Over the past few years, there have been a few reports of the sheer magnitude of the refugees flooding other countries as well as the number of Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes, have been forced to flee their neighborhood due to crime or are spending all of their time (and resources) looking for a way out of Iraq.
While this is a horrible enough story in and of itself, the result and byproduct of this is not just how many people are leaving Iraq (hint: over 2.3 million people since 2003) but just who is leaving and what will become of the country once we ultimately leave.
When you peel back the layers, when you look underneath the surface of who is fleeing the country, you see that a big legacy that the US will leave for the Iraqis is that not only was a civil war ignited, but a substantial portion of the middle class and professional society no longer call Iraq their home. So even if all of the killings cease – even if the civil war somehow abates - the resultant society will be void of many of those who can help heal the country and bring it forward.
Earlier this year, an article on the History News Network discussed the “Death of Iraq’s Middle Class”. The article was written by a historian who traveled to Iraq in 2003 to assess the condition of Baghdad’s universities and libraries in the wake of the invasion. The President of one such university (and also a historian) was excited about the prospects that the university(ies) would play over the next few years.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned:
Today, Al-Bakaa lives in Boston as one of more than 1.5 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Iraq. Back in Baghdad this week his campus was bombed and at least 60 students waiting for minibuses to take them home were killed.
The article goes on to discuss some things that we all knew, such as the fact that middle class Sunni-Shiite marriages are now “deadly” where they were once acceptable. But it touched on a statistic that was even more disconcerting: that 40% of Iraq’s middle class has fled the country since 2003. The conclusion drawn by the author?
Add this to torrent a slow trickle of Iraq's educated classes from the 1970s forward and we've reached a point where virtually everyone who could leave has left or fled to Kurdistan. For all intents and purposes, Iraq's middle class is near death and what is left is just a pale shadow of its former self. It has ceased to be a relevant feature of Iraqi society.
In Iraq, the loss of this class means the loss of the basis of civil society and the disappearance of those Iraqis who would be committed to a non-sectarian form of politics.
A little less than a year ago, the Christian Science Monitor had a good roundup of articles that addressed the exodus from Iraq of university professors, academics and other middle class members. It discusses a USA Today report how nearly 25% of Iraqi adults are suffering from some form of PTDS (I would guess that the number has grown over the past year). It talks about how many Iraqis have become withdrawn – being confined to their homes in fear of what is outside.
So why I am I bringing this up now? Well, sadly, things have gotten worse and it isn’t just the professors and middle class that are leaving now. A first hand account of one family’s current struggle is in this week’s Newsweek and it is just heartwrenching. While it goes into great detail of one woman’s experience in visiting her uncle in Baghdad, I couldn’t do her story justice by reproducing a few blurbs here. I highly recommend that you read her family’s story.
But there are other observations that the author makes which are not limited to her family, and are rather telling about what type of country Iraq has become – as well as the bleaker prospects of it even becoming a 20th century civilization once the dust settles, the troops leave and the civil war subsides.
The sheer numbers are staggering:
About 50,000 people escape Baghdad each month. A staggering 1.7 million are displaced within Iraq, while almost 2 million more have sought refuge in Syria and Jordan, 130,000 in Egypt and 50,000 in Iran. Even Sweden is feeling the effects of this war: last year alone, 9,000 Iraqis applied for asylum there, and 90 percent of those requests were approved.
Now, I am NOT saying that life was just grand under Saddam Hussein’s regime. But people did have jobs, electricity, clean water, could go outside without fear of being killed and did not have to worry about their homes being taken over by death squads. Hell, as noted above, Sunni-Shiite marriages were, if not outright common, then certainly not uncommon.
As for now? Well, the best that most can hope for is to get out. Those who had good jobs – had advanced degrees or specialized skills are running out of luck as quickly as they are running out of places to apply their skills.
The exodus has not only scattered my family, it's hollowed out Iraq's most skilled classes—doctors, engineers, managers and bureaucrats. Baghdad was once home to one of the most educated populaces in the Middle East. (I find it amazing that almost every single one of my cousins, and their kids, speak fluent English.) Many were part of a generation of middle-class professionals who, during the 1970s, transformed Iraq into the Middle East's most diversified economy. In my family alone, there's at least one scientist, an engineer, two teachers and an accountant looking for work in other countries. Omar recently sent me his résumé from Amman (like most Iraqis, he's not allowed to work there legally) in hopes of finding work in the United States. It turns out that he was one of Iraq's top hydraulic engineers, and helped design the water systems that we blew up.
There really isn’t much more to add to this. But it does make you stop and take pause. What has been done to this country? What has been done by our leaders in our country’s name? What will become of Iraq?
There is little to no middle class left. The majority of professors are leaving. Who will teach tomorrow’s professionals? The professional class is leaving. Engineers, museum curators, doctors, scientists and accountants. How can a country rebuild itself when many of those who are skilled to help the rebuilding (and the healing) are long gone?
What have we done?