Forced To Flee Iraq: One Family's Story

My Uncle Brahim is trapped inside his Baghdad home—waiting to flee a country that six months ago he swore he'd never leave. With him are his wife, his hugely pregnant daughter and his 1-year-old grandson. I'm not sure how to say "cabin fever" in Arabic, but I'm pretty sure they have it. They've been holed up for months in that house as battles rage in and around their Mansour neighborhood. I can hear the anarchy outside their door when I call—explosions, gunshots and, once, a scream. Still, my 77-year-old diabetic uncle greets me like the world is full of roses: "Habibi hiyati! [Love of my life!] How is my American girl?"

There seem to be a billion obstacles between Brahim's family and escape. They're still waiting on their new Iraqi passports, even though Brahim applied months ago. And who will watch their house of 45 years and all their belongings inside? Then there's the question of where to go. Jordan and Syria are already swamped with Iraqi refugees and have tightened, if not sealed off, their borders. It's clear that Brahim and his family waited too long, and now things are desperate. "I think maybe we will try Bulgaria, Loreen," he says. "My son-in-law knows a person there, and I hear they are excellent for the clinic of diabetes."

Baghdad or Bulgaria? This is what it's come to for thousands of families like ours. Most everyone from my dad's side of the family (whose names I've changed for security reasons) lived in the Iraqi capital up until 2003. But now, if they're not hiding out in their homes, they're struggling to adjust to life somewhere else. Brahim's middle daughter, Mahia, is in Amman with her three young kids. Her sister Lulu is in Germany with her husband and baby. My late Aunt Fatima's son Sami fled to southern Iraq when his Baghdad home was seized by insurgents. He's now looking to move to Egypt or even Sweden. His brilliant geologist sister Silma left her upscale Baghdad home and is now stuffed into a tiny apartment in Amman with her husband, Omar, and three teenagers. Uncle Hassan's daughter Loubna, once a curator for the museum of Baghdad, fled to Syria. So did her brother. But their sister never arrived. She was killed on the road from Baghdad to Damascus. Three more distant relatives were never afforded the chance to flee—or turn 25. They were brutally murdered, their mutilated bodies dumped in the streets of Baghdad.

Those cousins who have made it out of Iraq alive are part of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. An estimated 2.3 million Iraqis have fled the country since the 2003 invasion. They represent the largest displacement of people in the region since the Palestinian diaspora nearly a half century ago. About 50,000 people escape Baghdad each month. A staggering 1.7 million are displaced within Iraq, while almost 2 million more have sought refuge in Syria and Jordan, 130,000 in Egypt and 50,000 in Iran. Even Sweden is feeling the effects of this war: last year alone, 9,000 Iraqis applied for asylum there, and 90 percent of those requests were approved.

By contrast, the United States has taken in 466 Iraqi refugees since 2003. "This is not just a regional crisis, it's a global one," says Kristele Younes, a Refugees International advocate monitoring the Iraqi refugee flow. "But for the Bush administration to address the problem they'd have to admit failure in Iraq, and I don't see that happening any time soon." Responding to the criticism, the State Department recently announced plans to refer 7,000 Iraqis to the U.S. Resettlement Program by September. Sami's 19-year-old son, Ausama, heard about the openings and immediately text-messaged me. "There are some spaces for us there? Please send 2 me information soon." How can I tell him that with those odds, getting into America is about as likely as winning the lottery?

The exodus has not only scattered my family, it's hollowed out Iraq's most skilled classes—doctors, engineers, managers and bureaucrats. Baghdad was once home to one of the most educated populaces in the Middle East. (I find it amazing that almost every single one of my cousins, and their kids, speak fluent English.) Many were part of a generation of middle-class professionals who, during the 1970s, transformed Iraq into the Middle East's most diversified economy. In my family alone, there's at least one scientist, an engineer, two teachers and an accountant looking for work in other countries. Omar recently sent me his résumé from Amman (like most Iraqis, he's not allowed to work there legally) in hopes of finding work in the United States. It turns out that he was one of Iraq's top hydraulic engineers, and helped design the water systems that we blew up.

