Iraq’s continuing middle class refugee disaster is a crucial but unacknowledged reason why durable peace in Iraq remains so elusive. Forty percent of the country’s professional class is now displaced in neighboring Syria and Jordan. Without them, Iraq still lacks reliable electricity, clean water, sanitation, and health-care services. This is an unmitigated disaster for Iraq, a shattered nation that desperately needs its native professional class to return and help itself rebuild.

THE UNRETURNED, filmed in Syria and Jordan in 2008, lets the displaced Iraqi middle class speak for itself. Shot in verité style, with unscripted narration by the refugees in the film, THE UNRETURNED vividly portrays the lives of five displaced Iraqis from diverse ethnicities and religions. Caught in an absurdist purgatory of endless bureaucracy, dwindling life savings, and forced idleness, these Iraqis nevertheless radiate vitality and warmth.

These five individuals are:
  • Abu Abbas, a Sunni chef who once owned a restaurant in Baghdad and now runs an underground catering business in Amman. As his entire family works to prepare the food for a party, they explain why they left Iraq and why they cannot return.

  • Majid, an Assyrian Christian former translator for the US Army whose application for asylum in the United States has been denied. As a volunteer English teacher at an Assyrian church in Amman, Majid facilitates a heated discussion between his Iraqi students and the American filmmakers.

  • Maher, a Sunni mechanical engineer who was threatened by insurgents for accepting American rebuilding contracts. No longer able to help rebuild Iraq, Maher wants to relocate to any country that will let him work so he can afford to put his college-age daughter through university.

  • Najlaa, a Mandean health-care worker who splits her time between a community center for Iraqis that she helped found and monitoring the refugee population in a village outside Amman on behalf of a Japanese NGO. Battling exhaustion, Najlaa just wants her old career back.

  • Haithem, a 10-year-old Shiite boy who fled Iraq after his father disappeared. Instead of attending school, he supports his mother and sisters by selling food on the street.
THE UNRETURNED intercuts between the daily lives of these refugees and their recollections of life in Iraq before and after the US-led invasion of 2003. With an unflinching eye, powerfully candid dialogue, and a subtle touch of humor, the film captures scenes of daily life that are both personal and illustrative of the larger issues facing Iraq.