When Iraq's Middle Class Flee, They Often Get Poor Some Iraqi refugees in Syria are stuck in a no-man's land. Those who want to return home to Iraq cannot do so, as Iraq's central government says it can't cope with a large influx of Iraqis. Aid organizations say refugees slip into poverty because they're mostly middle-class professionals who lack the skills for a black-market economy.
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When Iraq's Middle Class Flee, They Often Get Poor

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When Iraq's Middle Class Flee, They Often Get Poor

When Iraq's Middle Class Flee, They Often Get Poor

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The violent division among Muslims is a big part of the conflict in Iraq, and the millions of Iraqis who fled the violence may not be going home soon. After a flurry of reports about refugees returning, the Baghdad government says it's not ready for them, so they'll have to wait in places like Syria which is where we're going next.

Many Iraqis are not typical refugees; many are middle class professionals -teachers and government workers who are now slipping into severe poverty.

Helping them means rewriting some of the rules as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS: Iraqis register at this United Nation's refugee office in Damascus. Many have been here for more than two years, but they're rushing to sign up now because a refugee card makes them eligible for food packages each month. Stop and talk to Iraqis in line here, they are indignant over their circumstances, more likely to give their resumes than their names.

SUHA (Veterinarian) : I am veterinarian. Veterinarian.

AMOS: A veterinarian, Suha(ph), a woman in her 50s, struggles with limited English to make it clear that she is a college graduate.

SUHA: I am 24 years in job and I am here - no, my name from Iraq (unintelligible).

AMOS: It's a common story. The Iraqis most needed to rebuild the country are in exile. They're the bulk of the refugee population says Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Mr. PETER HARLING (Senior Analyst, Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group): Coming to Syria is not something that the poor could afford, so we have seen, I think, an influx of a majority middle class population which has been increasingly impoverished, but which at least came with the lifelong savings or many made out of selling their house or renting it out for a year or so.

Mr. IMAN GORABY(ph) (U.N. Official): I mean, we use tomato paste; we use other canned items; there is marmalade, triangle cheese.

AMOS: It is an unusual menu at a food distribution center in Damascus run by the U.N. and the Syrian Red Crescent.

Mr. GORABY: It's unconventional - we're going beyond the conventional thinking for this population.

AMOS: Iman Goraby, a U.N. official, explains aid agencies have had to come up with new strategies - from the contents of the food packages to using cell phone text messages and Web sites to reach these refugees.

Mr. GORABY: Largely made up of middle class people who are descending into poverty. Seventy percent of them came from Baghdad itself; they lived and worked more as teachers, as government technocrats - to expect them to go and plaster walls, it's - they don't have the skills.

AMOS: This is a pitch that U.N. officials are making to donor countries. Embassy officials are touring the food center. More than 50,000 Iraqis get food aid now - the number who needs it could rise to 250,000 by next year. And there's another unconventional program in the works - cash payments to the most vulnerable refugees.

Iman Goraby explains why.

Mr. GORABY: We monitored the women in prison, and there is an increasing number of women who are thrown in there because of prostitution. And if you're a female, even in a full family composition with desperate economic situation, you have either to work at somebody's house or work in some god knows where.

AMOS: As bad as it is in Syria, because the government doesn't allow Iraqis to work here, many are not going home yet. In particular, those who know their houses back in Baghdad are occupied by others, or their neighborhoods are still controlled by the same militias that drove them out.

They watch Iraqi television channels here and acknowledge that Baghdad is safer these days, but not for them. There are some, says Arafat Jamal with the U.N.'s regional office on refugees, who may never go back.

Mr. ARAFAT JAMAL (Acting Officer, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut): And that's usually the people who are coming from cleansed areas. They have - they simply have nothing return to. You will have some people who have also just gone through such trauma in Iraq that it's not going to be mentally possible for them to return.

(Soundbite of dance recital)

AMOS: There are no Iraqi refugee camps in Syria, so you can find Iraqis just about anywhere in the city, including this dance recital. Like many from Iraq's educated class, Mohammed al-Egbi(ph), an artist, says he has no future here or in Iraq.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-EGBI (Artist): I want to go to the Canada. I have my uncle in United States so he have a friends in Canada, so he's thinking to take me out.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

INSKEEP: And let's stay in the Islamic world for a moment. We're following a story in Algeria, in the capital, Algiers, where two car bombs exploded today. Several dozen people have been killed and a number of United Nations employees are missing. The White House Condimned these attacks which occurred in a neighborhood where several U.N. agencies are located. Officials have not yet determined who's responsible for these blasts or whether the U.N. itself was actually the target. We'll bring you more as we learn more.

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