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The slow march towards democracy

Iraqis in Switzerland pray for their country

(swissinfo.ch)

As Iraq prepares to vote on its new constitution, Iraqis living in exile in Switzerland are closely watching the political process back home.

One Iraqi family in Switzerland tells swissinfo about the chances of democracy in Baghdad and their hopes of one day returning.

There are nearly 7,000 Iraqis in Switzerland, but the Iraqi consulate in Geneva says there are no provisions for them to take part in the vote.

Salahadin Al Beati, an Iraqi community leader living in the northern Swiss city of Aarau, watches the TV news with horror as his country slips further into sectarian violence and chaos.

He and his wife Iman are hoping that the constitution, which goes to the vote on October 15, will be accepted by all of the country's ethnic groups and that it will be the first step towards restoring order.

They say Iraqis are exhausted by years of war, dictatorship and ethnic violence.

"We lived under dictatorships for more than 40 years and never knew that our country belonged to us. We have no experience of democracy. So it may take time, but Iraq will become a democratic state," Salahadin insists.

Both Salahadin and Iman's families have had to replace all the windows in their houses in Baghdad because of car bombs exploding nearby. Iman's sister has moved in with her parents for security reasons. They are afraid to go shopping –an everyday activity has now become extremely risky.

Daily life is further hampered by the inadequacy of the city's basic infrastructure. Water and electricity supplies are sporadic.

Asked whether life for Iraqis is better or worse since Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003, Salahadin tells swissinfo: "Conditions are bad and we have lost our security. But we have gained our freedom."

Trial

The constitutional vote in Iraq comes just a few days before Saddam and several of the ex-president's closest aides go on trial for the massacre of 143 Shias in a town north of Baghdad.

The killings in Dujail in 1982 followed an attempt on the leader's life.

Salahadin says it is an important turning point in the country's history, but urges Iraqis to take a humanitarian approach.

"He [Saddam] has made a lot of mistakes," he says. "But if we want to build a democracy, we have to forget about killing criminals and send them to jail instead."

Escape

The Al Beatis lived under Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted rule before fleeing for their lives in 1996.

Salahadin, a physicist and former food shop owner, was imprisoned for changing the local currency, the dinar, into dollars to pay importers for his produce. He only narrowly escaped execution.

"We were very scared," his wife says. "The secret police searched our house and I was afraid they would hurt my two little boys."

The couple used their savings to escape to Britain but were dropped off by their smuggler in Switzerland instead.

Within eight months they were granted refugee status and the family is now well integrated into Swiss life, but Salahadin and Iman dream of returning home if and when the political situation stabilises.

Iraqis in Switzerland

The Al Beatis' large apartment in Aarau has become a meeting place for local Iraqis.

Every Wednesday Iman invites a group of up to 20 Iraqi and Swiss women to get together and discuss their problems.

"Iraqi women are often very isolated in society," she explains. "Sometimes their husbands shut them up at home. We helped one lady who was locked up for ten years and never had any contact with her Swiss neighbours or other Iraqi women."

The Al Beatis are now planning to open a social centre for Iraqis, where German lessons will be provided for women and Arabic lessons for children.

The project is funded by the Iraqi embassy in Paris and the Swiss Federal Commission for Foreigners. The teachers have agreed to work for expenses only.

Salahadin and Iman also produce an hour-long radio show for Iraqis, in which they discuss issues relating to life in Switzerland and politics at home. They also play Iraqi music. It is broadcast two or three times a month on the local FM radio station, Kanal K.

Peace loving

Salahadin says most of the Iraqis living in Switzerland are peace loving. Just a few feel their religion and culture are under attack from the West. He describes these people as "a dangerous minority".

"We meet a lot of highly educated people, but some Iraqis living here can't even read," he says. "It is my job as a community leader to try to reach them all, and help them with their problems."

Salahadin would also like to combat some of the myths that have grown up on both side of the western/Middle Eastern cultural divide, especially since the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001.

"When I was in Iraq, I was told that all our problems came from the West," he says. "Then I came to the West and I was told that all the problems come from Islam. Both of these assumptions are wrong. We have to find a way of speaking to each other, understanding each other."

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Aarau

Key facts

Around 6,700 Iraqis live in Switzerland, half of whom have permanent or five-year residence permits.
The rest are asylum seekers and political refugees with temporary permits.
Between January and August 2005 there were 289 new requests for asylum from Iraqis – 19% of them were accepted.

end of infobox

In brief

Sahaladin and Iman Al Beati fled Iraq in 1996 and settled in Aarau, home to about 200 Iraqis.

The couple are community leaders and tell swissinfo about their hopes for the future of their country ahead of a vote on the new Iraqi constitution.

end of infobox


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