Iraqis Find Job Opportunities, New Lives in China

A Chinese Muslim cook prepares kebabs for Middle Eastern residents i i

hide captionA Chinese Muslim cook prepares kebabs for Middle Eastern residents of the southern Chinese city of Yiwu, which attracts large numbers of foreign traders. Among them is a steadily growing community of Iraqis fleeing the war.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
A Chinese Muslim cook prepares kebabs for Middle Eastern residents

A Chinese Muslim cook prepares kebabs for Middle Eastern residents of the southern Chinese city of Yiwu, which attracts large numbers of foreign traders. Among them is a steadily growing community of Iraqis fleeing the war.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Map showing Yiwu, China, and Iraq i i

hide captionYiwu, in China's Zhejiang province, is home to the world's largest wholesale market. About 1,000 Iraqis are in the city at a given time; they have helped boost trade between the two countries.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map showing Yiwu, China, and Iraq

Yiwu, in China's Zhejiang province, is home to the world's largest wholesale market. About 1,000 Iraqis are in the city at a given time; they have helped boost trade between the two countries.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Nihad Fouad Majjid i i

hide captionNihad Fouad Majjid is an Iraqi Kurd who has been living in Yiwu and trading with Iraq for the past five years.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Nihad Fouad Majjid

Nihad Fouad Majjid is an Iraqi Kurd who has been living in Yiwu and trading with Iraq for the past five years.

Louisa Lim, NPR
The mosque in Yiwu i i

hide captionThe mosque in Yiwu serves the thriving Middle Eastern community.

Louisa Lim, NPR
The mosque in Yiwu

The mosque in Yiwu serves the thriving Middle Eastern community.

Louisa Lim, NPR

The war in Iraq has spawned a new refugee crisis: An estimated 2 million Iraqis have fled the country. A small, but rapidly increasing number of Iraqis is finding a haven on the other side of the world — in the southern Chinese trading city of Yiwu.

Yiwu, in China's Zhejiang province, is home to the world's largest wholesale market.

Iraqi trader Moussa Anwar says many Iraqis come to China to do business — and end up wanting to stay.

Indeed, the Iraqi embassy in Beijing says the number of Iraqis in China has increased by 50 percent over the past two years, and most are in Yiwu. Exiled Iraqis estimate there are about 100 Iraqi trading companies and 1,000 Iraqis in the city at any one time.

Nihad Fouad Majjid was one of the first to set up in Yiwu, opening his office five years ago. Driving around in his blue Lexus, it's clear he has done well.

Majjid ships 50 containers a month to Iraq, mainly filled with consumer goods such as clothes, shoes and auto parts.

Official statistics reflect an increase in trade. In 2003, Chinese exports to Iraq were worth $56 million; last year, that figure was $490 million. But doing business with war-torn Iraq isn't easy.

Majjid says he loses $200,000 to $300,000 a year to gunmen in Iraq who take his shipments and demand payment for their return. If he doesn't pay, he says, they kill the driver and sell the goods.

In Iraq, his trucks are often fired at, he says, and two of his drivers have been wounded as a result of gunfire.

Majjid says that life is freer in China than in Iraq today.

One example is his weekly soccer game, something that probably wouldn't be possible in Iraq. Every week, his all-Iraqi team — made up of Shia, Sunnis and Kurds — takes on a Chinese side.

Yiwu is home to a huge mosque, and the extensive Middle Eastern community makes it easier for Iraqis to adapt to life here. Another factor is the relative ease of obtaining a yearlong business visa.

Behind the mosque, halal snack stalls do brisk business. For recent arrivals, the bustling scene is a stark contrast to their lives back home in Iraq, where even going to the market was a risky, possibly life-threatening venture.

Karim Mahmoud says he left Iraq six months ago because he wanted to work — which the war made difficult.

When he lived in Baghdad, Mahmoud says he feared being kidnapped every time he left the house.

An engineer in Iraq, Mahmoud now works as a trader in China. He worries about his wife and children — who are still in Baghdad — but he sees his future outside his homeland.

If the Chinese authorities allow it, Mahmoud says he will stay in China "forever."

Like the other exiles in Yiwu, Mahmoud is grateful to China for making his new life possible, even as he acknowledges it is in Beijing's interests to build trade ties with Iraq.

He repeatedly emphasizes China's policy of noninterference in other countries, in stark contrast to the United States.

That these refugees fleeing the fallout of America's attempts to impose democracy on Iraq would rather live in this Chinese city is a small victory for Beijing's attempts to project its soft power across the globe.

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