Hassanein Mohsen spent months protesting against corruption in Iraq. He also lodged complaints against officials. But now he is shunned as a whistleblower and sees only one way out: emigration.
"You can't live here without paying bribes," the unemployed father-of-four told AFP.
"I've given everything I can, and this country is still sinking lower."
The stout 36-year-old engineer from the shrine city of Karbala said he had been driven to despair by the endemic graft in his homeland, ranked the 21st most corrupt country by Transparency International.
In January, the advocacy group said public corruption had deprived Iraqis of basic rights and services, including water, health care, electricity and jobs.
It said systemic graft was eating away at Iraqis' hopes for the future, pushing growing numbers to try to emigrate.
But Mohsen hasn't always felt this way.
In 2019, hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Iraqi cities, first railing against poor public services, then explicitly accusing politicians of plundering resources meant for the people.
Mohsen was one of them.
He left behind his wife Nour -- then pregnant with their youngest son, Karam -- to protest in Baghdad's Tahrir Square for weeks on end.
"I felt I had to go out. I either live in dignity or I die in dignity," he said.
One day, Nour called him with good news: they had come into some cash by selling a piece of land.
With that money, she insisted, they could start a new life abroad.
From Tahrir Square, surrounded by hopeful youth, Mohsen refused.
"I can't leave now. Things are finally going to change," he told his wife.
- 'Corruption is a pyramid' -
Corruption had infiltrated every part of Mohsen's life.
He has forked out more than $1,000 in cash bribes for simple bureaucratic processes, he told AFP.
These include updating his tax filings, getting a new passport or correcting spelling mistakes in his government records.
Then, there were in-kind bribes.
During a brief stint as a furniture salesman, one of his cargo trucks got pulled aside by an Iraqi soldier while bringing in goods from Jordan.
Even after confirming the import licences were in order, the soldier wouldn't let the goods through -- until Mohsen offered to leave an entire bedroom set for him at the checkpoint.
There's also the high-level state corruption that trickles down to everyday life.
"Corruption is a pyramid. For years, officials stole the money intended to improve public services, so now I have to pay extra for clean water, a power generator, health bills," he told AFP.
Years of conflict left much of Iraq's infrastructure destroyed or in ruins and private operators have long been relied upon.
When the mass street protests dwindled, Mohsen tried to fight graft in a different way.
He gathered documents that he claimed were proof and filed a half-dozen complaints at Iraq's Integrity Commission against state officials in Karbala and Baghdad.
"I saw the protests didn't go anywhere, so I tried that instead. But not one of the complaints went anywhere because the courts themselves are too corrupt to act."
A lawyer in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the law in Iraq only tended to apply to "the weakest".
"With one phone call, elected representatives, officials can make a judge drop the charges against them, either with a threat or by paying a bribe," the lawyer told AFP.
- Fear and regret -
With no work, Mohsen became dependent on remittances from in-laws in the United States to feed his children.
His own well-connected relatives were shunning him because of his public criticism of politicians, costing him job opportunities he could have gotten through them.
He's even afraid for his life after speaking out.
"I got threatening phone calls from people claiming to be from the intelligence service. Now, I carry a gun with me everywhere I go," said Mohsen.
"Sometimes I regret it. Why did I even go out to protest?"
- 'A real life' -
Corruption was among the top reasons Iraqis cited for seeking refuge in Europe, a 2016 survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found.
"My friends all left, to the US, Sweden or other parts of Europe," Nour said.
The family registered with the IOM in 2016 to be considered for resettlement abroad but following then US president Donald Trump's executive order on refugees, they were never interviewed.
With President Joe Biden already walking back some of those measures, the family of six is praying that will change soon.
"It was a mistake to stay. We never got the chance to live a real life," Nour sighed.