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Thousands of Iraqis Flee War for Safety in Jordan

The United Nations estimates that 3,000 Iraqis a day are now leaving their war-torn country. An estimated 700,000 to one million are now living in neighboring Jordan. Most are of the educated professional class. In this, the second part of our two-part series on Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Jeff Swicord takes a look at the impact this large migration has had on the people of Jordan.

"It has a very unique design that optimizes to a great extent the utilization of space," says Iraqi developer Jalal Algaaod. He is proud of his latest project, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Amman.

Algaaod is part of the Iraq's wealthy business elite now living in Jordan. By their sheer numbers and resources, Iraqis are making their mark on the Jordanian capital. And that has drawn the ire of some Jordanians.

Randa Habib is the Bureau Chief for Agence France Press in Amman. "The first ones who came, they came, they had money. They [Jordanians] welcomed them because they were spending money, they were buying jewelry. They thought they would be here temporarily and things would get better in Iraq… they will go back or go elsewhere. Now, the temporary is lasting and things are taking a different shape. They are nearly taking over the city. So, the reaction is different."

The United Nations says there are more than 700,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. That is an astonishing number considering the population of Jordan is only five and a half million.

The large influx of Iraqis has had a dramatic impact on the Jordanian economy, particularly the real estate sector. Wael N. Al Jaabari is the general manager of the Abdoun Real Estate Agency in Amman. He says Saddam would not allow wealthy Iraqis to take their money out of the country. So, many had millions in cash hidden away for safekeeping. They arrived in Jordan with suitcases stuffed full of U.S. dollars.

"When they first came the deals were done in U.S. dollars -- cash money,” said Jaabari. “You will look at somebody and he walks in your office and he has something like a million, two million dollars, a million and a half just buying these properties that Jordanians had a very hard time to sell for four or five years for half of the price. And when they came in, believe it or not, for Jordanians it was very easy to sell those houses for double of the money -- even triple of the money."

Jaabari says the increased demand for housing, combined with the willingness of cash-rich Iraqis to pay inflated prices, drove the Amman real estate market up by 300, 500, and in some areas even 1,000 percent. Well out of reach for the average Jordanian.

"You look at the economy. You look at the average income of a Jordanian person, he really can not afford to live in most areas of Amman. It is very difficult. Because money-wise, we [Jordanians] are still making the same income."

The lack of affordable housing is especially hard on young Jordanians.

Twenty-five-year-old Asad Samara has been married for seven months. He and his wife have been looking for an apartment to buy for almost nine months. But they say everything in Amman is too expensive.

"All my friends who have been planning to get engaged for six months are now going to postpone it,” he says. “No one expected this; they are going to delay the engagement because the 75 Jordanian dollars we would have to pay a month is now 150 Jordanian dollars. So, this is unexpected."

The price for consumer goods has also risen. And Jordanians claim the influx of cheap Iraqi labor is lowering wages in the country. The majority of Iraqi refugees in Jordan are of the educated professional class. Randa Habib says they are willing to work for much less than the average Jordanian professional.

"Those who are employed by Jordanians, they are saying, ‘You know, my employer keeps telling me, if you are not happy just go. I can get two for the price of your salary, two Iraqis who would be as good’."

Most of the Iraqis we talked to in Jordan do not plan to stay. Developer Jalal Algaood looks forward to the day when he can return to a stable Iraq and work toward rebuilding his country. He knows that will be a long time coming. For now, Jordan will have to do.