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They Fled from Our War

Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East

by Deborah Amos
Public Affairs, 230 pp., $25.95
Gabriela Bulisova
An Iraqi agricultural engineer holding a photograph of his now blind sister, Damascus, Syria, 2008. They fled Iraq after he was stopped at a roadblock in Baghdad, tortured by a militia group, and left for dead while on his way to a hospital to obtain medicine that might have helped save her eyesight. Both unemployed, they live in poverty without hope of returning to Baghdad.


Among the many consequences of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the plight of millions of Iraqi refugees is seldom mentioned. The stories of such people as Burhan Abdulnour, whom we met in Sweden in 2008, have hardly been told. Abdulnour, a doctor, was director of a Baghdad hospital for chest diseases. His wife, Sahar, also a physician, was teaching physiology at Baghdad University’s medical school. They lived in al-Riyadh, a mixed neighborhood in central Baghdad, with their three children. “We had jobs, we had homes, we had cars, we had normal lives,” Abdulnour recalled. They were members of Iraq’s Christian minority. Although life under the Baathist dictatorship had been tolerable for them, they assumed that the arrival of the Americans would bring new freedoms and much-needed economic development. “We were expecting to have new devices, new equipment for the labs, X-rays, operations, everything,” Abdulnour said.
The new technology never arrived. Instead, Iraq descended into horrific violence; Christians were among those targeted by armed gangs and Islamic militias. By 2006, there were frequent attacks near their house. That spring, their twelve-year-old son was home alone when a car bomb exploded so close that it broke the windows. Then came the death threats. “My wife was threatened in her medical school—they were threatened, the dean of the college, the head of the department also. One of her colleagues was killed in his own clinic,” Abdulnour said. That August, he moved his wife and children to Jordan. He returned to his job in Baghdad, where he had only a few months left until he could claim his pension. But before he could finish, armed men came looking for him. He fled too. Today, Abdulnour and his family have settled in Sweden; their lives in Iraq are over.

Following Iraq’s parliamentary election this March, much attention was devoted to the large turnout, the relatively orderly voting process (despite multiple attacks), the participation of Sunnis, and the apparent progress—after years of setbacks—toward a working political system in a still bitterly divided country. Widely forgotten in this analysis, however, are the two million Iraqis who remain in exile abroad. Most have ended up in the Middle East and Europe; a small number have been resettled in the United States and elsewhere.
Before the US invasion, many of them were, like the Abdulnours, the bedrock of Iraq’s college-educated and largely secular middle class. But as grandiose plans for a new democratic order were quickly pushed aside by sectarian groups vying for power, these urban professionals—doctors, teachers, engineers, civil servants—were cast out. Their reluctance to take sides in the violence between radical Sunnis and Shias made them suspect, and their assets—houses, cars, jobs—turned them into ready targets for cash-starved militias. Some were kidnapped for large ransoms; some were tortured; many were killed.1 Those who were lucky enough to escape the country often did so, like Abdulnour, at gunpoint, leaving most of their property behind.
Over the past two years, we have met Iraqis in the Middle East, Western Europe, and the United States; despite the numerous hardships they were facing, it was difficult to find any who had plans to return. Along with the sectarian conflict that has reshaped the country, the decimation of the middle class will affect Iraq’s recovery for years to come. “The thinking of the Iraqi people has changed,” Abdulnour told us. “There is no security, there is no real discussion between the governing parties. Even in the far future, I don’t think it will be safe to live. For Christians, it’s getting more difficult. [Iraq’s leaders] are thinking in a more Islamic way. It is very very difficult to go back.”


The flight of Iraqis since the 2003 invasion ranks as the largest human displacement in the Middle East since 1948. Precise numbers are hard to come by: overwhelmingly, the refugees have fled from and to large urban areas. Many are fearful of making themselves known. But according to estimates by the UN and human rights organizations, over one million Iraqis have sought refuge in Syria, and some 500,000 in Jordan, where Amman’s population has swelled by as much as a third as a result. Several hundred thousand more are dispersed elsewhere in the region, including Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Another 100,000 have paid large sums to smuggle themselves into Europe, where they have placed severe stress on asylum courts in countries like Germany and Sweden.
These figures do not include the more than two million Iraqis who have been displaced within Iraq. According to a March 17 report by Refugees International, half a million Iraqis who fled their homes are now squatting in slums around Baghdad and other cities:
> These people have no title to the land. Many fear returning to their original homes…. The settlements all lack basic services, including water, sanitation, and electricity, and are built in precarious places—under bridges, alongside railroad tracks, and amongst garbage dumps.2

Counting both internal and external refugees, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million of Iraq’s population of 24 million have been uprooted during the conflict—nearly twice the number of Sudanese displaced in Darfur.
This human upheaval has transformed Iraqi society. In her new book, Eclipse of the Sunnis, Deborah Amos, a correspondent for National Public Radio, sees the outflow of Iraqis as part of a long-term shift from Sunni to Shia dominance in Iraq. Since over half of those who have left are believed to be Sunnis, Amos draws a direct connection between the refugees and the common perception that, as she put it in a recent interview with Terry Gross, “the Shiites had won, the Sunnis had lost, and it was the Sunnis who were being driven out.” Adding large numbers of Iraqis to local populations from Damascus to Amman to Beirut, this exodus has caused what Amos calls “a ripple of consequences across all Sunni communities in the Middle East.” Jordan and Syria, she notes, complain that the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki has failed to provide support for the exiles, while Baghdad accuses its neighbors of harboring Iraqi insurgents.

