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Doctor Has Waited a Year to Leave Iraq

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Despite the surge in Baghdad, despite the diplomatic efforts with Iraq's neighbors, Iraqis are still fleeing their country. Some 2 million have already left. A year ago, we reported about Dr. Ali Hamdami and his plans to leave Iraq. He thought it would take a year to get the necessary paperwork to study outside of Iraq. This is what he was saying back then.

Dr. ALI HAMDANI: You don't even discuss it with your friends. You don't say I'll be leaving, or you're not considering leaving. We've gone beyond the point that we discuss whether to leave or not. No. We're discussing now how and when and what could be the best way. What could be the best time to leave? But leaving is a must.

NORRIS: Now a year later, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro caught up with Hamdani and other refugees preparing to leave for good.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: At Baghdad's Salhil(ph) bus station, a conductor calls out to passengers heading for Syria.

Unidentified Man: Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a mad rush of humanity - women, men, children with suitcases and bundles all vie to crowd on to the departing vehicle. Iraq's exodus begins here.

Dr. ALI JASAM(ph): (Through translator) I was threatened. They took my house and farm. They gave me 48 hours to leave, but I told them that 24 hours are enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Ali Jasam's story is typical. And now he finds himself here, about to leave Iraq like so many others. He says he doesn't recognize his country anymore.

Dr. JASAM: (Through translator) It is all sectarian issues that came out from nowhere. I am a Sunni and my wife is a Shiite. We didn't care about this issue before. When I proposed to my wife, no one asked me whether I was a Sunni or a Shiite. Her father didn't ask me. We were all one people, worshipping one God, one prophet and one Islam.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Herais Ayufu(ph) is a 32-year-old engineer also waiting to board a bus for Syria.

Mr. HIRAYS AYUFU (Engineer): (Through translator) First, they called me. Then they sent me an instant message telling me that I have to leave my neighborhood within a week, so I packed my stuff and I decided to get out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As the breadwinner in the family, Ayufu still has to support those he's leaving behind.

Mr. AYUFU: (Through translator) It is very difficult for me. I have left my children and I will be jobless, but I have to leave. I don't want to die. I left my wife at her uncle's house. It's important that I stay safe because if I get killed, they shall have no one in this world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone else NPR spoke with at the bus station was leaving due to threats or fear, and even people who thought they could hang on are now deciding they, too, must go.

When NPR spoke to Ali Hamdani last year, he was still wondering if he could make his life work here. A doctor who moonlights as a translator, he was well paid and hesitant to leave the only country he'd ever known. But as things got worse, he made his final decision. The only problem was the logistics of leaving Iraq are not easy, either.

Dr. HAMDANI: First of all, you're planning to leave for good - not coming back. So I had to sell both of my cars - my car and my family's car. And selling it was another disaster because nobody is buying anymore, you know. Everybody is selling stuff. Everybody is selling his car. Nobody is willing to buy a new car. What for, you know? If everybody is leaving, so why would you buy a new car?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And selling the car has prompted questions in the neighborhood.

Dr. HAMDANI: And they started asking, you know, are you leaving? And I'm sure they knew that I'm leaving. I mean, it was quite obvious that I was leaving, and which was really worrying to me because that's when you actually get kidnapped because they know that you sold the car, so you got the cash. You're leaving the country, so you must have enough money to do that. So basically, you're worth a ransom, and I don't want really to get kidnapped in my last days here in this place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In his last days, he tried to add more security to the house he was leaving behind. It's the only thing his family still owns. It's empty now, but Ali fears not for long.

Dr. HAMDANI: Nowadays if you leave your house, it's vulnerable to, you know, to get taken by militias who will bring like a displaced families or just make it their headquarter or something. But it was like a desperate attempt, another desperate attempt to do something, so I put new doors and new security locks and stuff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The hardest part, Ali says, was actually getting the one essential document, a passport. It took him months and hundreds of dollars.

Dr. HAMDANI: The minute you arrive at the passport office, you realize how desperate this place is. I mean, everybody there is desperate to leave and desperate to get a passport. Like, the minute you arrive there and you look at the faces of the people there, you realize how bad the situation is. It's like a wake up, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali is trying to imagine what his future will be like. He's worried about the psychological toll of all he's seen and all he's experienced.

Dr. HAMDANI: It's like you've been in the middle of all this, you know, for a long while, all this chaos, all this, you know, total mess, and you've been part of it so you didn't actually feel how bad it was. And what I'm really worried about is like when I go outside and sit down what kind of pictures will start running through my head, what kind of memories I'll start to recall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aside from his own demons, he also wonders how people will treat him.

Dr. HAMDANI: Because we've been linked to this story of Iraq. Basically wherever you go now, people say oh, Iraqi, okay, visa problems, terrorist problems. So we've been - we are stuck. We are stuck in Iraq even if we leave Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He hopes now to be able to go to the U.S., which he says represents his future.

Dr. HAMDANI: Yeah, it's ironic. It's like going to the U.S., okay, going to the States. The place that ruined my life and ruined my country might be able to give me a life again. You know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ali spent his last day in Iraq seeing the few friends who remain, simply looking at the city he'd lived in all his life. He says he feels like he's been running and running since the war. The moment he leaves, he thinks that time will somehow simply stop.

Dr. HAMDANI: It's going to be a tough moment because leaving everything, and it's just going to be tough. It's going to be hard. It's like - it's not like turning your back on things you grew up with and you loved. No, it's like being pushed away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yesterday, Ali finally left the city. He's now safely in Syria. Back at the Baghdad bus station, a busking poet addresses those who are fleeing.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He recites: Each one of us is eating each other. Where is our Islam? If this is politics, so be it. Let us leave this country, abandon our home. There is a rush to the passport office. Everyone has left.

(Soundbite of applause)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The audience claps and briefly smiles, and then each turns to jump onto a bus that will take them far away.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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