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


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

Few came.
As the conflict grew increasingly violent, the Bush administration was unwilling to concede that conditions for civilians had become dramatically worse after the arrival of American forces. For its part, the government of Nouri al-Maliki tried to downplay the refugee problem, which belied the argument that Iraq had regained stability under its leadership. In fact, the situation in some communities continued to deteriorate well after General David Petraeus’s “surge” was hailed a success. Militants flushed out of Baghdad have set up bases around Mosul, in northern Iraq, where they have forced many Christians out of their homes—including, according to the UN, 866 families in the weeks preceding this March’s national elections.
For most Americans, the displaced Iraqis have simply remained out of sight. After the September 11 attacks, the US suspended admissions of Iraqi refugees. When it began admitting them again a few years later, the Department of Homeland Security instituted a screening process that until 2008 helped keep arrivals to a trickle. Paradoxically, the Iraq refugee crisis has had far deeper effects in Europe—particularly in the countries least involved in the conflict itself.


The last time Yusef spoke to his father, one of the men who had smuggled him out of Iraq held the cell phone for him. “I said, ‘I’m in Germany,’” Yusef, who is twenty, recalled. (As with some others we spoke to, he asked that his full name not be used for fear of further endangering his family.) He had spent the previous two weeks in the back of one truck after another, handed off from smuggler to smuggler, staying at houses and roadside drops. He’d traveled more than a thousand miles, from Iraq’s Turkish border to Bremen. Now the smugglers wanted to get paid. Yusef’s father, who was still in Iraq, wouldn’t pay until he knew that his son had arrived safely. After talking with Yusef he transferred the money. “The only reason I’m here,” Yusef said, when we met in Berlin in June 2009, “is to save my life. If I weren’t a Christian, I could live in my country with my family.”
The youngest of five children, Yusef grew up in a middle-class family in Mosul. He was studying electrical engineering at the university when, in 2008, he started getting anonymous threats. He was forced to quit school. A few months later, he began to receive written threats at his house; sometimes they were delivered by small children. (Like many of the Iraqis we encountered, he didn’t know who was making the threats.) He and his family left home, sleeping in churches and monasteries. Eventually, his father took him to a town on the Turkish border and handed him over to the smugglers. Yusef was lucky: not only did he survive the journey, but shortly after we met last summer, the German authorities granted him asylum. But his family remains in Iraq.

At the height of the violence in Iraq—between 2005 and 2008—Yusef’s story was repeated over and over. Tens of thousands of Iraqis scraped together the funds to smuggle themselves to European countries known for their generous asylum policies and social benefits. (In contrast to people with refugee status, who are identified by the UNHCR and must be selected by host governments before they arrive, those seeking asylum have already entered the country where they hope to stay.) According to the UNHCR, by 2006, more Iraqis were applying for asylum worldwide than people of any other nationality. Most of them filed applications in European countries; nearly all of them used smugglers to get there. In 2008, the going rate for escape to Greece—the nearest EU country to Iraq—was about $9,000; according to the Svenska Dagbladet, the cost of getting all the way to Sweden was as much as $25,000.

