CAIRO — Abu Bashar’s lively eyes and open demeanor did little to mask a weathered face, weary by years of war and worry.
Once a well-to-do professional, he decided to leave Baghdad after members of a Shi’a militia stormed his office and then armed bandits broke into his house and threatened his family at gunpoint. In 2006, he made a midnight dash for the Syrian border to take his family to safety.
Abu Bashar spent two months in Damascus but found it hard to begin life anew in a country where 800,000 Iraqi refugees had already placed a heavy strain on the economy. So he and his family boarded a plane bound for Cairo, where he hoped to rebuild his life and ride out the duration of the war.
For this civil engineer, though, economic promise in Cairo did not come easily.
“For about two months, I didn’t find any work,” he recalled. “The life here is expensive, very expensive. But I thought, I must work here. It’s a hard life.”
His visa from the Egyptian government explicitly forbade him from finding a job.
“Unemployment is already high in Egypt,” said Abeer Etefa, Senior Regional Public Information Officer for the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which aids many of the country’s poorest refugees. “Many [Iraqis in Egypt] are professionals, very qualified doctors, physicians, and engineers. And it’s very hard for this contingency of people to find jobs in these particular sectors in Egypt.”
Abu Bashar is only part of the latest wave of refugees to descend upon Cairo. A relative oasis in a politically turbulent region, Egypt has hosted mass refugee migrations from Iraq, Sudan, and Eritrea—among other places.
Iraqis who managed to flee to Egypt, though beset by challenges, have not faced the same level of hardships endured by those who settled in Syria and Jordan.
Many of the 100,000 Iraqis who have come to Egypt are upper-middle class and able to afford the cost of a plane ticket.
“Most of the Iraqis who came to Egypt came here rich,” noted Dr. Abdul Jabbar Al Zobaidy, press agent at the Iraqi Embassy in Cairo, “They are not poor, especially as they compare to Iraqis in Syria or Iran.”
Abu Bashar used a portion of his savings to open a restaurant that served Iraqi food, earning less in a country that costs more.
His restaurant was a corner joint, the kind that attracted Iraqis and Egyptians of all stripes to sit outside at plastic tables and munch on offerings served up by Abu Bashar’s wife.
His new business venture did not face any protest from the Egyptian government likely, he mused, because it did not deprive any Egyptians of work.
“You can say that the majority of the Iraqis that came here have created job opportunities for themselves rather than seeking job opportunities,” said the UN’s Etefa.
Many Iraqis have found Cairo to be costly and have suffered under the grueling economic burdens here. Because they are not citizens, Iraqis have had to pay out of pocket for education, healthcare, and various other social services that come free to Egyptians. Plus, basic goods and services in Egypt simply cost more than they do in Iraq.
And now, with little economic opportunity in Egypt, thousands are heading back to Iraq, bemoaning a return forced upon them by economic imperative. Few have any confidence that Iraq is either stable or safe.
“A lot are returning because, for a lot of families, the money is gone,” said Abu Bashar.
Last summer the Iraqi government chartered a plane to fly nearly 250 Iraqis back to Baghdad, citing improved conditions in Iraq. This move by the Iraqi government was meant to publicize the decline in violence. Many Iraqis at the airport, though, painted a different picture, saying that they were returning to Iraq for economic reasons, despite the security situation.
Abu Bashar came to realize that he was out of options financially and that he and his family would have to return home. On one hand, he reveled in the idea of reuniting with what was left of his family in Baghdad. They, after all, endured the war that he had been able to escape. But for his wife and children, he believed it was too soon.
His lucrative job had disappeared, many of his friends and relatives had either moved away or been killed and another family had taken over his house.
In November, Abu Bashar, his wife, and his three sons boarded a plane bound for Baghdad, looking to rebuild their lives in that violent, chaotic city.