War in Iraq, ISIS Crisis Fuels Brain Drain, Making Life Harder for Those Left Behind

Iraq's brain drain has created an extreme shortage of in-country doctors, like this one, treating a little boy in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp on April 5th. Carl Court/Getty

It's been 12 years since Omar Hassan Majed fled Baghdad, but it sometimes feels as if he never left home.

Hustling from room to room at his oncology clinic in Amman, Jordan, he jokes with the Iraqi nursing staff and drinks tea with the resident anesthesiologist, a childhood friend. And many of his patients are Iraqis. By the time he stops for dinner at an Iraqi grill—at the corner of Mosul and Basra streets—he's gone hours without seeing a Jordanian.

"It sounds bizarre, I know, but there are so many Iraqi doctors here," Majed says. "It makes me wonder if there are any still in Iraq."

Since the 2003 U.S. invasion, Baghdad's intellectual and cultural elite has left its turbulent homeland, fleeing violence, persecution and an economy with fewer and fewer good jobs. Tens of thousands have moved to the U.S., where many have enjoyed considerable success. Over half a million others—including many of the country's most educated people—have moved elsewhere in the Middle East. And their numbers have increased since the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) conquered up to 40 percent of the country in 2014.

ISIS has since been pushed out of most of Iraq, but many Iraqis aren't returning. In countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf states, talented Iraqi émigrés continue to staff hospitals, design roads, extract oil and lecture students. And as the country continues to bound from one crisis to the next, in part due to rampant corruption and mismanagement, its most educated citizens are succeeding in their new homes—and finding life in exile more and more appealing.

"We needed a safe environment to work and live, and they needed skilled labor," says Ali Nawaz, a Saudi-based petroleum engineer, who skipped out of Baghdad after a death threat in 2006. "It's been a good match."

This isn't the first time Iraq has been hit with a brain drain. Previous wars—with Iran in the 1980s, for instance—had a similar effect, but the turmoil that followed the American invasion, and the subsequent war with ISIS, has been far more harmful in this regard. Not only is the Iraqi school system in shambles, but the recent flight of professionals has made life harder for those left behind. More than 8,000 doctors have left in recent years, contributing to grave medical shortages, according to Rudaw, a Kurdish TV network.

"It is too difficult to be a successful doctor back in Iraq because of the security, because of the fear of kidnapping," says Nagham Hussein, a Baghdad-trained physician who left more than a decade ago.

There are few such fears in her new home—Amman—where Iraq's loss has quickly become Jordan's gain.