Iraq's middle classes were also the least-sectarian slice of society. Brahim's block in Mansour was once a comfortable mix of Sunni and Shiite. The same is true of his friends and family. One of his daughters is married to a Sunni, and so are at least seven more first cousins that I know of. But most of Brahim's neighbors—many of whom worked with him in the Oil Ministry before they retired—fled a year ago when sectarian violence engulfed the city. Now, he says, their homes are empty or inhabited by strangers. "Sunni, Shiite, no one care before," says Brahim's pregnant daughter, Aliya, in heavily accented English. "Now it is the reason they use for this killing."

Brahim says there is some hope. U.S. and Iraqi troops have set up more bases throughout Baghdad to quell sectarian fighting, and the number of anonymous bodies found each morning with gunshot wounds, drill holes and missing limbs has declined drastically in recent weeks.

Once vibrant neighborhoods, however, have become fearful redoubts; surrounded by members of their own sect, residents have developed a deep distrust of outsiders. Aliya can waddle out to the grocery store in her eighth month because her husband, a member of the Iraqi Congress, can lend her his bodyguards. But if the fighting is particularly intense that day, even the guards won't brave the market, so the family simply goes without milk or those tasteless, diabetic "breadsticks" that Brahim loves. "Saddam was bad, but this?" says my uncle. I can tell he's gesturing wildly when his wheelchair starts to squeak. "There is no clean water, people are killing each other like the animal, and I can't even go to the mosque to discuss this with God."

Leaving has also become more difficult with each passing week. Brahim refused to pay $2,000 in bribes for a set of Iraq's new updated passports (which most Iraqis must now have to travel), so three months later they still haven't been issued. To get to Jordan or Syria by car, he'd have to pay a driver anywhere from $250 to $600 per passenger (which is still less than one-way airline tickets), and they'd need to pass through Iraq's deadly Anbar province. They could not bring more than a suitcase or two with them, for fear of alerting border agents that they were planning on more than a vacation. If by some slim chance they did make it past Jordanian immigration, they'd face disgruntled locals, a cost of living that's tripled since 2003 due to the massive influx of refugees and no prospects of work.

They'd also face the emptiness of exile. When I visit my cousin Silma, in Amman, it's clear she's painfully homesick. Her cell-phone screen saver is a silhouette of the state of Iraq. Like most Iraqis, she and her husband cannot legally work here, so her family of five is squeezed into a small two-bedroom apartment. She tries to muster up some excitement as she shows me the herbs she's growing on her windowsill but instead starts to cry. She misses her real garden, in her real house, in her real country. Brahim's daughter Mahia also lives in Amman, but in order to pay for their apartment, her husband continues to work in Iraq. They see each other once a month at most. "This is not a life, Loreen," she said last fall when I saw her. Their apartment was so empty our voices echoed off the walls. "I am lonely, and the people here, they don't like us."

Those in Baghdad are lonely, too. All of Uncle Brahim's kids and grandkids, except for Aliya and her son, are gone. I once asked him why he chose not to move to America when my dad did, in 1954. His answer was simple: "I like it here." At 6 feet 2, the young Brahim was a rabble-rouser. He picked fights at school, fell in love with a woman he wasn't set up to marry (despite their unarranged marriage, she's my aunt now) and joined Gamal Nasser's United Arab Republic party in the 1960s. When the Baathists (Brahim calls them "the communists") came into power in 1968, he was jailed for three years when he failed to renounce his ties to his Pan-Arab organization. His vision of a modern, peaceful Iraq, and a united Arab world, now seems quaint and obsolete.

Back in August when I met Brahim in Amman for a three-week reunion, I begged him not to return to Iraq. He refused. He said he wanted to be buried in our family cemetery in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, "not in Syria, Dubai or Amman." Then this great big man who used to scare me began to cry. The tears came through in tiny little whimpers, so quiet they were barely audible. "Things will be better, Loreen. When we meet next time, habibi, it will be in Baghdad, inshallah." I said inshallah [God willing], too, but now I know as well as he does that this will never happen in his lifetime.