ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Baghdad, ever since the brutal sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007, the city has been a collection of enclaves. For the most part, Shiites live with Shiites and Sunnis live with Sunnis.

As NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, many of those who fled their neighborhoods are now caught in limbo.

KELLY McEVERS: You hear a lot of sad stories in Iraq. Some people cry. Some people yell. Some people just hang their heads and try to get it together. That's what Mortada Mohammad Rasul did when he told us what happened to his brother and to his house.

Mr. MORTADA MOHAMMAD RASUL: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: It was 40 years ago when Rasul's family bought the house. His grandfather, a baker and a barber, borrowed the equivalent of $16,000 for eight bedrooms and a big garden on a main street.

Mr. RASUL: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: It was a good neighborhood, Rasul says, a mixed neighborhood. For decades, his Shiite family thought nothing of the fact that their neighbors were Sunnis, until 2006, when Sunni extremists took over and the neighbors kidnapped Rasul's brother.

Mr. RASUL: (Through translator) When I got the news that my brother was kidnapped, immediately, I called my family and I told them: Leave the house immediately.

McEVERS: The kidnappers contacted Rasul by phone and demanded a ransom. Then, Rasul believes, his brother was sold to another group. Negotiations ended. Three days later, Rasul found his brother in the morgue. Since that day, Rasul has spent only a handful of nights at his family house.

(Soundbite of conversation)

McEVERS: Instead, he couch-surfs; sometimes sleeping here - on the floor of his older brother's house - sometimes crashing with friends.

With no job, he can't afford to rent a new house and no one in his now exclusively Sunni neighborhood will buy his old house. Potential buyers know he's desperate, that he'll never live there again. They're just waiting for him to drop the price to almost nothing.

Mr. RASUL: (Through translator) It's only the house that we have. If we lose it, it means we're done. We're over.

McEVERS: This is the dilemma of hundreds of thousands of Baghdad families who were forced to flee during the sectarian war: The value of the old house is going down, but rents are going up. That means the family's worth is disappearing.

Pollster and sociologist Ahmed Qassim says more than half of the city's displaced families once identified themselves as upper or middle class. But 82 percent of a recent sampling of displaced Baghdadis said they were barely making ends meet.

Qassim says one portion of Baghdad's middle class is withering away, while another one - the newly formed political class - is taking its place.

Mr. AHMED QASSIM (Sociologist): (Through translator) What happened here, the change that took place here has shaken the carpet. Those who were up went down. And those who were down, they went up.

McEVERS: But the losers are still losers, and they're both Shiite and Sunni. The Iraqi government does occasionally give displaced families cash stipends of a few hundred dollars. Most say that's not enough.

Abdul-Khaliq Zangana for years headed the Iraqi parliament's Displacement Committee. He says the issue simply is not a priority.

Mr. ABDUL-KHALIQ ZANGANA (Member of Parliament): (Through translator) The majority of those who were displaced, they were anti-government, they were not supporting the government, they were not pro-government.

McEVERS: So, the official thinking goes, why should the government help them?

The sad reality is that after a civil war, property is rarely given back. Scholars say it takes generations for people to begin the process of reclaiming what's theirs, if that happens at all.

Ibrahim Ismail Ibrahim doesn't have that kind of time. His grandfather was a Sunni cleric who scrimped and saved to build a house back in the '60s. Then his father sold the house and loaned Ibrahim the money to build his own.

Mr. IBRAHIM ISMAIL IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Ibrahim never had the chance to pay the money back. In 2007, his father and three brothers were killed by a man he believes was linked to a Shiite militia. Ibrahim fled the house.

He now rents a house for his mother, his wife and his five children. But Ibrahim is running out of money and his mother is ill.

So why not just sell the house and get the money, and take care of her?

Mr. IBRAHIM: (Through translator) Actually, it's her - my mother. She's the one who is telling me don't ever sell the house. Because the problem is that if you sell the house, you now lose everything.

MCEVERS: If you don't own a house, she keeps telling him, you don't have a country. When all else fails, she says, you have to have somewhere to go.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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