Note: Most Iraqis appearing in this article are described by their first names only in order to protect their privacy and safety.
As an American living in Japan who has maintained passionate opposition to the war in Iraq ever since its inception, I could find little reason to turn down an invitation to join a delegation traveling to Amman, Jordan earlier this summer in order to meet with Iraqi refugees. The invitation came from a fellow member of the Iraqi Hope Network, a Japan-based initiative I joined in 2006 whereby NGO staff, aid workers, journalists, lawyers, university professors and volunteers work together to sponsor projects in Iraq focusing on humanitarian aid, reconstruction and human rights. The trip to Jordan was aimed at bringing gifts of friendship and solidarity from Japan, such as clothing, school supplies, and children’s toys—as well as determining the best ways to offer ongoing support to displaced Iraqis in need.
The situation now facing Iraqis in exile is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis. Amongst the nearly 5 million estimated Iraqis who have been driven from their homes due to war and occupation-fueled violence and instability, an estimated 750,000 are presently in Jordan. Many fled their country with literally nothing other than their accumulated savings and the few possessions they could carry—often after having endured extreme traumas such as kidnapping threats by armed militias,
raids by U.S. soldiers in their homes and
the death of family members from U.S. air aids or militia
While the Jordanian government offers residency to the few Iraqis who are able to pay at least $150,000, everyone else is considered a “temporary guest” with no legal status or work permission. Once these guest permits expire, most Iraqis then make the obvious choice to remain illegally rather than risk returning to the potentially life-threatening violence in Iraq. Overstayers are also expected to make payments to the Jordanian government for every day of their continued stay—something they are clearly in little position to do given their precarious situation and rapidly dwindling savings. With the possibility that overstayers will be deported back to Iraq, and with raids in workplaces suspected of employing Iraqis illegally, most are forced to stay home and endure a silent, fearful existence in hiding.
Needless to say, I had many concerns prior to making this trip: How would I be received as someone from the United States? How would anything we might provide be able to make up for the immense suffering that had already been inflicted upon these people? Would my efforts really make a difference?
Ready to host us in Amman were members of the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), a grassroots initiative spanning four countries (Iraq, Jordan, the United States and Canada) created
by two women in the U.S. to help make amends for the
wrongs committed against innocent Iraqis by the policies of the U.S.
government. The project connects displaced Iraqis with American citizens who feel
compelled to make a positive difference
with growing anxiety as the lives of innocent
Iraqis have been thrown into turmoil by the war and occupation.
One of my colleagues in Japan from the Iraq Hope Network, a humanitarian aid worker with extensive past experience working in Iraq, had cultivated a relationship with the Amman-based members of the CRP during numerous previous trips she had made to Jordan. The three women comprising the Amman team, Maha, Manal and Sanaa—
displaced Iraqis—greeted us with the warmest
of welcomes. Upon meeting them, it was immediately clear that they were devoting
the better part of their lives to making sure that less fortunate Iraqi
families in Amman continue to get their basic needs met. Their days were spent visiting refugee families to
collect information about their individual situations, as well as updating the
CPR website with personal profiles, and dispersing incoming donations and
supplies to where they are needed most.
Using donations collected by the organization’s North American team member, the CPR is able
finance “micro-projects” that help the
refugees get back on their feet financially.
These small home-based
businesses include such initiatives as hairstyling, sewing, bead-making/craftwork, baking, and
pickling, to name only a few. The CRP works to helpIraqis displaced internally
country’s borders, as well as those who escaped to find refuge in neighboring
countries (primarily Jordan, although CRP does do some work in Syria).
We spent the first three full days meeting with Iraqi refugees, listening to their stories, and distributing the goods we had brought with us from Japan. Many of the people whom we met lived in apartments that were cramped and substandard in terms of basic living conditions. Nevertheless, people were spending all their savings to make rent payments, and most could not afford to spend money on nutritious foods for their families such as eggs, milk or meat. Many were suffering not only from the financial burden of the charges Jordan imposes
upon Iraqis for sending their children to Jordanian schools, but also from knowing that their children are victims of taunts and discrimination by local children, and even sometimes teachers.
everyone we met was experiencing extreme
daily stress due to
their separation from family members, homes, and everything that was familiar to themThe
numbers themselves are sobering:
Al Aoun staff, around 80% of Iraqis in Jordan—the
majority of whom are overstayers—have already depleted their savings and are
fully reliant upon the charity of others. We were also told that at least 90%
of these displaced Iraqis are suffering from mental stress conditions such as
severe depression or PTSD from past traumas, the extreme stress of the present,
and growing anxiety regarding an uncertain future.
