In Damascus one recent evening, Ahlam Al Jaburi entered the foyer of her apartment in tears. She had risen at 5:30 am that day to be first in line at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in what she hoped would be her second interview since she first requested asylum in December. Even by the grisly standards of postinvasion Iraq, Jaburi has a strong case. In July 2005, while working with US military officers investigating the claims of war victims in the Baghdad suburb of Khadimiya, the 41-year-old computer specialist was kidnapped by three men while hailing a cab to get to work. “They called me a spy for the Americans and wanted information on their base,” Jaburi says between long silences, interrupted only by the mechanical hum of a glowing fluorescent tube. “They threatened to kill me, but I had nothing to tell them.” Her only concession to her tormentors was a plea that they not toss her body into the Tigris River.
Jaburi, a Sunni Muslim, was kept blindfolded and regularly beaten for eight days before her elder brother negotiated her release through a third party. The family paid a ransom of $50,000, which it drew from the sanduk ashira, a “tribal box” managed by local sheiks. As she was released, Jaburi, whose given name means “dream” in Arabic, was ordered to leave Iraq with her family.
Despite her service with US authorities in Baghdad, Jaburi was turned away from the US Embassy in Damascus when she requested asylum in America. After ten hours of waiting for her interview, enduring sporadic fits of pushing and shoving from other asylum seekers, she was forced to return home after the office closed for the day.
The latest malignant outgrowth of Bush’s war in Iraq is, according to Refugees International president Ken Bacon, “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.” Like debris from a maritime disaster, the remains of Iraq’s shattered lives are washing up at border crossings, accumulating at immigration centers and settling into tenement housing. The exodus, particularly in its first stages, has included members of Iraq’s once-legendary class of skilled white-collar elites–doctors, engineers, scientists and educators. Without Iraq’s professionals, it will take a generation to rebuild the country into a self-reliant state with a functioning economy.
“All of the doctors I know have decided to not go back,” says a Sunni Iraqi pathologist and hospital administrator in Amman who, fearing for his family’s security back home, would not give his name. “It will take a decade just to train new physicians. The insurgency has turned the country into an empty vessel, drained of talent.”
What began as a thin stream of Iraqi merchants and investors seeking a safe place to do business has become a flood of some 2 million refugees–though it could be twice that amount–concentrated largely in Jordan and Syria. Many are destitute, and they place enormous strain on a region that is already highly combustible, both politically and economically. Once welcomed as fellow Arabs in distress, they are increasingly blamed for a scorching rise in inflation, crime and prostitution. Heads of state and politicians warn that they will import Iraq-style sectarian strife–political fearmongering, many believe, that could become self-fulfilling at a time when the Bush Administration appears to be lining up its Sunni allies for a confrontation with Iran.
“We have thousands and thousands of Iraqis spilling in from Iraq, and the government is worried that they may bring their conflict to Jordan,” says Taher Masri, a respected former prime minister. “In Parliament a few weeks ago, members were condemning Iran for trying to convert Jordanians to Shiism. My driver just asked me if Shiites were a greater danger than Israelis.”