The results of this influx are evident in the small city of Södertälje, southwest of Stockholm. With a population of roughly 80,000, it has low crime rates, clean (and mostly empty) streets, excellent public transport, and several of the cold, pristine lakes characteristic of the area; it seems as far from Baghdad as one could imagine. It has long been home, however, to Assyrian Christian guest workers from northern Iraq and Syria. Owing in part to this community, between 2005 and 2007, Södertälje received some one hundred new Iraqis each month; by the end of 2007, it had taken in more Iraqis than had the United States during the entire course of the war. (Iraqi Muslims have sought refuge in Sweden as well, but mostly in cities like Malmö and Gothenberg, where they make up a much smaller percentage of the population.)
For those who could get there, Sweden seemed an ideal destination. During the first four years of the conflict, it granted asylum to 40,000 Iraqis—nearly all who applied. Those accepted received language and job training, and a generous monthly stipend. Yet for many of the Iraqis we met, finding a place in Sweden’s closed society—and its relatively inflexible labor market—has been daunting. Ussam, a scientist from Baghdad, said that, with few other options, she and her pharmacist husband, who are Sunni, were contemplating opening a sausage stand. “We just want to work. [In Baghdad] we worked 9 AM to 10 PM every day.” Some Iraqis in Södertälje—particularly doctors—have managed to find jobs in their own fields. But many have found themselves adrift, living on welfare, with no real prospect for a professional future.
Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of the Iraqi population—and the unwillingness of other Western governments to share the burden—were causing the Swedish government to rethink its commitment to humanitarian assistance. In an interview, Tobias Billström, Sweden’s minister for migration and asylum policy, told us, “We could see that during 2006, 2007, and 2008, we did a lot of things in Sweden. We aimed to fulfill the requirements that are set up by the international conventions, while other countries in the EU—as well as the rest of the world—did much less to help Iraqis who were in need of asylum.”

By the time of our visit in late 2008, these concerns had led to a backlash in Stockholm. The government adopted tough new legal standards for asylum—allowing it to reject most applicants. There was a national crackdown on human smugglers, many of whom are Iraqis based in Sweden. And Swedish courts were debating whether to start deporting Iraqis whose asylum claims were rejected. In Södertälje, we met Ghassan Azeza, a young dentist from Baghdad whose family is Christian. In 2007, he received anonymous notes saying that his throat would be cut if he didn’t leave Iraq immediately. Under the new Swedish rules, he has twice been denied asylum. He is now awaiting a final appeal.

In Turkey and Greece, the main points of entry for Iraqis trying to get to Europe, authorities were resorting to increasingly rough measures to keep them out. In November 2008, Bill Frelick, director of refugee policy for Human Rights Watch, reported that the Greek government had engaged in

systematically rounding up and detaining [Iraqi] migrants in dirty, overcrowded conditions in the border region with Turkey and forcibly and secretly expelling them to Turkey. Coast Guard officials push migrants from Greek territorial waters, sometimes puncturing inflatable boats or otherwise disabling their vessels…. The Turkish border authorities likewise abuse migrants, detaining those pushed back by Greece in degrading conditions. These migrants have no real opportunity to seek asylum in Turkey and are often detained indefinitely. Turkey continues to return Iraqis to Iraq without giving them a genuine chance to seek protection.5

The steady flow of Iraqis into Europe had become a problem for Brussels as well. Apart from debates over whether to grant asylum to Iraqis who made their way there, the EU was under pressure from the UN and the US to take in UN-designated Iraqi refugees for resettlement. Since refugees are selected in advance, some countries began to make demands about the kinds of Iraqis they would be willing to take. In part owing to Europe’s fraught relationship with its Muslim minorities, a preference for Christians became clear. In Germany, for example, the Catholic Church and the conservative Christian Democrats called on the government to take in Iraqi Christians. In the end, this proposal was overruled. But the EU did give priority to “vulnerable populations,” which meant in practice that many of the small number of refugees its member nations accepted—ten thousand in all—were Christian.
For most Iraqi refugees still stuck in Jordan, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, the door to Europe is closed. As in Sweden, the debate in other European countries has shifted from how many people to accept to how quickly they can be deported. It has been left to the United States and Iraq itself to find another solution; but none is in sight.


Bushra, a student of English literature from Baghdad, was sitting in her mostly empty living room in Phoenix, Arizona. She is unemployed. A thin woman in her thirties, she arrived in the United States in 2007, together with her husband. They were two of the approximately five thousand Iraqis that Arizona has agreed to accept as part of recent US commitments to take in more refugees from Iraq. She and her husband thought Phoenix would be the end of a life in limbo in Jordan, where they had fled from the violence. But the ordeal was not over. Neither could find work. They became so anxious that they decided to return to Amman, where they had contacts in the Iraqi community. The situation in Jordan was still more bleak: “There was nothing,” she said, when we met last November. In the end, they came back to Phoenix, where at least they were safe. Now their only source of income was from her husband’s part-time job parking rental cars.

