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An Iraqi Exodus
Out of Money and Options in Egypt, Some Refugees Are Heading Home

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 2008

CAIRO --

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.

The extended family scattered, to Egypt, to Germany, to Sweden. Bombs and shooting killed some of those who stayed, including a nephew and a cousin.

The family never regretted its decision to flee. "There was so much killing at the time," Abdel-Jabbar said. "We've been here two years, safe and secure."

But Egyptians, living with a poverty rate of 40 percent, refuse jobs to most Iraqis. As foreigners, Iraqis could send their children only to private schools, at a cost.

Abdel-Jabbar's family started in a $470-a-month apartment in Cairo. "We used to have a villa. A villa! Down and down and down," she said. Finally, they moved into what would be their last home in Egypt, an apartment they rented for $80 a month.

On Aug. 11, Abdel-Jabbar and Ahmed were watching Iraqi satellite TV, one of their few remaining luxuries. They saw footage of Iraqi officials shaking the hands of returnees who had taken the first free flight home.

The family was down to its last $1,500. Better to make it seed money to restart their life in Iraq, they decided, than to spend it here and then starve, stranded. Their grown daughters in Iraq advised them it was 50 percent safer there than when they left. It would have to do.

"I don't fear for myself," Abdel-Jabbar said, surrounded by four children, all younger than 21, sitting on the floor. "I fear for my kids."

The charge d'affaires at the Iraqi Embassy in Cairo, Saad Mohammed Riadh, said Iraqi leaders started the airlift in response to appeals from refugees in Egypt who had no money and wanted to return.

Electricity and other services are still lacking in Iraq, but security, Riadh estimated, is 90 percent improved. "I think this is the time" for Iraqis to return, Riadh said. "The security situation is much, much, much better."

Iraq has said it is providing more than $800 to each returning family. Iraq's military said last week that it would start expelling squatters from the homes of the 5 million Iraqis, at home and abroad, who have been displaced by violence since 2003.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other international refugee organizations have declined to support the Iraqi government return initiative. Independent refugee advocates say that while the scenes of refugees returning to Iraq may bolster the Iraqi government's image, people are returning because they have exhausted their savings and no longer have the option of staying abroad.

"No one's going back by choice," said Barbara Harrell-Bond, who left Egypt this month after years as a visiting professor in the refugee studies program at the American University in Cairo. "That's just bloody propaganda."

Virtually all Iraqis who fled Iraq did so because they came under specific threat or because close relatives had been killed or kidnapped, Harrell-Bond said. And five years into the war, she said, some Iraqi refugees in Egypt are living only on bread.

"Everybody's getting destitute," said Harrell-Bond, who said she left $7,000 of her own money in Egypt to feed and house Iraqis, on the condition that they not use the money to return to Iraq. "They are just desperate."

In her last days in her Cairo apartment, Abdel-Jabbar thought of what she missed and what she hoped to have again. Her home. Her grandchildren. Relatives dropping in on her in the kitchen.

For the flight home, her children wore their best -- glittery T-shirts, sequined sunglasses, pouffed-up hair for her 14-year-old daughter, which would have to be covered when she returned to Iraq. They grabbed Iraqi flags, while Abdel-Jabbar's husband pushed the cart with the family's luggage into the terminal.

The sight of her country's flags, the presence of so many of her people, appeared to buoy Abdel-Jabbar as she stepped off into the unknown. "I feel happy, very happy," she said. "God willing, everything will be fine."

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