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More Iraqis Are Leaving Baghdad For A New Life In Europe


Now, for all the mixed emotions they've shown, Europeans have made a place for thousands of Syrians. And that has drawn the interest of people living in a troubled nation next to Syria. As NPR's Alice Fordham first reported last weekend, Iraqis are looking for safety.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It seems lively out on the weekend in Baghdad. A wedding party drives past open-air cafes. And at Ali Hussein's juice stand, decorated with plastic bananas, they're squeezing oranges. But he's gloomy.

ALI HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Some of his friends just passed by to say farewell. They heard German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcoming Iraqis, so one by one they said, I'm going to Europe.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Hussein says you can't count the number of his friends who've gone - and all in the last two months.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The Germans should expect a lot more people, he adds. Iraqis form a significant chunk of the migrants streaming into Europe. The International Organization for Migration says a thousand Iraqis got to Greece illegally in 2014. More than five times that arrived there through July this year. And interviews with a dozen people here suggest those numbers are going to rise. Everyone knows several friends and relatives who've left abruptly this summer. Travel agents are doing a roaring trade in plane and bus tickets to Turkey, the first stop on the smuggling trail. Iraq has long struggled with violence and dysfunction. That's nothing new. So to find out why so many are leaving right now, I head to the taxi line by the airport.

AHMED ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Ahmed Abdullah is wearing a T-shirt which says, in French, save bamboo, eat a panda. As he says goodbye, today, to friends heading to Istanbul, he's thinking of trying to get to Europe himself.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The incentive is simply that he's seen so many people take the trip lately and believes Europe is more welcoming now than before.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He drives a taxi and is in a kind of informal syndicate of 80 guys, except that 50 of them left over the summer, so he's inclined to join them. And, of course, the situation in Iraq isn't getting any easier.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: There's no security here, he says. There's bombs. The U.N. counts several hundred Iraqi civilians killed each month. Plus, a swath of the country is controlled by ISIS and low oil prices have damaged the economy. And nothing's getting better in Syria, either. I called Rabia Banna in Lebanon. He's Syrian himself and works with a charity helping Syrians.

RABIA BANNA: The people coming from Syria, they are fleeing the danger like fighting, the barrel bombs and the rockets.

FORDHAM: Rockets and barrel bombs are still falling on civilian areas across Syria where the war kills thousands every month. Banna says as summer turns to fall and the weather gets stormy, fewer people will try to cross the sea, but there'll be more in spring.

BANNA: I think it will be the same for the next years.

FORDHAM: The hundreds of thousands arriving in Europe are still a small percentage of the millions of refugees languishing in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But most of them are too poor to make the trip. Banna says it's the remnants of the middle class who can just manage to pay the smuggler's fees.

Outside Baghdad Airport, I talk with a couple who fled ISIS with their toddler. Wijdan Najah is a Shiite Muslim, and ISIS is a Sunni group that kills Shiites systematically.

WIJDAN NAJAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Najah says she just wants safety for her daughter.

ABDULRAHMAN MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Here, it's getting worse and worse, says her husband, Abdulrahman Mohammad. Of course it will be better there. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.