“Every Iraqi has a sad story to tell,” said one woman whose experience was particularly disturbing. A follower of the Sabean faith, her family was repeatedly targeted by militia groups for being non-Muslim. Her husband was violently beaten, and their house was then burned down. Even after moving to a new location, the corpses of tortured and murdered individuals were dumped into their yard to serve as a warning. Finally, able to take no more, they fled to Jordan. “In Baghdad, we were wealthy,” the woman told us, in tears. “Now, we have nothing.”
Despite these hardships, however, most of the people we met with in Amman possessed a very strong spirit and a tremendous sense of dignity. Many also revealed a hilarious, sarcasm-tinged sense of humor (as is often characteristic, I am told, of Iraqis in general). They were also extremely gracious, displaying consistently kind hospitality and treating us to elaborate meals despite their own precarious situations.
Zainab, a woman who carries herself with an extremely fierce conviction that the barriers of language cannot mask, was left to raise six children on her own after her husband was killed in Iraq when he happened to be passing by an area that was targeted by U.S. forces. While both she and her children were lively and friendly during our visit to their extremely cramped apartment, where a large photo of their deceased husband/father was framed in the center of the main room, the stressful uncertainty of their life in Jordan—as well as the enormity of their loss—was all too clear.
Mostafa, a young man in his mid-20’s with kind eyes and an extremely gentle demeanor, was almost completely paralyzed in 2006 when a U.S. military rocket meant for a nearby police station sent him plummeting down from the roof of his home near Baghdad, where he had been adjusting his television. Now confined to a wheelchair and using a catheter, he is slowly rehabilitating but faces a long and painful road to recovery.
Nada is a Sunni woman who fled to Jordan from Anbar province with her 14 year-old son after receiving threats from the Shi’a owners of a nearby market. Her name has been mysteriously removed from all NGO assistance lists, however, which she attributes to her abusive ex-husband, who has continued to stalk her since she divorced him while their son was still a baby. She has also been refused asylum in both France and Germany, again with no reason given. Despite the hardship of her situation, she radiated an extremely alive and expressive personality.
Baida’a and Hatm are a 19- and 18-year old sister and brother from Abu Ghraib who came to Jordan in 2007 to escape the increasing violence. Both ill with a condition known as thalassemia, they require over 100 abdominal and insulin injections per month. While medicines were affordable prior to the invasion in 2003, they must now pay 900 Jordanian dinars (around $1267) per month in order to continue their regimen of care. Despite outwardly appearing much younger than her actual age, Baida’a carries herself extremely gracefully, and has gone on Iraqi television explaining her and her brother’s plight. In order to survive, both will require bone marrow transplants—each of which runs to a staggering 150,000 JD (over $200,000).
Ala'a is living in a squalid, dark, and scarcely furnished basement apartment with her four children. She fled to Jordan in 2005 after her husband, a goldsmith, was murdered by militiamen who ambushed his car and stole all of his goods. Her youngest son was in the car at the time, and now suffers from severe PTSD as a result. Her other children are also showing signs of depression and behavioral problems, and she is in danger of having the electricity cut off since she has not been able to make her payments.
Ali and Enas came to Jordan in 2003 from Baghdad with their four young children due to the deteriorating security situation. Ali is an electrical engineer who hopes to market a product he made to cure skin ailments, but is unable to do so because of the restriction upon Iraqis working in Jordan. The family applied for resettlement shortly after reaching Jordan, but has so far heard nothing.
Ala'a came to Jordan in 2005 from Baghdad after her husband, an imam (spiritual community leader) and professor of the Arabic language, received a threatening letter from militia members due to his position teaching at a university. Herself a bank accountant in Iraq, she now stays home with their four children while her husband does part-time tutoring on a volunteer basis. One of their children is brain damaged from lack of oxygen during childbirth, and requires ongoing care.
