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Exodus | The Nation

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Exodus

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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.

About the Author

Stephen Glain
Stephen Glain is a freelance journalist and author based in Paris. The paperback edition of his second book, State vs....

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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."

Dispossession accounts for much of the Middle East's colonial inheritance, from the Ottoman Turks' genocidal eviction of Armenians to the Palestinian exodus that followed the creation of Israel with British complicity. If history is any guide--and it usually is in the Middle East--where refugees go, trouble follows. The Iraqi exodus could do more to reshape the geography and geopolitics of the region than anything gamed out in neoconservative think tanks, which tend to see the matter as an abstraction. For Jordan and Syria, themselves the bastard progeny of imperial coupling, the problem is very real--and deadly serious.

"Jordan is scared to death of the spillover from Iraq," says Rhanda Habibe, Amman bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the doyenne of the Jordanian press corps. "The Arab world is dividing into two groups, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the US and Jordan on one side and Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah on the other. If there is civil war in Iraq or a civil war in the West Bank, it could all spin out of control and suck us into it."

Though there are an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, compared with some 750,000 in Jordan, the strain is felt deepest in the Hashemite Kingdom. Tiny and resource poor, Jordan is a culture dish for the Middle East's myriad schisms, scored as it is by rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, secular and fundamentalist. Jordan lumbers under the weight of a large ethnic Palestinian population--40 to 60 percent of the total--much of which is still living in camps. The Palestinians in Jordan have coexisted uneasily with indigenous "East Bankers" since the two sides went to war in 1970. The regime is burdened by its alliance with the deeply unpopular US government and its peace accord with Israel. It is also a mendicant state, unable to survive without generous aid from the United States and its Arab neighbors. In February, for example, Jordan avoided a budget crisis only after Saudi Arabia, under stiff pressure from Washington, pledged $500 million in aid.

Aside from strong-arming the Saudis, however, the White House has taken a back seat in the refugee crisis. Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, has pushed Amman and Damascus to accommodate Iraqi exiles while doing little to open America's own borders to them. Testifying before Congress four months ago, Sauerbrey--who has no experience with refugees and who was appointed by Bush during a Congressional recess last year to avoid a floor fight over her strong opposition to abortion rights--confined US resettlement efforts to a single paragraph of her opening remarks. It took a measure led by Senator Edward Kennedy to shame the government into granting asylum to 7,000 Iraqi war refugees (among them, Ahlam Al Jaburi, whose persistence finally paid off this past April when she was awarded a promise of asylum).

With the US playing only a passive role in the crisis, Arab leaders are dealing with the problem as they see fit. Both Amman and Baghdad--the former worried about its capacity to absorb so many Iraqis, the latter covetous of its professional elites--are determined to reverse the migration. For a while, according to recent arrivals, Shiite men were being turned away at the Iraqi-Jordanian border, some with stamps in their passports that prohibited them from returning for five years. Now, they say, any adult male between the age of 18 and 36 stands a good chance of being refused entry. Amman recently announced it would admit only Iraqis bearing a special passport, soon to be issued by the Baghdad government on highly restricted terms.

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