First, gunmen burst into Riyadh Tamimi’s home, beat his guard, terrified his wife and three daughters and stole appliances. Later, kidnappers held his brother until the family paid $20,000. When gunfire blew out Tamimi’s windows, that was the last straw.
The 40-year-old businessman packed up his family and fled the southern city of Basra to the United Arab Emirates, joining an exodus of educated and affluent Iraqis driven out by instability and violence at a time their rebuilding homeland desperately needs their skills.
“There are almost no more qualified people in Basra,” said Tamimi, who returned to Iraq’s second biggest city recently without his family for a short business trip. “Any successful engineer, doctor or businessman is now abroad. All this will have a negative impact on Iraq.”
Successful Iraqis want to invest their money “where there is peace and stability,” he said.
Government officials say they have no figures on the number of Iraqis who have fled since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But the former minister of migration, Pascale Warda, said she hears of people leaving almost daily.
Up to 800,000 Iraqis are believed to be living in Jordan — many of them since the conflict began. Thousands more have moved to Syria, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries. For the superrich, London or the United States are options.
“This just destroys the country. It has a very negative effect on the situation in Iraq and on the country’s ability to improve,” said Warda, who served in the interim government of Ayad Allawi, which left office in late April.
Salah Ahmed Hamoudi, a businessman who moved to Syria with his family three months ago, said patriotic Iraqis would prefer to stay home.
‘No strong government’
“Even if Syria is heaven on earth, I still love my country,” he said by phone during a business trip to Mosul in northern Iraq. “But what are we supposed to do if there is no strong government? How can I come back and work if no one is capable of defending me?”
Many Iraqi scientists and university professors who stay have become targets, either because they belonged to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party — once essential for career advancement — or as part of a campaign by the predominantly Sunni Arab insurgency to weaken Iraq’s intellectual power.
A Sunni Arab engineer, who insisted on not being quoted by name for security reasons, said he sent his wife and children abroad after insurgents threatened him because he works for a foreign company.
He quoted from a letter that the militants left for him with his son: “The only good thing about you is that you’re a Sunni. If you weren’t, we would have chopped your head off without even a warning.”
The engineer locked up his Baghdad home and spread the word that he and his family had left for Amman, Jordan. He sent them out of the country, but he actually stayed behind in a safer area.
“If I obey them, it means I am one of them,” he said of the insurgents. “So I have to choose either be one of them or be against them. The only way I can fight them is by not letting them triumph.”
He misses his family but said that even without the threat, the stress of daily life in Baghdad was hard to take — his children returning late from school because of car bombings and roadblocks, his nephew getting carjacked, several of his friends being kidnapped, some never seen again.
He now visits his family every month and maintains a low profile when in Baghdad. “It’s just sad to have to live in disguise in my own country,” he said.
Apart from security problems, Warda said Iraq is unable to provide talented, well-educated people with the logistical, financial and technological support needed to perform their jobs. Faced with shortages of money, books, computers, advanced equipment and other supplies, they leave.
‘Everything is just different’
But she said many would come home if security improved.
Many who leave find themselves facing homesickness, immigration hassles and — even in Arab countries — culture shock.
“I miss my friends, my people, my mother and my brothers,” Tamimi, the businessman, said about living in the Emirates. “There, everything is just different.”
Still, he is glad he left, especially because of his daughters, who range in age from 2 to 12. “Whenever they think about Iraq, they remember the killings and kidnappings,” he said.
Tamimi said he looks forward to the day when Iraq has a government strong enough to “finish off the gangs and the terrorists.”
“God is generous,” he said. “Maybe he’ll let us return. Maybe in four or five years.”