Why Iraqis abroad are reluctant to return

Three sisters left their homes in the US to help rebuild Baghdad, but they may not stay

It is hard to slip a word in edgeways when Hind Rassam and her two sisters get together. They work in offices only a few hundred yards from each other, but they are so busy they can go weeks without meeting, and they have a lot to catch up on.

Hind, Amal, and Shamim Rassam are an unusual trio of Iraqi-American sisters who have returned to Baghdad since Saddam Hussein's fall to help rebuild their country. There are an estimated 3 million or more Iraqis living abroad, of which at least 500,000 are fellow exiles waiting and watching but still reluctant to come home.

With most of Iraq nowhere near back on its feet, the Rassam sisters understand the hesitation gripping Iraqi émigrés worldwide.

"Most people's relatives here are telling them to wait", says Shamim. "The ones abroad can send a few hundred dollars a month to their families: if they come here they won't be able to find work."

Hind and her sisters, though, are fulfilling their father's dream. "Our father asked us to promise that we would go back to a free Iraq," says Hind. "It was my parents' wish that we should return to benefit our country."

And each has found a job with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that currently runs Iraq. Hind - a university lecturer - works with a US consultancy trying to breathe new life into Iraq's school system. Amal, an anthropologist, is advising neighborhood councils in Baghdad on the rudiments of democracy. Shamim, once a well-known literary chat-show hostess on Iraq TV, is running the new government-sponsoredFM radio station.

Their skills and enthusiasm are in great demand at the top end of Iraq's social structure, as the CPA struggles to reorganize the country after decades of dictatorship. But at the other end of the spectrum, ordinary Iraqis do not yet feel the country is ready to welcome them home.

Of the half a million Iraqi émigrés living in the Middle East, for example, under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only a thousand or so have trickled back. "We are not encouraging people to go back", says UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler. "The security situation and the general humanitarian situation are not conducive to a mass return.

"The majority of the 300,000 Iraqis in Jordan are there not just because of persecution but because of the availability of work, education and general prospects, and that's what they need to find back in Iraq" if they are to be tempted home, Mr. Kessler adds.

It's money, not security

Though international press reports of rampant crime and regular attacks on US troops do not encourage émigrés to venture back home, says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of Iraq's Governing Council, "it's not the security situation that keeps people away, it's the salaries. People are earning a lot of money abroad, and here a cabinet minister gets $500 a month."

Mr. Rubaie, who spent years in political exile in London, says he has thrown in his lot wholeheartedly with the new Iraq. (He has already paid for that commitment: he was wounded in the arm last Sunday by the car-bomb that blew up outside the Baghdad Hotel, where he is living.)

"I sold my [medical] practice, I sold my house and my car and everything, and I threatened my wife that if she didn't join me I would remarry," he laughs. "But there are a lot of top class people abroad and they cannot come because they have children to bring up."

Those days are past for the Rassam sisters, whose children are grown now, but the lives they have built for themselves in America still tug, and they are uncertain about their future in Iraq.

Still undecided

Shamim, who crossed the border from Kuwait not far behind US troops, expected to have left by now. She finds herself still here, and still excited by her work, but unready to make a commitment to stay.

"I haven't yet found my grounds to say I'll stay here," she says. "I like what I have established in the United States, I've worked hard to establish it, I've made good friends there and I am attached to that part of the world."

Amal, who opposed the war and never intended to come to Baghdad, was persuaded by her sisters to give it a try, now that she has retired from teaching anthropology at The City University of New York. But she is taking things "month by month," she says.

"If I feel I am not accomplishing anything useful, then the frustrations and the worry of my family won't be justified," she explains.

"We sometimes wonder what we are doing here," adds Hind, questioning whether the problems are not too big to be solved, whether she is not propping up an occupation rather than spreading liberation. "Most Iraqi-Americans and European Iraqis get discouraged sometimes." But when teachers she was training told her "that I'm an Iraqi, not an expatriate, at those moments you say you are going to stay and do it."

The Rassams are privileged to have the choice: they enjoy comfortable and well-established lives in America, and have well-paid jobs in Iraq that they can afford to leave if they want to. Less fortunate Iraqis have less attractive options.

For the time being, only one large group of exiles has shown a high level of readiness to come home - the 5,200 refugees in the Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia, who have been stuck in the desert since they fled Saddam Hussein's crackdown on Shiite Muslim rebels in 1991.

Most of the 33,000 original inhabitants of the camp were resettled in the United States, Europe, Australia and other countries, and few of them have yet made their way back to Iraq. But more than 1,000 of those who stayed in Rafha have returned, and the rest are clamoring to return.

The ramshackle streets of Suk-ash-Shuyukh, in southern Iraq, were crowded one recent evening with tribal elders dressed in black muslin capes over flowing white robes, as they gathered to welcome the town's leading tribal leader, Sheikh Dhahir Ali Ajli al-Hashami back from 12 years of exile in Rafha camp. Young men loosed off rifle shots while others danced in a dusty circle and chanted, waving red tribal flags.

Among those lining the streets was Malik al-Kassid - the blue blazer he wore under his golden hemmed cape betraying a Western influence. He has spent the last nine years in Dearborn, Michigan - home to tens of thousands of Iraqis - and hopes to use that experience to build bridges between local people and their American rulers.

"I can submit requests to the Americans," he says. "I can explain to them what our people want so that they can help."

But as he fishes for a business card, Mr. Kassid's life in America is on display, tucked carefully into his wallet: a US Alien Resident card, a credit card, and a Michigan driver's license. "I'm here with my wife and children," he points out. "I'd like to do whatever I can here, but whether I go back or not depends on how safe it is here."

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