The Quiet Exodus from Iraq

He sits in an unheated two-room apartment furnished with plastic chairs and begrimed here and there with mold. Dandling his infant son on his knees, he wears the exhausted, vacant look of a man living on the edge, scrounging daily to make ends meet and feed his wife and young family. For Iraqi physician Nafa Abdul-Hadi, the road to exile and dispossession began in his spacious apartment in an affluent Baghdad neighborhood and has ended here in the tenements of Jordan's east Amman. Threatened with beheading by militants, the 50-year-old radiologist decided last July to abandon his practice and joined the mass migration that is looting Iraq of its most vital asset—an accomplished and once dynamic middle class.

As little as a year ago, the number of affluent Iraqis fleeing the sectarian holocaust of Iraq for neighboring Jordan and Syria was still relatively small, scarcely more than a few dozen daily. Today it is a veritable exodus of white-collar professionals who, along with their riches, are the vertebrae of any stable society. Totaling well over 2 million—10 percent of Iraq's population and the largest displacement of Arabs since the Palestinian-refugee crisis after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 through 1967—it ranks alongside the great human dislocations of Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. Yet because it began as a flight to safety by wealthy Iraqis leaving on jet planes—a tableau unworthy of media attention, more accustomed to the tents and straggling lines of traditional refugee crises—it has been all but overlooked. And like the previous generation of displaced Palestinians, many of whom are still living in the slums of Gaza and the West Bank, these émigrés now threaten to emerge as yet another intractable Middle East problem. Initially welcomed, they are fast becoming a burden, straining local infrastructure from schools to health care and pushing up housing prices and inflation. Worst, neither they nor their increasingly reluctant hosts have any idea when, if ever, they might go home.

The exodus weighs most heavily on Iraq, which is in danger of becoming a large-scale version of Palestine's impoverished and brittle Gaza. The refugees leave behind a war-torn nation plundered of its most precious resource alongside oil—talented and well-educated people. Professionals like Abdul-Hadi formed the backbone of a newly vibrant middle class that emerged under Saddam Hussein. Iraq boasted world-class hospitals, universities, science labs, even art galleries. The engineers at Iraqi Airways were certified to work on the most sophisticated technology on Boeing airliners. Many of them received generous scholarships to study abroad, all paid for by the state. "When I was a student at Cardiff in Wales, every one of my classes had Iraqis," says Ali Shukri, a retired Jordanian general and confidant to the late King Hussein. "Most were doing postgraduate work as engineers and radiologists."

Now those same professionals are a coveted prey, targeted by insurgents and robbers for shakedowns, kidnapping and extortion—prompting more and more to flee. Before the war there were 30,000 physicians registered in Iraq's main medical syndicate, or union. Now there are 8,000. "Doctors are prime targets," says Abdul-Hadi from his humble quarters in Amman, where he works in a public hospital for a fraction of the pay he once earned in Iraq. "It will take 10 years to rebuild the Iraqi health sector." The same can be said of Iraq's universities. Advanced studies are no longer available at many elite colleges in Baghdad. In many classes, students are taught not by tenured professors but by teaching assistants. Engineers, scientists, teachers, civil servants, shopkeepers and businessmen—all are following Abdul-Hadi's path out of Iraq. "All that's left in Baghdad are bandits and fools," says Hind Al Aazamy, a Sunni Iraqi who arrived in Jordan last summer and now runs a fashion boutique with her husband in west Amman's upscale Sweifieh district. "It will take a generation to restore what's gone."

No one has to tell that to the Iraqi government, which is doing what it can to stem the outflow. Baghdad is tightening restrictions on new passports and is said to be pressing Jordan to send home many émigrés already in the country. According to a U.N. aid worker in Amman, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, under pressure from Iraq and Jordan, recently began canceling interviews with exiles hoping to register as war refugees as a guarantee against being forcibly returned: "This exodus makes the Iraqi government look bad," he says, "and it will make rebuilding the country close to impossible."

It's difficult to quantify either the scale or the effect of this epic brain drain. Estimates range from the generally accepted 2 million in Syria and Jordan to twice that many. Few can afford to maintain bank deposits of $100,000, as is required by Jordanian authorities for a residency card, so many refugees smuggle themselves across the border and live as illegal aliens. And increasingly, exiles are showing up in Lebanon and Egypt.

