Losing Its Best and Brightest Iraq's Elite Fleeing in Droves

One in ten Iraqis has left the country. Baghdad's elite are trying to make ends meet in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Washington wants the United Nations to address the refugee crisis. In the meantime, the country is losing its best minds -- the very people needed to rebuild Iraq.

By Amira El Ahl, and

The first stage on the road to safety is a $20 taxi ride. It takes the future refugee past nervous soldiers, through dangerous checkpoints and along streets with nicknames -- like "Grenade Alley" and "Sniper Boulevard" -- that bespeak the perils of travel in Iraq.

Stage one ends at the curb in front of Samarra Terminal at Baghdad Airport, where travelers are so overcome with relief that they hardly even notice the gruff way guards treat them. Before they are even allowed to enter the terminal, security officers order them to deposit their suitcases and carry-on bags next to a yellow line painted on the asphalt and flanked by two sets of six-foot-tall concrete barriers. While police dogs sniff the luggage for explosives, the travelers -- men, women, grandparents and grandchildren -- stand to the side in the heat, parents wearing stiff-looking travel clothes and a few children in brightly colored wind-breakers.

"We are flying to Amman," says one mother, smiling as she hands her whining son his stocking cap, "and then to Prague and on to Stockholm. The children think it's snowing there."

The first flight, a charter flight operated by Flying Carpet, isn't scheduled for departure until the afternoon, but the airport is already crowded at 9 a.m. Three doctors -- old friends from their university days, who haven't seen each other in years -- are reunited in the terminal. One of them, a child psychologist named Khaldun Fahmy, was kidnapped a week earlier when he returned to take one last look at his abandoned villa. After three terrifying days, in which he was tortured, the $50,000 ransom money was paid and Fahmy was released and taken to the hospital. "Am I talking too much?" he asks his friends. "It's all therapy, all self-therapy."

Four flights are departing from Baghdad Airport on this particular afternoon, bound for Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Dubai. Few are shedding tears. Most of the travelers have already said their goodbyes, and their farewells are well considered and long planned. Some expect to return, while others are leaving "for good," says Fahmy.

Mass Flight

Iraq, a country still shaken by daily violence, is currently the scene of what is likely the biggest refugee disaster since the displacement of Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. On the eve of the Iraq war, the United States, the United Nations and neighboring countries had expected refugees to number in the tens of thousands. Four years later, more than 2 million Iraqis have already left the country. Jordan has accepted close to 750,000, the Gulf states 200,000, Egypt 100,000 and Syria at least 1,400,000. Roughly one in 10 Iraqis has fled the country, and about the same number are now internal refugees.

They are not just the country's poor and desperate. Many are the elites of a nation that already lost many of its best and brightest during decades of tyranny and economic embargos. Ironically, those choosing to leave the country today are precisely the doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers and government bureaucrats the country will desperately need to rebuild itself.

The West -- especially the two leading coalition nations, the United States and Great Britain -- has opened itself up to severe criticism for its unwillingness to step up to the plate. Since the 2003 invasion, Britain has accepted a mere 115 and the United States only about 500 of a total of more than 14,000 seeking asylum in the West. The Bush administration has promised to process 7,000 applications for political asylum this year and has made a commitment to accept 3,000. Former senior US diplomat Richard Holbrooke calls the Bush administration's efforts "pathetic" and the American public's indifference "shameful."

Graphic: Iraqi Refugees

Graphic: Iraqi Refugees

Meanwhile, Washington has been more than generous in seeking to transfer its Iraq responsibilities to the UN. The organization, says Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US Ambassador to Iraq, should focus more of its attention in the future on the political process in Baghdad, security issues, the country's oil law -- and the refugee crisis. But this is a tall order, with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) not even in a position to get the most vulnerable Iraqis -- the interpreters and reconstruction workers being hunted down by terrorists, who accuse them of collaborating with the occupiers -- out of the country. US authorities in Iraq do not accept asylum applications, and those Iraqis who do manage to make it abroad are better off not mentioning any ransom money they may have paid for kidnapped relatives, especially not in the United States. US immigration authorities define such payments as "material support" for terrorist organizations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently contributed $5 million to a fellowship fund for Iraqi academics. The purpose of the fund, says a foundation spokeswoman, is to "protect Iraq's intellectual capital." The foundation currently receives about 40 applications a week, but the program's funds are only enough to pay for about 150 academics and will have been used up within a few months.

Staggering Costs

Meanwhile, the cost to Syria and Jordan, whose governments warned against an invasion and are now being left to deal with the humanitarian consequences, is running into the billions. Jordan has now virtually closed its borders to Iraq, while up to 2,000 Iraqis cross the border into Syria every day. Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid says that Damascus will likely follow Jordan's lead before long.

No one knows precisely how many Iraqis there are in Syria today. The demand for subsidized goods like bread and gasoline has increased by one-fifth, at an additional cost to the government of several hundred million dollars. Apartment rents in some neighborhoods have skyrocketed, government-run schools are overflowing with students and unemployment and inflation are on the rise.

The growing crisis has also affected the UN. At the beginning of the year, two employees at the UNHCR office in Damascus were sufficient to register Iraqi refugees. But within weeks, the situation spun out of control. Suddenly UNHCR officials saw thousands of people lining up outside their office every morning.

Today, only half a year later, 30 clerks sit at desks in a warehouse in eastern Damascus, recording personal data and translating it into English. "It's the largest operation of its kind that we're running worldwide," says British UNHCR official Sybella Wilkes.

  • Part 1: Iraq's Elite Fleeing in Droves
  • Part 2

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