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Left Behind in Iran

Hundreds of thousands who fled life in Baathist Iraq have little to go back to, even if life in Iran is tough.
By Hussein Ali

Rahim Mohammed al-Lami lives in a camp run by the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed militia made up of Iraqi emigres.


The camp barracks is the only lodging Lami can afford on the salary of 60,000 tuman (100 US dollars) the militia pays him every month,


As Iranian laws preventing him from finding any other work, service in the militia is the only job Lami has been able to get since coming here as a prisoner 20 years ago.


At 42, Lami is still a bachelor, as a communal barrackroom is no place to raise a family.


"I feel I am useless in society," he said.


While the fall of Saddam Hussein means that Lami is free to return to Iraq, he nonetheless chooses life in Iran to his now dangerous homeland.


"For 20 years I have lived securely in Iran,” he told IWPR. “I’m used to living peacefully in Iran without bombing, without kidnapping, without killing."


Lami's case is similar to that of tens of thousands of other Iraqis now living as refugees in Iran. Although they face legal barriers to working and living a normal life, they feel there is nothing for them back home in Iraq.


In addition to the Badr Brigade, some have found work as street vendors. Others teach Arabic or run small businesses registered in the names of Iranian partners.


Former theology student and political refugee Karim Hassan Hashem, 35, managed to enrol at an Iranian religious institution. With his student grant and the fees from articles he has written for the local Arabic-language press, he manages to earn a small salary. But it is still not enough to get married on.


"After four years [from his arrival in Iran], I rented a humble home, but the marriage problem is still unresolved,” he said. “I gave up on marriage and became satisfied with the bachelor life… without thinking of the morrow."


Some of the worst-off Iraqis are refugees deported under a campaign the Iraqi government conducted that deprived away Iraqi Shia of Iranian ancestry of their citizenship and property. Unlike more recent arrivals such as prisoners-of-war or refugees, these people do not have the option of joining the Badr Brigade - which at least offers accommodation, a small salary, and services such as healthcare.


"I used to be a big merchant," said Mohammed Kadhem al-Musawi, 65, who lost his house and farm in the southern Iraqi countryside when the government forced him to leave in 1979.


Now, he says, he lives with his wife and five daughters in a single room, living off the income of one of his daughters who was able to acquire Iranian citizenship.


Yet he says he has no desire to return home. "I have nothing to do in Iraq since they confiscated my properties," he said.


Iranian officials say it is hard enough for their own citizens to find jobs, let alone the hundreds of thousands of refugees in their midst.


"Iran suffers from the problem of unemployment, and in addition the international aid organisations do not offer Iran aid to help the refugees," said Mustafa Kahrezi, 36, an official at Iran's government department for refugees. "Iran has more than a million Afghans, plus [nearly] 100,000 Iraqis, so how can it provide help for such large numbers?"


Hussein Ali is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.


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