x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Focus:Fear traps Iraq's educated exiles

The many thousands who have fled the threat of assassination or kidnap will go home only if conditions improve.

Lamees Raouf (left) and Nashat al Alousi left Iraq two years ago and now live and work in Abu Dhabi. The couple now run the Qibab Gallery in Khalidiya.
Lamees Raouf (left) and Nashat al Alousi left Iraq two years ago and now live and work in Abu Dhabi. The couple now run the Qibab Gallery in Khalidiya.

Abu Ahmed shows a group photograph of his hospital staff in Baghdad taken just before he fled to Abu Dhabi. "This one was kidnapped and killed, this one killed, this one killed in a blast," he says, pointing to each face. "This one escaped to London. My assistant, here is another picture, they came to the hospital and shot him five times. He died." The consultant gastroenterologist takes off his glasses and rubs his forehead.

It is early morning and although Abu Ahmed's surgery at the Gulf Diagnostic Center Hospital is not yet open, his first patients are already in the hospital waiting room. It will be a busy day and this is the only time the doctor has a spare few minutes to talk about what life is like for physicians in Iraq. Too scared to use his real name even though he is so far from Baghdad, his response was to show the picture of his dead colleagues. He worries about his children still in Iraq and at risk of being targeted by sectarian militias or criminal gangs. There are four other Iraqi doctors at the hospital, all former deans of medical colleges back home who, like Abu Ahmed, were lucky enough to get jobs in a country keen to recruit medical experts.

They pass in the hallway and smile, but are too afraid to talk. There are at least 250 Iraqi doctors in the UAE, most of them among the 40,000 to 50,000 exiles who have arrived since the 2003 American invasion. The émigrés are not typical of the estimated two million Iraqi refugees in the region, the vast majority of whom are languishing in Syria, placing a strain on that country's resources, while the better off, including Christians, have settled in Jordan.

The UAE does not accept Iraqi refugees. Instead, the majority are the professional classes who have long ties with this country because their families arrived decades ago to help to build institutions after oil was discovered or, if they arrived after 2003, had highly sought-after skills in engineering, education, architecture, the arts and medicine. It is this largely secular and sophisticated middle class that has been the deliberate target of assassinations and kidnappings over the past few years, either by religious zealots who disapprove of their secularism or criminal gangs looking for easy ransom money. Indeed, an estimated 40 per cent of Iraq's professionals have left since 2003, according to the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank.

As Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister, recently put it: "The binding section of the population does not exist anymore." In the past six months, however, there have been encouraging signs of progress. The civilian death toll has decreased from a peak of 2,700 in May 2006 to 550 this May, partly because of a ceasefire by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia. There was also an increase in the number of American troops and now the possibility of political reconciliation between Sunni and Shia groups.

As a further sign of confidence in Iraq's future, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, last week announced that US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) in debt and arrears Iraq owes will be written off. The Emirates has also appointed an ambassador to Iraq, something other Arab countries have been reluctant to do. Meanwhile, Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said the government was allocating US$195 million to a fund to encourage refugees to return because security and living conditions had improved.

If progress continues, it is the educated class that the country will desperately need to rebuild Iraq. The task is daunting. There are 2.7 million people inside the country who have lost their homes, many do not have access to clean water and electricity, the school system is falling apart and the economy needs restructuring. "If these people don't go back, Iraq will start from scratch," says Ayad Abbas, a key figure in the exile community who has been living here for 26 years and runs Life, a charity that last year brought 130 children injured in fighting to the UAE for hospital treatment.

"If people do not reach a certain stage, they will stay at the bottom. If they do not have arts or culture, look at the museum, what happens," he says, referring to the looting of the Iraqi National Museum after Saddam Hussein was deposed. He adds: "I have gone back several times since 2003, but last year I realised I may not return. That hurt me badly. It is just too dangerous." So far, 107 Iraqi journalists have been killed, 35 judges assassinated - most recently on June 27 when an appeals judge was shot as he drove home - and 2,250 physicians murdered or kidnapped. The former head of Iraq's Association of University Lecturers was shot dead for campaigning to keep religion and politics off the nation's campuses. Most university professors have fled.

When asked to what extent the educated class was still being targeted, one Western diplomat, who travels regularly to Iraq, had a blunt response. "The professional classes aren't being targeted because there aren't many of them left," she says. The full extent of the lack of planning on the part of the Pentagon for the aftermath of the invasion is now being felt, and it will be the middle classes with a long-term interest in Iraq who need to be lured back, rather than the legions of foreign aid workers and consultants arriving on short contracts.

