After he had finished studying, Ahmad al-Kalamashi, 27, decided he must leave Iraq. He had been an excellent student but he felt despondent about the economic and political problems in his homeland. He had already completed all his papers in the hope of being able to leave the country permanently when he ran into Sundus Latif al-Saifi, a 50 year-old Iraqi woman. That was when all of his pans changed.
“I insisted that I wanted to leave the country but al-Saifi did her best to persuade me not to,” al-Kalamashi admits shyly. “She became a mentor of mine and thanks to her good advice, I was eventually able to find a good job in a company here.” He is now studying engineering at university as well as working and he’s very happy he never left for Europe. “Her advice was so valuable,” he says.
They think they will find a better life in Europe or the US or other nations. But what they tend to overlook are the stories of the large numbers who have failed.
Al-Saifi is a local civil society activist and she says she has travelled around Iraq trying to convince Iraqis not to emigrate. The mother-of-four believes she may have prevented as many as 4,000 Iraqis of all ages from leaving forever and she says that often she does this by helping them find new opportunities. She understands why people want to leave but she thinks that sometimes they are not realistic about their dreams for what will happen once they get out of the country.
“I have been shocked by the high number of young Iraqis who want to emigrate,” she told NIQASH. “They think they will find a better life in Europe or the US or other nations. They’re boiling with enthusiasm and they have great ambitions, especially when they hear the success stories from those who have gone before them and achieved good things outside of Iraq. But what they tend to overlook are the stories of the large numbers who have failed.”
For Armenian-Christian man, Tony Sarkisian, 28, emigration seemed like the next logical step after seeing so many of his friends leave for the US, after 2003. The church bells in his hometown of Basra stopped ringing months ago.
The security situation deteriorated and Christians were often targets, he explains. That’s why so many Iraqi Christian families left. “I decided to join the convoy,” he says, “even though I knew it was a long, hard road. Al-Saifi had a different opinion though and I will never forget her advice. But I also won’t forget her moral support and her logical arguments about life for Iraqis in the diaspora and the difficulties there, contrary to what some people think. Also, Iraq needs her sons!,” he concluded.
So Sarkisian has stayed in Iraq and is currently working in the field of human rights. He says he had been depressed, but then he decided to take a more active role as a citizen and work towards the creation of a better Iraq.
Al-Saifi’s efforts are not just psychological. Natheer Younis, a local Sabaean-Mandean man in his 60s, tells NIQASH that he used to work as a goldsmith in Baghdad. But after he was robbed, he decided the job was too risky and started to make plans to leave Iraq, together with his family of six. His children had all graduated university but, apart from one daughter, none had been able to find jobs.
“We had completed the immigration papers for Europe, when al-Saifi found what seemed to be a better alternative,” Younis explains. “She offered us a place to live in Basra and found me a job as an accountant with one of the companies there. We agreed to her proposal and we moved to Basra instead.”
Despite the difficulties of adjusting to a new home, Younis says that he and his family are happy with the decision not to leave Iraq. “And that wouldn’t have happened without al-Saifi’s help,” he says. “She’s done us a great service and we will never forget it.”