It began as a trickle during the months after the fall of Saddam, as wealthy Iraqis, seeing the handwriting on the wall, sought refuge from the nascent insurgency. Most went to Amman, largely because its well-regarded banking sector could be trusted with their riches. They invested in real estate, bought luxury cars and built office buildings from which they piloted their empires back home. Beyond snarling traffic in the once sleepy capital, these moneyed exiles posed little threat. Often bringing their businesses with them, they actually invigorated the local economy. Adnan Al Malaki, an Iraqi clothing trader who left Baghdad for Damascus, is still struggling to find stock for stores back home. But declining output in Iraq has forced him to double the amount of merchandise he orders in Syria. "Iraq used to account for half our total production, but we've had to shut those factories down," says Al Malaki, sipping a demitasse of coffee in a stylish Damascus café.

As the insurgency metastasized into civil war, the outflow of refugees accelerated. Locals are beginning to complain. In Syria, citizens grumble about rising prices, congestion and an alarming increase in crime and prostitution. "They bring with them only problems," says Jihad Yazigi, editor in chief of The Syria Report, an economic bulletin. Jordan is also showing signs of compassion fatigue. Its tiny population of nearly 6 million has swelled by some 15 percent. In Amman, the cost of alayeh bindura—fried tomatoes and onions, a lower-class staple—has doubled. Housing prices have risen by more than a third, forcing many young Jordanian couples to postpone marriage because they can no longer afford their own homes. Many in the overwhelmingly Sunni kingdom worry that the influx of so many Iraqi Shiites will one day spark the very sort of sectarian violence that is tearing their neighbor apart.

Increasingly, Jordanians are calling for a clampdown. "No more is good," says Abdel-Ghani Abdul-Hamid, who runs a produce stall in Rabia, known for its large population of émigrés. "The Iraqis act in barbaric ways. Last week some were fighting just outside my shop. People are now blaming the government for allowing them in." As if in response, the Jordanian government recently stopped issuing special documents that allow exiles uninhibited entry to and departure from the country.

Few blame Jordan for tightening up. For decades, the country has lumbered under the political weight of a large Palestinian diaspora that has coexisted uneasily with the indigenous population. The monarchy is also high on the hit lists of militant Islamic groups for its close relations with America and its peace treaty with Israel. With memories still fresh of the 2005 hotel bombings that killed 57 people, security services fear that the freight of exiles could become a sort of Trojan horse. There are rumors that agents of Iraq's Mahdi Army, the militia run by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have infiltrated the kingdom. Several prominent émigré businessmen have advised the Iraqi ambassador to Jordan to beware of kidnapping and assassination attempts. Should the violence in Iraq subside, some security experts warn, those insurgents allied with disgruntled Iraqi refugees may well train their sights on Jordan's monarchy.

Despite the fact that the immigrants are ethnically mixed, worried Jordanian locals, most of them Sunni, fear the rising number of Shia in their midst. Tensions between the United States and Iran have helped fan fears of a so-called Shiite crescent, as King Abdullah himself warned nearly two years ago. In Parliament, some legislators have taken to demonizing Shiite Islam as a threat to Jordanian security. "When you have teachers condemning Shiites in class, that's bad," says Jost Hilterman, Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group in Brussels. "When immigration officials are asking if visitors are Shia or Sunni at the airport, that's bad. And when clerics are calling for violence against Shiites, that's bad, too."

As for Iraq, the exodus may prove to be its ultimate undoing. The departure of so many white-collar professionals and skilled workers has essentially stripped the nation of much of its human infrastructure, completing the physical destruction of the war. With the civil war marking new levels of ferocity—and the United States showing growing impatience with its Iraq misadventure—the brain drain can be expected to grow even worse. All this will leave the country's future resting on an ever-shrinking cadre of experienced people to keep Iraq afloat, if and when its sectarian violence ends. And even then, there is no guaranteeing they'll ever return. "Once these people set up life abroad, they will not come back," says Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the Iraqi government and now a senior director at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "I would rather see them remain in Jordan and Syria and preserve their skills there."

Meanwhile, the younger generation of Iraqis, more than half of whom are under 30, are being robbed of their teachers, university professors and doctors—those who care for them and serve as mentors and role models for a functioning civil society. "It's not just a question of one lost generation, but of two, and this is the most frightening thing," says Jalal Al Gaaod, a Western-educated Iraqi architect now living in Amman with his family. From this depopulated base Iraq will be hard pressed to recover, much less rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of war.

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