s known since boyhood.

Like him, the barber, baker and chef are Iraqis adrift in war. Escaping their battered homeland in crowded cars and lopsided buses, boarding planes and walking stretches of desert, Iraqi refugees are a growing diaspora in Cairo, Damascus, Amman and other Arab cities. With children in tow and life savings hidden in pots and suitcases, they are another precarious burden for the Middle East.

“I see everyone speaking in an Iraq accent,” Lafta said. “Iraqi men singing Iraqi songs in the streets, Iraqi cafes, Iraqi shops.... I was opening a bank account here, so when the banker asked for my address, I replied that I live in Cairo’s 6th of October neighborhood. He smiled and said, ‘You Iraqis have invaded October.’ ”

An estimated 100,000 Iraqis leave their country each month, including many of Iraq’s best educated professionals, part of the more than 1.6 million who have fled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Syrian government said Wednesday that it had taken in more than 800,000 Iraqis so far. Jordan has about 700,000, with tens of thousands more scattered across the Arab world. They have carried Iraq’s civil strife into the incendiary politics of a region that is also navigating Iran’s nuclear aspirations and turmoil in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

Iraqi refugees are accumulating much like the millions of displaced Palestinians who have flowed across the region for decades. Iraqis began trickling out during Saddam Hussein’s regime, but their numbers steadily increased as their nation tumbled into civil war. The newest refugees are finding that compassion is fraying, prejudice growing and host countries, such as Jordan, are less welcoming.


A recent report by Human Rights Watch criticized Jordan for being slow in renewing visas for Iraqis who live “in the shadows, fearful and subject to exploitation.” The report credited Jordan’s past tolerance but it also said the country was now ignoring “the existence of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, does not address their needs for protection, and has not asked for international assistance on their behalf. It is a policy that can best be characterized as ‘the silent treatment.’ ”

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees put it more starkly in a recent assessment: “Iraq is hemorrhaging. The humanitarian crisis which the international community had feared is now unfolding.” Including those who have fled their homes but remained in the country, more than 10% of Iraq’s prewar population of 26 million has been displaced.


‘I’m ... ashamed’

The violence has been escalating for so long that it’s difficult for refugees, most of whom are Sunni Arab Muslims, to pinpoint the exact horror that sent them rushing across borders. For many, like Khadem Salih, a 70-year-old retired lawyer, it was a numbing diary of suicide bombings, sectarian militia attacks and dusk-to-dawn bloodshed. Salih appeared at a Jordanian checkpoint two months ago. Interviewed at length by officials, he was granted only a one-month visa.

“I’m very much ashamed I left,” said Salih, who lives in Amman, Jordan’s capital. “Now, I’m struggling to get residency here, which will cost me at least $150,000. I am miserable to be forced to finally leave my country at the end stage of my life.”

That misery reverberates like a relentless echo out of Iraq. Consider the fate of Laith Youssef, a shopkeeper who also ended up in Amman. An Iraqi gang threatened to kidnap his three children if he did not pay $40,000. Weeks later, a grenade exploded outside his shop, speckling his leg with shrapnel. Then he was jailed for 15 days for offending the Al Mahdi army, a Shiite militia. While he was imprisoned, his wife was attacked for not wearing strict Islamic dress in public.

Youssef and his family fled to Jordan, but even there, without the bombs and the beheadings, life is tough. Nearly half of Jordan’s population consists of displaced Palestinians. The added influx of Iraqis, many of whom are educated and affluent, is straining a weak job market and raising the possibility of terrorist strikes in the kingdom.

“We’re not stable,” Youssef said. “I have no job because the law doesn’t allow me to work, and if the police catch me working, they’ll send me back to the Iraqi border. My wife takes care of elderly people, and sometimes we get aid from churches.”

He added: “I don’t deal with people here because I know if any problem happens I will be blamed. This is not my country. Jordan was kind enough to allow us in, but the number of Iraqis has increased more than this country can endure. Some Jordanians deal with us normally, but some, when they hear our Iraqi accent, look at us in a weird way.”

Alliah Talib also has been stung by the eyes of her hosts. The director of an Iraqi organization for a free press, Talib, a Shiite, arrived in Cairo four months ago after militants accused her of working with foreign intelligence services.

This city is crowded, and sometimes she feels guilty about taking a seat on a bus, knowing that an Egyptian will have to stand. Such are the subconscious calculations of a nomad: a woman who prays that her money won’t run out before her nation’s cycle of killing has finished.

“I only watch Iraqi satellite TV channels here, so I can cry some more,” she said. “I know that my friends and relatives are suffering in Iraq. I watch the news here to suffer with them.... When I go out and see Iraqis in [Cairo’s] streets, I feel more secure. There is a common reason that made us all escape Iraq. Seeing that many others are participating or sharing the same lifestyle as you reduces the feeling of loneliness.”


‘Just give me security’

May Abassi knew it was time to leave Iraq when she began to think wistfully of the days of Hussein’s rule. She and her husband and two young children fled through the smoke and funerals to Cairo. She has found that Egyptians are not like Iraqis. She said she planned to send her son to an English-language school so he would not pick up an Egyptian accent or play with boys she deemed too rough.

“I don’t have anything against Egyptians,” Abassi said. “They are good and welcoming, but we just can’t mix with them.... If I feel the security in Baghdad improves, I will go back immediately. I don’t want anything except security -- even electricity and water are not important -- just give me security, and I will go back. I feel a pain inside my heart when I see Baghdad burning.”

Some of the refugees have begun new enterprises in new lands. Amid the camaraderie of the dispossessed, Raaid Lafta opened Studio Happy Time. A photographer who graduated with a fine arts degree from Baghdad University, Lafta left Iraq 14 months ago and landed in a Cairo neighborhood teeming with fellow Iraqis. Business is not so good, he said, but we “are out of harm’s way.”

“We formed an Iraqi company as investors, and we own this shop,” he said. “Only a few Egyptians come in here. But ... Iraqis visit us a lot.”

He will not stay here forever; a man belongs in the country where he drew his first breath, he said. But for now, the accent he hears in these alleys is the lilt of home; the faces are the people he knows. An Iraqi barber cuts his hair, an Iraqi baker bakes his bread. There are Iraqi Internet cafes; there are stories only Iraqis would know, or believe.

“To be honest with you,” he said, “as I walk down the street of this city, I see all the Iraqi families spending time with their children. It really disappoints and annoys me because I wonder what made us and all these respectful families flee our homeland to live here as strangers.”

Others, including Youssef, the shopkeeper in Amman, are preparing to be strangers for the rest of their lives. Youssef doesn’t expect he’ll see his old shop back on Nidhal Street or drive past the date palms in the now murderous Dora neighborhood in Baghdad. He recently applied for a visa to Australia.

“I doubt Iraq will ever be safe again,” he said.


Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Berlin and special correspondent Ahmed from Cairo. Special correspondent Nadia Fallas in Amman contributed to this report.



Iraqis seeking refuge

A recent U.N. report estimates more than 1.6 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The November report says 100,000 are leaving every month.

Estimated displaced Iraqis

Iraq* : 1.6 million

Syria: 800,000

Jordan: 700,000

Egypt: 100,000

Iran: 54,000

Lebanon: 20,000 to 40,000

*Internal refugees


Sources: Associated Press, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Times reporting