Out of Iraq

Marc Kusnetz

After dropping out of contact for several months, Muhammad emailed from Baghdad last April:

I’m writing for you today asking your help (if possible if possible) to pick up me from the hell which is Iraq. Actually, I reached now the climax of the suffering here in Iraq.

I have never met Muhammad. But I have come to know him through telephone conversations and emails that stretch back to 2005, when he and I were both working for US news organisations. A former colleague had put me in touch with him when I was trying to contact members of an Iraqi family about whom I wanted to write. Muhammad, despite not knowing who I was, and despite my pleas that he make his enquiries by phone, insisted on going into the streets of Baghdad to find the family. That was two years ago; not long afterwards Muhammad’s troubles began:

In 2005 robbers got my car while I was driving near my home and tried to kill me when they (six people using two cars) put their pistols in my head and I said the (Shahada) Islamic words before the death, but they left me by the will of God.

This jolted Muhammad into action and he moved his wife and three children to Damascus, joining what was to become a mass exodus. On a typical day, thousands of families throng the border checkpoints.

At least 50,000 Iraqis (some estimates are double that number) have been employed by either the US government or private American organisations, meaning that at least 250,000 people (again, it could be double that number) have a connection with US institutions of some kind. The British government estimates that about 20,000 Iraqis have worked with British forces. Muhammad, like many other Iraqis who had these jobs, visited his family every two months at most, returning to Baghdad after a brief stay. This occasioned more problems:

I feel just like divorced man when he goes to see his children trying to do anything to make them happy and respond to all their requests because I’m staying with them just for ten days and that certainly will spoil them because now they are just like getting one side upbringing by the mother only.

To add to the pressure, prices in Damascus have soared since the Iraqis began to arrive. Syria’s deputy foreign minister says prices for food and basic goods have increased by 30 per cent and rents by 150 per cent. Iraqi refugees are not permitted to work in Syria and the government has restricted their access to free healthcare. For families like Muhammad’s, the cost of living has temporarily replaced the fear of dying as the central concern of daily life. Muhammad himself, however, was burdened with both worries, since he continued to commute between Baghdad and Damascus. Then things changed again:

I got a report (from my neighborhood) saying that the Al-mahdi army (Muqtada’s people – the Shiite religious man) asked about me and they are looking for me now because both that I’m Sunni as well as they heard that I’m working within American media.

This news came from an acquaintance who had himself been hunted, kidnapped and then released. Muhammad immediately began living in his employer’s office. He also reduced the time he spent out on the streets, and cut back on his visits to his parents, who lived nearby. Still, his job – and salary – kept him from permanent flight. But then more bad news changed his mind. While visiting his family in Damascus, Muhammad got a frantic call from a teacher who worked at a Baghdad school where he took courses. The caller said that some menacing men had come to the school repeatedly, looking for him. That’s when Muhammad wrote to ask my help.

Like the vast majority of Iraqi exiles, Muhammad wants to go to the US, where, he hopes, his language skills might allow him to continue working at a news organisation. (His spoken English is much better than his written English.) But US refugee policy since the Iraq invasion, as well as the sheer number of refugees, makes success a remote possibility for any given applicant.

The US government admitted one Iraqi refugee in April and one in May. Sixty-three were admitted in June. For 2007 so far, the total is 190, but even this number is misleading, since all but 17 were backlogged cases of Iraqis who fled before the war began. In the UK, 88 per cent of Iraqi asylum applications were rejected last year. By contrast, Sweden – which had no involvement in the war – allowed more than 90 per cent of applicants to stay. Iraqis clearly know about this: out of 18,000 Iraqi asylum seekers who arrived in Europe last year just over 1000 went to Britain while almost 9000 went to Sweden.

Last February, the Bush administration promised to review 7000 asylum cases with the aim of admitting 3000 refugees by the end of September. US officials now concede that no more than 2000 will gain entry. Nonetheless, the assistant secretary of state Ellen Sauerbrey told the Washington Post that the US is ‘welcoming the persecuted and standing by our friends’.

Critics of current policy – in June Edward Kennedy and Gordon Smith introduced a bipartisan bill called the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act – note that in the eight months immediately following the end of the Vietnam War, the US took in more than 131,000 South Vietnamese who had been involved in the American war effort. Gerald Ford subsequently said: ‘To do anything less would, in my opinion, only add moral shame to military humiliation.’

The Bush administration rejects the comparison, at least where the refugees are concerned. ‘Iraq is not Vietnam,’ Sauerbrey wrote, ‘and conditions today are different from those in 1975.’ The Iraq war is not over and the post-September 11 world requires ‘rigorous security screening to ensure that anyone wishing to harm Americans is not admitted to the United States’. But rigorous screening procedures are already in place and the Iraqis at greatest risk are those who have been risking their lives all along on behalf of the Americans. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Damascus, Amman and other Middle Eastern cities sit and wait, unable to go forward, and afraid to turn back.