Gathering in Amman

Rusul Muhamad, Nadia Abbas and Laila Ibrahim, who came to Jordan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, listen to announcements at a gathering for Iraqi refugees in Amman. (Baltimore Sun photo by Matthew Hay Brown / December 4, 2008)

Najim Abid Hajwal thought he would be back in Baghdad by now.

The 49-year-old businessman fled Iraq after a worker in one of his factories warned that his name had appeared on a local hit list. He needed no convincing: By then, he says, two of his sons had narrowly escaped kidnappers, and a brother and a nephew had been shot to death.

Still, he expected the exile to be brief. Packing up his wife and their seven children, he imagined a sojourn lasting weeks.

That was four years ago.

While violence in Iraq has declined in 2008, kidnappers, car bombers and other killers continue to menace Baghdad. Hajwal, a Sunni Muslim, says his once-mixed neighborhood has been taken over by Shia Muslims. If he were to return home, he says, he would be killed.

"Every day, I'm waiting for things to improve, but I don't see it," Hajwal says in the apartment he rents with his family here in the Jordanian capital. "I feel as if, in one moment, I lost everything."

As the United States shifts its military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, it leaves behind a humanitarian crisis. Since the 2003 invasion, more than 2 million Iraqis have fled the chaos of their homeland for the relative safety of Jordan, Syria and other neighbors. The greatest movement of people in the Middle East since the Palestinian flight of 1948 has impoverished hundreds of thousands of families, drained a crippled nation of its professional class and strained relations in an already volatile corner of the world.

It is an exodus that has occurred largely out of sight. Sixty years since the Palestinian flight transformed the Middle East, the region's governments have been reluctant to recognize this new wave of refugees. Iraqis, unable to live or work legally, arrive and disappear into the shadows of Amman and Damascus, Cairo and Beirut.

A fortunate few - under 23,000 in the past two years - have been resettled in Europe and North America. Two hundred and two have landed in Maryland, several of them congregating in and around an apartment complex in Northeast Baltimore.

An additional 110,000 have returned to Iraq to take their chances. But the great majority of them remain in exile, caught between a homeland most believe remains unsafe and countries where they fear detention and deportation.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees describes an unusually well-educated diaspora, one that includes doctors and nurses, teachers and engineers, now exhausting their savings while waiting for conditions to improve in Iraq or opportunities to resettle abroad.

"Their exile has lasted longer than they ever anticipated," said Imran Riza, the top U.N. refugee official in Jordan. "They're getting quite desperate."

In Jordan and Syria, which have received more that three-quarters of the refugees, Iraqis are blamed for crowding schools, straining hospitals and health clinics and driving up the costs of housing, fuel, food and other basics.

With pressure building on Iraq to support its citizens abroad, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is offering cash payments for refugees to return. Iraqi embassies in Syria and Egypt have organized flights and bus rides home.

They have found few takers.

Marwan Abdullah still has nightmares about his kidnapping in 2005. His family paid $15,000 for his release and fled immediately for Jordan. When his father returned to Baghdad to sell their house, he was shot dead.

"We have no one to protect us," says Abdullah, 18. A member of the persecuted Sabean Mandean religion, he hopes his family will be resettled to a country outside the region: "I would never go back."

With such sentiment common, officials on all sides are bracing for an open-ended displacement - and one that could have far-reaching effects.

"These people represent to a large degree the talent of Iraq, and the hope for Iraq's future," says Ambassador James B. Foley, the top State Department official on Iraqi refugees. "If they are not able to go home and go home successfully, then that is going to cast a long shadow over Iraq's long-term ability to return to normalcy."