In its last year in office, the Bush administration finally began to acknowledge the refugee problem. Deeming the surge a success and facing growing pressure from its European allies, the US quietly began accepting more Iraqis for resettlement (12,000 in 2008 and 18,000 in 2009). Officially, preference was given to those “in greatest need,” but US policy has failed to deal with many of the neediest cases. Deborah Amos observes that many Iraqis seeking refugee status

had paid ransom for the release of a loved one who had been kidnapped by a militia or criminal gang, sometimes for sectarian revenge but often for profit. The US government considered the paying of ransom in such cases—regardless of the circumstances—as constituting “material support” for terrorists, thus barring the surviving family from American resettlement.

And as Bushra’s situation in Phoenix reveals, for many of those who have been accepted by the United States, the minimal refugee benefits—which assume rapid transition to regular employment and take no account of such conditions as post-traumatic stress—have been all too inadequate. Many refugees were sent to high-growth areas like Phoenix and Atlanta, but those cities have been hit especially hard by the recession. Iraqis we met in Phoenix said they depend on food stamps and food banks; in a reversal of typical migrant economics, some rely on wire transfers from family left behind in Iraq or other parts of the Middle East.
Robin Dunn Marcos, who heads the Phoenix office of the International Rescue Committee, said that the IRC has become something more akin to a welfare office. Without work the refugees “can’t survive. They can’t pay the rent or the utilities, never mind buy toothpaste and toilet paper.” Confronted with stories such as Bushra’s, Charles Shipman, Arizona’s refugee coordinator, has had to ask the refugee agencies to reduce the number of Iraqis they are agreeing to resettle in the state, despite the US’s pledge to take in another 17,000 in 2010. “And I know every other state is making the same request,” he said. “I’m not sure where those additional refugees will end up.”

Of course the primary concern is the far larger number of Iraqis who remain in Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East. A small number of these exiles—some driven by economic necessity—have begun to go back to Iraq; without other options, more may follow in the coming months and years. In many cases, however, the houses, jobs, and neighborhoods they left behind are no longer there. For the millions who have lost their homes, it could take years of effort just to reclaim their property. Before the March parliamentary election in Iraq, Sunni leaders wanted greater representation for those living abroad. The final provisions of the new election law assigned exile ballots to the provinces where the voters lived before they left. Many exiles, however, saw the political jockeying as “sectarian” in nature and declined to vote.6

Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbors are losing patience. With US government resources stretched by the economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has provided only a fraction of the $2 billion in refugee aid promised to host governments in the Middle East. Iraq itself has been far less generous, despite sizable revenues from oil. For their part, humanitarian groups worry that when US troops begin to go home this summer, there will be even less reason to devote political capital to helping refugees. What was once a middle-class society without democracy may, for some time to come, be a democracy without a middle class. For talented Iraqis now scattered around the world, this would amount to a double betrayal: abandoned in their own country by the American and other forces that were supposed to give them a central place in a new Iraq, they now risk being abandoned again outside it.

—April 14, 2010

Research for this article was supported by grants from the International Reporting Project and the McCloy Fellowship.


Treating Refugees as ‘Terrorists’ July 15, 2010

  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).

  5. 5

    Bill Frelick, “The EU’s Failed Asylum Rules,” International Herald Tribune, November 20, 2008. For the full report, see “Stuck in A Revolving Door: Iraqis and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants at the Greece/Turkey Entrance to the European Union,” Human Rights Watch, November 28, 2008.

  6. 6

    Suha Philip Ma’ayeh, “Exiles Turn Their Backs on ‘Sectarian’ Iraq Elections,” The National, February 7, 2010.