Saleema is a kind-looking woman who has three daughters, aged 21, 12 and 9 months. Her oldest daughter has been bedridden with severe depression since the age of four or five, when she experienced extreme trauma due to the first Gulf War. She took me aside and asked me (through an interpreter) to try and talk to her daughter, but she had apparently run out of the house as soon as she heard visitors approaching.
Hassan is an extremely gentle-looking man who owned a bakery in Baghdad. He was threatened by militia who demanded $10,000 or else they would kill him or kidnap one of his young sons. The family fled to Jordan in 2005, leaving siblings behind in Iraq. He is applying for asylum, but so far has heard nothing.
Jehad is a schoolteacher from Basra whose now three year-old son, Mohammed--an adorable
child with a vivacious personality despite his illness--was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of
one in 2006. The entire family was able to immediately cross the border into Jordan, where
Mohammed began seeking treatment at the King Hussein Cancer Center. Now receiving
support from the Japan-Iraq Medical Network, they are unable to return to Iraq due to the poor
security situation and mounting medical bills. They are hoping to resettle in Canada, where
some former students of Jehad are now living--or any other country that will accept them.
Nahoko Takato with Baida’a and Hatm
Nahoko Takato with Baida’a and Hatm
While the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) does provide financial support to Iraqi refugees, this reaches only a handful of families since there are not nearly enough funds to go around. Several large non-governmental organizations operating in Amman also issue payments, primarily CARE International and CARITAS, although these come in the form of very limited funds for only a short period of time. Given these restrictions, smaller organizations with strong, on-the-ground networks, such as the CRP and the Iraqi Al Aoun (Iraqi Support Team)—which collects donations from wealthy Iraqis and distributes them to needy Iraqi refugee families—are left to pick up the slack.
“When Iraqis call up these larger organizations and ask for help, instead of doing it themselves, they just turn around and call me,” Maha commented to us dryly at one point during our stay.
At this point, Iraqi refugees truly have nowhere to go. Most of the people we met with declared that they wanted to get out of Jordan immediately and be resettled into a third country—the U.S., Australia, Sweden, or anywhere that would take them in. With Iraqi President Maliki under pressure from George W. Bush to assure the world that Iraq is on a path toward safety and normalcy, however—and with the Jordanian government also finding itself unable to accommodate the Iraqis in their midst——the refugees are finding that the powers-that-be are pushing them to return home. For most displaced Iraqis, however—with the reality of continuing violence in Iraq, combined with the lack of any real guarantees for their safety—this is an extremely fearful prospect indeed. Truly, every option facing them now seems fraught with nothing but uncertainty and instability.
“Iraqis do not receive any exemption from health fees since we are outside the official social security insurance system in Jordan,” said Bushra, a vivacious and tell-it-like-it-is woman working with the International Relief and Development (IRD) nongovernmental organization to connect vulnerable refugees with support services.
Amongst many Iraqis, in fact, the perception is that George W. Bush— in his zeal to prove that the situation in Iraq has improved—has pressured Maliki to usher the refugees back to Iraq, since their very existence represents an embarrassment in terms of his failed Iraqi strategy. “Now, after every visit that Maliki makes to Jordan, there is a new restriction placed upon Iraqis living here,” lamented Samar, one of the lucky few Iraqis with legal working status—although she shares the same grief as other Iraqis at being unable return home to visit her family members who have remained in Iraq.
One of our most memorable visits was to the home of Salah, one of the CPR’s neighborhood volunteer leaders. After accompanying us all day to the homes of the other refugee families in her area along with her small son, Taha, she brought us back to her home for a rest and afternoon tea. Slowly, her story unraveled: Sunnis living in a Shi’a neighborhood, her nephew was one of the countless young Iraqi men who was brutally tortured and murdered for no reason. Taha had also been targeted for kidnapping, but managed a lucky escape when his grandfather yanked him away from his would-be abductors.
Salah’s family applied to the UNHCR three years ago for overseas asylum, but has so far heard nothing. “Here in Jordan, how we can we be expected to provide a future for our children when we ourselves are living like prisoners? Our only hope is to be resettled elsewhere,” Salah told us, beginning to weep. “We might smile and appear to be happy, but inside we are torn apart.”
