Amid Violence and Shortages, Some Iraqis Leave Home

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For many Iraqis, the daily violence, the lack of electricity, long gas lines and rampant corruption have become too much to bear. People from all backgrounds and socioeconomic groups flee to Jordan or other countries where they have family.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

For many Iraqis, the daily violence, the lack of electricity, long gas lines and rampant corruption have become too much to bear. Instead of hoping for better times, some are choosing to go abroad to an often-uncertain future. There are no firm figures on how many Iraqis have left since the US-led invasion. Figures from Iraq's neighbors show that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled.

And, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad, more are planning to leave every day.

ALI HAMDANI: You don't even discuss it with your friends. You don't say: Are you leaving? or You're not considering leaving? We've gone beyond the point that we discuss whether to leave or not, now, we're discussing now how and when, and what could be the best way, what could be the best time to leave. But leaving is a must.

LOURDES GARCIA: Ali Hamdani is a stocky 20-something doctor who moonlights as a translator. He's a kind of Renaissance man; a whiz at computers, a black belt in Karate. In his spare time he plays the Iraqi lute, called the oud. He sits holding it as he talks.

Ali says there wasn't one key moment that made him decide to try and leave Iraq. Rather, he says, he slowly began to feel like an exile in his own country.

HAMDANI: It might sound strange for someone outside the country, but I'm missing Iraq. If you lived in Iraq for your lifetime and you live in it now, you'd miss Iraq because it's a completely different place. That's not Iraq, it's not Baghdad. It's not the place where you lived before. So I'm missing it already.

GARCIA: Ali's father was a Shiite. He died just before the invasion. His mother is a Sunni. He says most of his friends have left already. His mother and sister are coming with him, so he says there'll be nothing left for him in Iraq. He says he loves his country, but like many Iraqis, Ali has had enough.

HAMDANI: Chaos, instability, then hopelessness. I really started to feel hopeless, you know? Like this place was becoming more and more hopeless. I started seriously considering leaving it for good.

GARCIA: Iraq's statistics reflect Ali's observation on the violence here. The United States military announced that insurgents mounted more than 34,000 attacks last year on American troops, Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi civilians. That's a nearly 30 percent jump from 2004. On Tuesday alone, 67 people who'd been shot ended up in Baghdad's main morgue.

The UN Refugee Agency says that after a dramatic drop in Iraqi asylum seekers after the United States invasion, there's been an increase since mid-way through 2004. Officially, in neighboring Jordan, there are 250,000 Iraqis. Unofficial estimates put that number at 700,000. The UN says in Syria, the Iraqi exile population has swelled from 70,000 before the war to half a million now.

Uhn Amira(ph) is putting her clothes in plastic bags to preserve them. Tomorrow she's leaving Iraq, and there isn't much she can carry. One of her sons was attacked by thieves, the other was threatened. They've both since left her. She'll now follow them and move to Jordan. But because there are more and more Iraqis fleeing, it's getting harder and harder for them to be accepted, even in Arab countries. She's worried about how she'll get residency papers.

UHN AMIRA: (Arabic spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We feel very insulted. We do not feel they respect us when we present our passport or ask for a visa. They do not accept Iraqis anymore. We feel that we are humiliated everywhere. We feel humiliated.

GARCIA: It's as if people somehow see Iraqis as a contagious carrier of violence. And she's worried about how long the money will last.

AMIRA: (Arabic spoken)

WOMAN: There is no job for Iraqis in Amman. I will live on what I have, but it is very expensive there and we are confused. And I have put my house up for sale but it has not been sold. The situation is so bad.

GARCIA: The uncertainty of the future brings her to tears.

AMIRA: (Arabic spoken)

WOMAN: My country is very close to my heart. This is the soil of our homeland. Can one leave it just like that? This is the country where my parents and my grandfathers were brought up.

GARCIA: Other Iraqis are taking huge risks trying to get completely out of this region. Among them is a plump Christian woman who spoke to NPR by phone from Northern Europe. She doesn't want to have her name divulged for fear of reprisals against her family still in Iraq.

Her story begins when she returned from work one day to find this:

WOMAN: On my door it was written Death to Crusaders and American Collaborators. It's because I'm a Christian.

GARCIA: Insurgents frequently portrayed the American invasion as a Christian crusade against Islam. After she saw what they'd done, she packed that very same night and left the country for Jordan. Out of work and with dwindling funds, she found a human smuggler who gave her a fake passport.

WOMAN: It was a disaster. It was the worst days I had in my life, because he told me that we have to pretend like we are not friends, like lovers, and I will manage everything. You don't say a word, because if you say a single word, we will be dead. So, you know, it's so hard for me to just, a stranger man kisses you, hugs you whenever you pass the control, it's disgusting, but I had to. I had to. It was the only way.

GARCIA: She finally succeeded in reaching Europe, and has been granted refugee status. But she says in some ways, though she's safe, her life is no better.

WOMAN: I still have parts of my family over there. I'm just like crazy as each hour I rush to the TV. Sometimes I hear that there are explosions in the place where my colleagues used to work, or where my family lives. I rush to my mobile, I thank God thousand times every day for their safety.

You know, my body is in Sweden, but my soul, and my heart, is still in Baghdad, you know? It's so hard.

GARCIA: Back in Baghdad, Ali Hamdani continues to play his oud. He says the only thing he's sure of is that he'll bring it with him when it goes. It will take still another year at least to get the necessary paperwork to get to England, where he hopes to get his surgery specialization.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMDANI SINGING AND PLAYING THE OUD)

GARCIA: He sings a song about a man who cannot wait any longer to see his love. But something is holding him back.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMDANI SINGING AND PLAYING THE OUD)

GARCIA: Ali says it reminds him of how he feels every day. He's anxious to leave, and yet, he doesn't want to go.

HAMDANI: You know, it's like it reflects something inside me that's, don't ask me to be patient, you don't know what's going on.

GARCIA: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: Farah al-Kassab(ph) contributed to that report.

This is NPR News.

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