The Western diplomat says corruption is rife in the ministries, which are staffed by cronies of the various political factions, rather than qualified civil servants. She recounts the story of a trade minister from a G8 nation who visited a ministry and asked what kind of help was needed. "What he got was like a wish list from a six-year-old. The Iraqis wanted a free-trade agreement but they aren't even in the World Trade Organisation, so they can't negotiate that. But no one at the ministry knew that.

"A lot of money is floating around, but there is a lack of expertise and skills on how to spend it." Abu Ahmed says he blames the American occupation and the soldiers who did nothing to protect institutions and left their employees at the mercy of thugs. His hospital, the Iraqi Gastroenterology and Hepatology Hospital, is 100 metres from a US base and doctors had to set up barricades to stop gunmen from entering.

"The armed men would come in and ask us, 'Are you Sunni or Shiite?' But I am a doctor." Sectarian warfare is reshaping Iraq. A new generation is growing up poorly educated, influenced by the jihadist rhetoric of the resistance movements and witnesses to horrific violence. Militias are reportedly covering the walls of schools with graffiti to appeal to children and teenagers, while American intelligence reports that the Mahdi Army has handed out toy guns to children so they can play militiamen. Crime is a high priority for ordinary Iraqis, but there is no competent police, justice or prison system and instead tribal leaders and militias are stepping into the vacuum.

"The school drop out rate has increased, the model the teenagers see are the militias, they are the role models," says Basma al Khateb, 29, of the Iraqi Al Amal Association, a civil society group. Speaking from Baghdad, Mrs Khateb says she has collected house keys of neighbours and friends who have fled, but insists that she will not go. "I haven't given up. People want to leave, but it won't do anybody any good. I don't wear a scarf, I drive, but I'm not going to certain neighbourhoods. It is a calculated risk. My daughters' piano tutors just left."

Professional women who are brave enough to leave their homes have abused hurled at them or assaulted if they do not cover their hair and wear abayas. A UN human rights report stated that 100 women in Basra had been killed or mutilated because they were not wearing what was considered appropriate clothing by religious extremists. It is a long way from the days when Iraqi women were envied by their Arab sisters for their freedom; they have been earning university degrees since the 1920s.

Indeed, for decades, Iraq had an infrastructure, health and education system that was admired in the Arab world and was the main reason why the UAE's rulers hired them to set up their own institutions. That began to change in the 1990s, when the economy was devastated by the UN embargo imposed on the country after the first Gulf War. Iraq has the potential to bounce back from the sectarian carnage as it has a highly educated population compared with most of the Arab world, says Lamees Raouf, 53, who, with her husband the painter Nashat al Alousi, runs the Qibab Gallery, which opened last year on a quiet street in Khalidiya.

Mrs Raouf, whose father worked in the education ministry in Abu Dhabi in the late 1960s, has been living on and off in the UAE since then. She left Baghdad in July 2006 because it was too dangerous to run her beauty salon and her husband's commissions dried up. "One of our artist friends was kidnapped," she says, taking a drag of a long, thin cigarette held between bejewelled fingers. "Now we heard of some galleries opening. We had 45 in Baghdad and two of them have reopened, we heard from the TV. Every exhibition needs people to appreciate the arts but the people who know the arts have left, so who are the exhibitions for?"

The Qibab Gallery has so far held 16 exhibitions from Middle Eastern artists including works by her brother-in-law, the well-known Iraqi sculptor Natiq al Alousi. Her husband, Mr Alousi, 60, takes a break from a mural he is working on and wanders upstairs to join his wife. He says security is the priority, but another concern is how much artistic freedom he will have if he goes back because the few artists who are left are being censored on religious grounds.

"Some artists have eccentric ideas and they can't expose it," he says. "They paint, but not nudes, for example. It is bad because every artist needs freedom. When he feels he is not free he has obstructions, this is forbidden, this is not proper." For the moment, Abu Ahmed says the exiles will have to try to help from the safety of abroad. "I collect medical journals and send them to Baghdad; we are doing it quietly," he says. "Every day, I receive emails from my patients all over Iraq and I give them advice over email."

He says one way to encourage physicians to return is to build a heavily protected medical centre in Baghdad with its own residential quarters for staff and an airport. "If it was secure we could come, me and my colleagues. I want to go once I feel secure. It's my country, my hospital, my people." @Email:hghafour@thenational.ae