The plight of unemployed men illustrates the larger problems that still exist in Iraq's economy eight years after the American invasion.
Deep below the workshops in Baghdad's cramped, run-down jewellery district, unemployed men spend their days scouring the city's sewer system for the one thing they say can bring them money: flakes of gold.
Several times a month, men desperate for an income descend as far as 15 feet into the dark in search of gold bits that have been washed down the drain by craftsmen cleaning up after a day of etching and moulding jewellery. With a flashlight in hand and a mask to help with the stench, they spend hours combing through the thick muck, reaching in with their bare hands to pluck out glints of gold. On a good day, the men say they collect enough to earn about $20 from a smelter, which sells reconstituted blocks of gold back to the same jewellers whose pipes seed the sewers.
“Because it's disgusting and dirty,” said Ali Mohammad Freji, 30, “I do not tell my family what I do because I'm embarrassed.”
Mr. Freji is among a group of about a dozen men who search for gold on a daily basis. Their plight illustrates the larger problems that still exist in Iraq's economy eight years after the American invasion. Despite the billions of dollars spent by the United States and other countries to try to rebuild the country's infrastructure and buoy its economy, there are still too few jobs, with as many as 40 per cent of the work force either unemployed or reliant on part-time work.
But the jewellery district is the one place where the wealth has trickled down, literally, from the jewellery shops to the sewers.
“Thank God for everything we got. It's a small thing that nobody cares about, but it means a lot to me,” said Abbas Abdul-Razzaq, 30, who searches the sewers for gold.
The men search about eight sewers once a month. When they are not underground, they sweep the streets of the jewellery district in search of gold dust that has been created in the process of making the jewellery. The men accumulate cigarette butts, food wrappers and dirt from inside and outside the shops. Then, beside a rusty boat on the shores of the Tigris River, they use water to sift through the trash until their pans are full of gold dust and small pieces of the precious metal.
“The gold shop owners work with the gold and then clean up and wash their hands, and the little pieces flow down to the pipes here,” Mr. Freji said. “The gold collects in the sewers, but the dust goes with the water into the river.”
Although the price of gold has skyrocketed in recent years, the men here said they were making less money because of reverberations from the war and advances in technology in jewellery making.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and years of sectarian war ensued, many of the city's jewellers fled, leaving a void in jewellery production.
With few tariffs on imports, cheaper and better designed jewellery from the United Arab Emirates and Turkey flooded into Iraq, making it difficult for the remaining jewellers to compete with the imports.
“Before, we considered ourselves lucky because there are so many workshops,” Mr. Freji said. “The government's policy of not having tariffs hurts us because there are no longer many gold shops.”
Now the only workshops that remain do special requests, like engraving.
“I only sell imported jewellery because people would rather buy it, because it has the best designs,” said Mohammad Hashim, 46, a shop owner. “There are catalogues for the imported jewellery and television ads for the companies producing it.”
Those remaining goldsmiths rely on more efficient machinery, and fewer flecks are washing into the sewers. "Whenever there's a new technology for making jewellery we are hurt because modern tools don't create lots of dust,” said Mr. Freji, who said he has been trying to get a job with the government since 2008. He said he even paid a bribe to a government official several years ago in the hopes of becoming a police officer, but nothing came of it.
The work of sifting through sewage is dirty, smelly, and not surprisingly the men said they hated it. Their feet and hands are irritated from spending so much time in water, and their legs ache from squatting on the shores of the river to sift through their pans. In the winter, the cold water makes them shiver.
“I wish I could find another job,” said Mr. Abdul-Razzaq. “I'd take any job — anything, I just want a permanent job.”
“Maybe when we get older it will affect our health,” he said.
Ibrahim Youssef, 25, said he became envious when he saw ads for gold on television.
“In France and Germany there are these big factories of gold, and I think about how much money I could make there by just cleaning up,” Mr. Youssef said. “Those people are not smart because they are not going through the garbage and dust. Nobody cares about their dust.
“I see reports in Brazil of people who go to natural gold mines and just take big pieces and don't take the small ones. I feel sad because we are looking for small ones. We could make so much money there.”— © New York Times News Service