Article 9 and Conflict Regions
Experiencing the horror firsthand: The view from inside Iraq
Although the CRP also works with Iraqis displaced internally within their own country’s borders, the CRP’s work in Iraq was recently transferred to a well-known international humanitarian NGO (instead of the previously existing setup whereby individual case workers worked directly
In addition, despite the extreme hardships facing the Iraqis exiled in Jordan who are portrayed in this article, their circumstances on the whole are a step above those still inside Iraq’s borders—including those displaced in squalid refugee camps, as well as those who remain subjected to continuing violence and instability at home.
The following is an excerpt from an e-mail message sent this past May from Iraqi journalist and human rights activist Isam Rasheed to members of the Iraqi Hope Network on the occasion of the Global Article 9 peace conference:
I’m Isam Rasheed, an Iraqi journalist. I live in Baghdad, and I am in the middle of a horrible life under illegal occupation. I see the death, blood and bombs every day in my country, and I see the hopelessness in the eyes of my people. Day by day I lost the colors and my life became dark. It is like there is no light in the skyline—just a very dark future. I have been looking for any hope to take me and my nation from this chaos and save us with a peaceful life. And before I lost this hope I visited Japan and met many friends, which was a very important point in my life since my great Japanese friends gave me hope to survive. I learned from them that I don't have to despair at all.
We as Iraqi people are all suffering from this continuing war every day because of the occupation. And because I am in the middle of this suffering, I know very well the meaning of the word “war.” I do not want any nation to get involved in any war, and I wish and hope that all of our world will live in peace. There is no reason to make any war, and there is no result that can be gained from any war. We are human beings, not monsters made to fight one another. It is my wish for us to talk and understand each other, and to make love as our base.
I ask all of you, the Japanese people, to save Article 9 of the Japanese constitution in order to save Japan from any war and keep the country in peace forever. I wish I could be in Japan now to ask every Japanese to please save this article.
Three months after writing this message, he experienced two life-changing events in the same week: the joyful birth of his newborn son, which was followed just days later by a suicide bomb attack in his Baghdad neighborhood that killed many of his friends and neighbors (including a relative)—the aftermath of which he witnessed with his own eyes. Still, however, he continues to maintain a positive outlook, writing in another e-mail correspondence: “There is always hope… and so I will never give up.”
What You Can Do To Help
The destruction wrought upon the lives of the innocent and beautiful human beings portrayed in this article represent only a fraction of those Iraqis who have suffered similar tragedies. Despite the fact that U.S. policy and military action in Iraq bears a large responsibility for this suffering, however, the U.S. government has budgeted only 17 million USD for Iraqi refugees, as compared to 200 billion for military-related purposes. The U.S. government has also fallen fall short of its responsibility to take in Iraqi refugees, agreeing to accept only 12,000 in 2008—a mere drop in the bucket considering the total number of more than four million displaced Iraqis.
The Collateral Repair Project is presently seeking support In order to make a difference in the lives of Iraqi refugees. As described in this article, the CRP collects funds to help displaced Iraqis set up small home businesses that are in line with their particular skills and means. Individuals and families in need are profiled on the CRP website, and donors may specify which particular people and projects they wish to fund. All funds are collected and dispersed through the CRP’s fiscal sponsor, the International Humanities Center (a 501(c)(3) registered nonprofit organization).
In addition, the CRP is now collecting funds to build a Family Resource and Community Center in Amman, which will serve as a space for relief distribution, courses in English and computer skills training, a gallery and workspace for artists and handcrafters, a lending library, supervised play groups and structured events for children, counseling to improve coping skills for those suffering from depression and PTSD, social activities in a welcoming environment, and much more.
In order to raise the estimated $150,000 necessary to open the center, each of the 50 U.S. states is being asked to raise $3,000 toward this goal. The CRP is using the analogy of the American tradition of barn-building, whereby each state is being asked to recruit 300 people to purchase one symbolic nail each for $10 so that all 50 “boards” can be assembled in order to make the Center a reality.
“Hearing of the Iraqi peoples’ heartbreak breaks my own heart,“ says Sasha Crowe, who co-founded the CRP with partner Mary Madsen. “But it is also their spirits, which are still so strong despite being so badly battered, as well as their hospitality, warmth, and incredible courage, that keep me going and inspire me.”
For more information on these initiatives and how to donate, see the CRP’s website at www.collateralrepairproject.org.
(Originally published in Kyoto Journal magazine #72. June 2009)