They Can’t Go Home Again

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Iraqis flee

In the upcoming book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, Michael Schwartz, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, writes that Iraq has undergone three waves of displacement since the war began.

First, de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, the disbandment of the Iraqi military and the closing of state-owned industries in 2003 left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis with limited economic prospects. A kidnapping industry boomed shortly thereafter, forcing much of Iraq’s moneyed and political elite — many of whom were targeted for ransom — to flee.

The second wave came a year later, when American troops began invading insurgent strongholds in cities such as Fallujah and Samarra. Neighborhoods turned into battlegrounds, further disrupting the lives of residents uninvolved in the conflict.

Finally, beginning in 2005, and escalating over the next two years, ethnic cleansing in Baghdad and elsewhere displaced what Schwartz calls “a tsunami” of citizens — young and old, rich and poor. The infamous February 2006 bombing of Samarra’s Golden Dome, an honored Shiite shrine, accelerated the exodus. In all, the number of refugees is staggering, far outstripping the 900,000 Iraqis, primarily Kurds, who were internally displaced during former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime.

While people of all ethnic sects have been affected, Chaldean Catholics — like the Rabbans — have borne a disproportionate burden. Though Chaldeans make up only 3 percent of Iraq’s population, conservative estimates suggest that 25 percent have fled to Syria or relocated to northern Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites have bombed Chaldean-owned businesses and Christian churches in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul. And in one of the war’s most high-profile kidnappings, Chaldean archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was abducted on Feb. 29 and his body found two weeks later, half buried in a shallow grave in Mosul.

“Communities that are not protected by larger groups that have militias, like Christian communities, have been especially hit hard,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, whose work examines U.S. national security policy in the Middle East.

The Karanas are another such family. (Editor’s Note: The names of both families have been changed at their request. No other facts have been altered.) Although reticent during our interview, Samir and his wife Ikhlas stressed, “the situation over there was not safe.”

In 2005, Ikhlas was pregnant with their first son and Samir’s jewelry business was tanking. Like many of their countrymen, they decided to pack up and move to Syria for some needed stability.

But life in neighboring nations is far from comfortable. Countries of asylum, particularly Syria and Jordan, are feeling the strain from influxes of Iraqis — approximately 1.5 million to Syria and 700,000 to Jordan since the war began. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) report that hospitals are overcrowded, and the Brookings Institution found that apartment rental prices in the Syrian capital of Damascus have tripled since the war broke out.

To make matters worse, many NGOs have been forced to deliver refugee services in major cities (as opposed to rural settings), which is difficult. Because the population is not concentrated in designated camps, refugees are harder to identify and reach.

Jake Kurtzer, a congressional advocate for Refugees International, notes that without protective status or strong humanitarian community support, refugees face enormous obstacles. “The personal dynamics of running out of resources,” Kurtzer says, “have left Iraqis really in a very dire humanitarian situation.”

For the Rabbans and their two sons, now 18 and 24, a $200 per month apartment in Jordan became a financial burden when no one in the family could find work. The problems didn’t stop there.

“You’re not allowed to take your kids to school, you have no medical insurance,” Fadi says, “and they count you as an illegal resident, so if they catch you, they will throw you [back] over the border.”

It’s not much easier for the 2 million people who have relocated within Iraq’s borders. Many Iraqi refugees live in substandard or overcrowded shelters, only 22 percent report regular access to food rations, 14 percent have no access to healthcare, 33 percent cannot access the medications they require and 31 percent report that their property is occupied, according to a January report by the International Organization for Migration. And the crisis is deepening.