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A taste of freedom, then a bitter return to Iraq

baghdad -- I never knew how badly I wanted to leave Iraq until I was forced to come back.

My wife and I are pharmacists. In most countries, having a marketable skill might be a ticket to freedom, but Saddam Hussein denied passports for many valued professionals, including medical workers. So my wife and I could only dream of leaving as our country drifted from one war into another.

After Hussein’s fall in 2003, we were so excited about the change that we decided to stay. The optimism did not last long, though, and when friends told me last year that I could get a good job in the United Arab Emirates, I decided to join the hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis looking for a new start.

My wife and I relished the idea of living in a modern city with skyscrapers overlooking the sea, movie theaters, restaurants and no bombs. Most of all, we wanted a place where our 10-month-old daughter, Sarah, could grow up in safety.

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So even though we both were making good money in Iraq, we flew to the UAE in December to take the tests required to work there as pharmacists.

Even if we didn’t pass, the several weeks we spent there would give us a nice break from Baghdad and its hardships.

Each morning, we would study for our tests, but at night, our vacation would begin.

Life was different there -- no explosions, no blackouts. We would go out in the evenings, doing whatever we liked without fear of militias or religious extremists. I wore clothes with Nike and Adidas logos, things that would make me stand out in Iraq and alert kidnappers that I had money. My wife wore sleeveless tops and jeans, the sort of thing no woman can wear in public in Baghdad anymore.

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We went to restaurants, came back after midnight, hailed taxis at any hour on streets crowded with cars and people.

On New Year’s Eve, we watched the celebrations on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai with friends, amazed that people were dancing in the streets and greeting one another as the new year began.

Back home in Baghdad, there was a curfew. The only cars on the streets at night were military or police vehicles, or perhaps kidnappers trolling for anyone foolish enough to be out.

Even our baby girl, who was too young to understand what was happening, had more fun. She smiled at people we passed on the streets and became more sociable. We marveled at the baby clothes and toys that we found in the malls, and how friendly people were.

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For us, a small family, it was a piece of heaven. We imagined our new lives -- working in the mornings and having fun in the evenings while Sarah grew up next to the blue waters and sandy beaches of the Persian Gulf. Dubai was like the Manhattan we have seen in the movies, with skyscrapers going up everywhere, as if they cost nothing to build.

After we took the tests, we headed back to Baghdad to wait for the results. They were better than we had expected: My wife and I had placed above the 95th percentile. Our futures seemed set. I got another visa to return to the UAE with the plan of getting a job, getting a permanent work visa, and then bringing my wife and Sarah to live with me.

I left my job in Baghdad, said goodbye to my friends. I rented a room with some Iraqi friends in Sharjah, one of the emirates. I struck a deal with a Pakistani taxi driver: I paid him $100 a day to take me to every hospital, pharmacy and clinic I could track down.

On the fourth day, I was at a hospital handing my resume to the human resources department when I ran into an Iraqi doctor. He had been a friend of my mother, also a pharmacist. The doctor took me to the hospital’s pharmacy and recommended that they hire me.

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“Would you like to work in Fujairah?” the man in charge asked me. “Where is Fujairah?” I replied, not knowing that it is another of the emirates. He said they had a hospital branch there. I had never heard of the place and couldn’t find it on a map, but I didn’t want to delay. I wanted just to be settled and bring my family to live with me, even if it meant settling for something less than what I had anticipated. I took the offer, and a few days later, I started work.

Fujairah is nothing like Dubai. It is a small city with only one big mall. But the atmosphere is nice, and the people are even nicer. Hospital officials said they would try to hire my wife when she arrived in the UAE.

I rented an apartment with a young Egyptian man who worked as an accountant. Our building faced the Gulf of Oman, and we had a spectacular view. Each night, we would take long walks along the beach and breathe in the warm, salty air.

After two months, my application for a work visa still had not come through. I had to leave the UAE because my visitor’s visa was about to expire, but I was confident my work visa would come through. After returning to Baghdad, I contacted the hospital officials each day to see if they had heard back on my visa requests.

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After three months, there was some progress: The Labor Department had approved my work permit. But the UAE government still had not granted me the necessary visa.

One day, a hospital official called me in Baghdad. He told me that my work visa had been denied. He didn’t know why. When I told my wife, she began to cry.

It was bad being in Iraq before. Now, it is harder, because we have tasted what life can be elsewhere.

Just last month, 11 Iraqis were killed by American security contractors who opened fire in the middle of a busy Baghdad square. The square is near our home, and my wife, mother and baby were supposed to be driving in the area at the time. I immediately tried to call my mother and wife on their cellphones. Neither answered.

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I kept thinking about the awful visions I had seen during my work as a journalist.

I had decided to go to the scene and find out what had happened, when my wife finally picked up her cellphone. She was taking groceries out of the car into the kitchen and had not seen the incident, which had happened after they passed the square.

I was relieved when I heard her voice, and the sound of Sarah playing in the background, but my hands were shaking the rest of the day.

My wife says it is our bad luck to be Iraqis. “This bad luck is stuck to us forever,” she said after the visa was rejected.

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I think she is right.

After my visa request was turned down, a nurse from India who had come to the hospital after I did got his visa. It took two weeks for his papers to be processed and for him to settle down and send for his family.

It took me three months to be told I couldn’t do the same.

--

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This report is one in a series of occasional first-person accounts of life in Baghdad by The Times’ Iraqi staff members.


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