The greatest relief for Janon Kadhim came on New Year's Eve, when she and her family finally left behind the car bombs and kidnappings of Iraq, and arrived safely in Jordan.
That night, as the crash-boom-bang of fireworks heralded the New Year, Mrs. Kadhim had flashbacks that affirmed her decision to leave.
"I still can't believe it," says the Iraqi-American architecture professor and mother of three. "Baghdad was just so crazy, a nightmare. Every time I hear a pop [here], I look out the window and realize I don't have to be afraid anymore."
Kadhim's tale of fleeing Iraq - and that of another architect who has returned from exile and is determined to stay - embody the despair and hopes that permeate this nation as it prepares for elections on Jan. 30, amid American military occupation and the violence of an insurgency.
Both Kadhim and Maysoon al-Damluji went to the same elite high school and studied architecture together at Baghdad University. But today, their different paths underscore the dilemma faced by many Iraqi professionals as they decide whether their ambitions to build a new Iraq is worth the risk.
Ms. Damluji, who returned to Iraq from 22 years of living in Britain just weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, is determined to soldier through the violence. Not far from the Kadhim's old house in Baghdad, she welcomed the New Year full of cautious promise for an upcoming election in which the deputy minister of culture is a ranking candidate.
Thirty members of the women's group that she leads - despite the murder of two founding members and multiple kidnappings of family members that have forced others out - gathered to escape their problems and to celebrate.
"They started dancing at 6 p.m., and just kept on dancing all night long, until eight in the morning," Damluji says with amusement. "Women are so brave here."
But for Kadhim, the time arrived when the violence became too much. Last October, when the family was battling the bureaucracy to get passports and get out, a tired Kadhim explained her desire to leave.
"We've had more than enough action for one lifetime," she explained in American-accented English. The family had survived Mr. Hussein's rule, three wars, and a brutal decade of sanctions, only to finally lose heart in the ugly aftermath of the war.
"We send the children to school, and afterward just see if they will come home," Kadhim said. "This is not a way of living. We have too many thoughts, dreams, and visions for the new Iraq - we don't know what to do with them."
"How many times have you been in a place, and the next day there is a big explosion there? How many times can they miss?" asked Kadhim's husband, Hosham, also an architecture professor, asked at the time.
"I keep saying: 'The war is not over yet.' We had the occupation, now we have the war of liberation," he continued. "A lot of people who were optimistic are terribly depressed. People took all their money, and left."
For Damluji, the news of other professionals' departure is no surprise. "It's very sad, but I don't blame them," she says, after hearing of the Kadhims' recent departure. "They will be back, I'm sure, because things will improve. They will not ever completely settle anywhere else."
Damluji says she never completely assimilated in Britain herself, and made a promise early in her exile to return at the first safe opportunity.
Her first trip on an aid plane soon after the regime fell was meant to last just a week, but she "just could not pull herself away."
She left behind a prospering design and architecture firm in Britain, and has hardly been back. "I still feel duty-bound to be here," says Damluji, adding that her work as head of the Iraqi Independent Women's Group - and their effort to preserve rights gained for women in Iraq since 1921 - drives her.
The candidate, who is third on the candidate list of the Iraqi Independent Democrats, headed by former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, receives threats by e-mail; her brother, fifth on the party list, is the housing and construction minister.
"It's very dangerous, but [the risk limit] hasn't been reached for me," says Damluji. That point has come for others in the women's group. Two with PhDs were killed - including a member of Iraq's former Interim Governing Council. Several more have had family members kidnapped. The demand is always the same: Leave Iraq, or your loved one will die.
That kind of pressure is affecting Iraqis who survived even the turbulent final decades of Hussein's rule. Kadhim, whose mother is American, says she is constantly surprised that it was not Hussein but the US occupation, and the criminal violence and insurgency that has come with it, that proved too much to bear.
"You don't want to be seen in public. You don't want to be part of anything," Kadhim said in October, when professors received steady death threats from students who thought they might fail their courses.
"Nobody can put up with what is happening. It's all gotten so mixed up, no one knows who is doing what is right."
Speaking in Jordan this week, Kadhim described how, to avoid violence, she locked herself in her house with her children while her husband traveled twice to Jordan to arrange a teaching job.
Damluji says she understands why Iraq's best and brightest are leaving, for now. She recounts an e-mail she received from her nephew, who is studying medicine. He described how four missiles had targeted the students while they sat for an exam, though they pressed on.
"He said he never experienced one moment of joy in Iraq, and that as soon as he gets his degree, he will leave for good," Damluji says. "I'm here to try my best to help Iraq pull itself through. There is a lot of hard work to be done, and I would be a fool to be [overly] optimistic."
Kadhim's family, by contrast, are putting aside their dreams of helping rebuild Iraq. And for now, daily life is Jordan is full of wonder and unaccustomed safety. "There is so much time in a day now, so much to do," says Kadhim. "It's so exciting to be free, to be able to move around.
"I'm exhausted. It just wears you out," she adds. "I thought today, maybe I should take a nap, but I couldn't. I just didn't want to miss a thing."