Yet the exile population includes tens of thousands of Shias as well. And proportionally, the conflict has had even greater consequences for other groups: Christians and smaller minorities, families of mixed backgrounds, and especially members of the country’s urban elite—regardless of sectarian identification. “One of the characteristics of Iraq’s civil war,” the International Crisis Group reported in 2008,
> has been the extent to which the better educated have been targeted by militia leaders from all confessional groups—including their own…. Ironically—and tragically—large segments of the middle class in which so many hopes were invested at the dawn of the occupation now reside abroad.3

In Amman, we met Rafed Khashan, a Shia who had been working for the International Committee of the Red Cross and teaching linguistics at the University of Basra. “I did really prosper after the invasion,” he said. By early 2007, however, his house was being watched by militants; then, one of his brothers, a barber, was murdered. Soon after, Khashan was at work when he got a call from another brother: British soldiers had broken into their house and were using it in a firefight with the Mahdi Army. The British “handcuffed my brother, beat him, they beat my wife. They took money, our computer, many things. They were asking about me,” he said.

The British had mistaken his family for militia members, before learning that Khashan was himself under threat. A British soldier later told him: “There are some [militants] who don’t like you and your brothers, because you are successful.” Now he is a refugee in Amarillo, Texas. When we spoke again in late March, Khashan said, “You do not imagine the frustration I feel every night I go to work at Wal-Mart as an overnight stocker.”

Not only has Iraq lost many of those who could help it rebuild, it risks losing the next generation as well. Many who have taken flight are families, including a large number of widowed mothers with children. (In late 2006, the Jordanian government began barring entry to single Iraqi men between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five.) However, some exile children we met had been out of school for years; among other problems, most Iraqis were not permitted to go to public school in Jordan until 2007.
The situation for many exiles, meanwhile, has become perilous. In Jordan, we met Iraqis who were struggling to live on dwindling savings and off-the-books jobs, in constant fear of deportation. One mother of three, who had been a civil servant in Baghdad, showed us her open refrigerator: her family used it as a closet because there was no food to keep cold. This March, the UNHCR identified 85,000 refugees in Syria with “special needs,” including over 10,000 women it considers “at risk.” Deborah Amos describes meeting middle-class Iraqis in Damascus who had become prostitutes in order to survive. “The other girls…they are surprised when they find out I am from a good family,” Amos was told by a college-educated woman from Baghdad who had become her family’s sole wage earner.

Despite the visible destruction of Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods and urban middle class, the United States and its allies, including the United Nations, have been remarkably slow to respond. As late as 2006, a year in which the country approached civil war between Shias and Sunnis and thousands poured across the border each day, the US admitted only 202 Iraqis for resettlement—most of whom had worked for Coalition forces. Britain, the US’s chief ally in the conflict, took in hardly any. By the end of that year, the UNHCR had managed to register only 17,000 Iraqis in Jordan—”a tiny fraction,” according to Human Rights Watch, of the hundreds of thousands who had fled there from “persecution, war, and generalized violence in Iraq.”

Iraq specialists attribute this failure to several causes. Many of those who have gone to neighboring countries are terrified of being detained or deported and have refused to register with the UNHCR. Some of the Iraqis we met, having enjoyed a high standard of living before the war, were ashamed of being classified as refugees and reluctant to accept handouts. At the same time, until surprisingly late in the conflict, the overriding assumption of the allied invaders was that the main cross-border movement would be into Iraq, not out of it. “Despite a growing insurgency,” the University of Connecticut scholars Kathryn Libal and Scott Harding point out in their recent study of the response to the refugee crisis,
> US and international efforts to “reconstruct” Iraq included funding to assist the tens of thousands of “returnees” who had fled Iraq in the Hussein years and whom the United States expected to pour back into their homeland from Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran.4

  1. 1

    For a remarkable series of testimonies of Iraqi victims of torture, kidnapping, and displacement since 2003 gathered by Iraqi researchers, see the Current Violations in Iraq Project directed by Daniel Rothenberg at Depaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute.

  2. 2

    Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon,” International Crisis Group, July 10, 2008.

  3. 3

    Iraq: Humanitarian Needs Persist,” Refugees International, March 17, 2010.

  4. 4

    Kathryn Libal and Scott Harding, “Challenging US Silence: International NGOs and the Iraqi Refugee Crisis,” International Migration and Human Rights: The Global Repercussions of US Policy, edited by Samuel Martinez (University of California Press, 2009).

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