An Iraqi Exodus

(By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)
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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 2008


Iraqi refugee Jenan Adnan Abdel-Jabbar arrived for the Iraqi government's free airlift back home with eight suitcases, five children and a knotted skein of hope and fear in her heart.

At she stepped onto the curb at Cairo's airport, hope rose. About 250 other returning Iraqis crowded outside the terminal -- as many of her compatriots as Abdel-Jabbar had seen together in her two years in Egypt. Someone had handed out miniature Iraqi flags, and children darted among carts piled with their families' suitcases, waving the red, white and black colors.

"All Iraq is here!" Abdel-Jabbar exclaimed. She put a smile on her face. But worry creased her forehead.

More than 1,000 Iraqi refugees in Egypt, including Abdel-Jabbar's family on Aug. 31, have returned home since Aug. 11, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began sending his state jet to fetch them. Iraq will expand its no-cost return program to Jordan this month, dispatching planes and buses to bring back more than 500 refugees there, Iraq's envoy in Amman said Friday.

While Iraq's leaders say their country is safe again and government ministers are welcoming returnees on red carpets at Baghdad's airport, the International Organization for Migration says 13,000 refugees had returned to Iraq before last month's airlift. That is just a small fraction of the estimated 2.5 million people who fled Iraq in the violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Iraqis taking advantage of the airlifts here said they had been motivated by the free flights and by reports of diminished violence in Iraq -- Abdel-Jabbar said she and her husband had received weekly e-mails from their two married daughters in Iraq's Diyala province, urging them, "Come home!"

But for Abdel-Jabbar and all of half a dozen other returning refugee families interviewed, fear of returning remained strong, overridden by only one factor. Two or more years of living abroad as refugees had exhausted their savings -- and their options.

"Of course we are afraid," Abdel-Jabbar said in her apartment four days before the family's departure. "But we are at the end of our rope."

Wearing a black head scarf, with her copper-colored hair peeping out, she leaned against a bare wall stacked with suitcases. The family, which had owned a prosperous dairy back in Diyala, had sold all its other furnishings.

The family arrived in Egypt with $30,000 in life savings in the summer of 2006, a month after al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters had come to husband Qais Shihab Ahmed at the dairy, demanding a $40,000 payoff to keep the fighters from burning his business and killing his children.

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