Yesterday we climbed 54 steep steps to visit Fatima in her small roof-top flat that overlooks a busy shopping street on one of Amman's seven famous hills (jabals). Fatima's face tells two stories; one is that of a young woman in her thirties, the other of heartache that keeps her eyes on the verge of tears even when she smiles.
Fatima's was one of six households we visited in the last two days and, although each family's story was wrenching, each of the others have hope that their circumstances will improve and that a better life will be possible again. We could offer temporary assistance to them with micro-projects; they could look forward to eventually being accepted for immigration to a third country or imagine a future when a truly stable Iraq will welcome them home. Fatima's sorrows will not be that easy to sooth.
Fatima welcomed us into her dreary apartment and then ran downstairs to bring us cans of cold soda with typical Iraqi hospitality. She could not bring them cold from her refridgerator as it does not work and her landlord ignores her pleas to repair it. He knows that, as an Iraqi without legal residency, she cannot complain and has no legal recourse. He charges her an exhorbenant rent and made her pay a year in advance so now she cannot afford to move. The apartment came "furnished" with a few pieces of shabby furniture. Despite its dreariness, Fatima keeps a tidy house.
When she returned, she told us her story:
She has only one child - a daughter, Haneen, who is almost 16. Fatima is married but is assumed to be a widow. In 2006 Fatima's husband went out to get gas for their car and never returned. Fatima searched the hospitals, jails and morgues but it was as if he had disappeared. He was never heard from again and is assumed dead. Soon after her father's disappearance, then 14 year old Haneem began to have fainting spells. Her mother and doctors attributed this to the trauma of losing her father. But when her neck became severely swollen and the fainting spells increased in frequency, Fatima took her to a hospital in Baghdad for tests and had one tumor removed from her neck. Tests on it came back negative. Then the symptoms increased in severity and she had another series of tests at another hospital and was told that there had been an error made with the first tests and that Haneem has cancer. The doctors told Fatima that she must get Haneem out of the country for treatment as Iraq's hospital system is in shambles, incapable of providing adequate care. Terrified for her daughter, Fatima spirited her out of Iraq and within 2 days, they were in Amman.
Haneem was diagnosed in Amman with Hodgekins lymphoma.
Haneem was not there when we visited but she smiled widely from the studio
portrait that sits on top of their old television set.
She is recovering from her last 9 week round of chemo-therapy and too weak to climb the stairs to their apartment so she is staying temporarily with relatives in another part of Jordan. Fatima seems lost without her. We wonder if she will ever be able to return home as it is not only weakness that keeps her from reaching their home but her bones, brittle from long-term cordizone treatment and they break under moderate stress. Also one of her knees is swollen to over twice its normal size. We do not ask about this as sometimes there is already so much pain in what is told that it is kinder to leave some things unasked.
Before leaving Iraq, Fatima had collected thousands of dollars from friends and relatives for Haneem's care but the past year of treatments, tests and medications have exhausted these funds; there is nothing left; her former benefactors tell her that they have no more money to give her. There is no free cancer care for non-resident Iraqis in Jordan except for through the King Hussein Cancer Foundation's Iraqi Goodwill Fund. This fund is inadequate to cover but a few patients at a time and according to the information on their web site, there's a waiting list.
It is almost impossible for me to comprehend this -- that children are allowed to die because their parents have no money and they lack a piece of paper. The costs are astronomical - Haneem's past surgeries have left Fatima with a bill of over 30,000 Jordanian dinar ($43,000) She needs a battery of tests in a couple of weeks to assess the effectiveness of this last round of chemotherapy which will cost over 3000 JD; the monthly cost of her medications are over $1000. The chemotherapy alone is over $1000 per 9 week run of treatment.
We have no answers for her.
Haneem is despondant. Fatima said that her daughter has threatened to return to Iraq if they are not granted asylum within 2 months. She told her mother that then she could, at least, die "at home".
We know Fatima had hoped we would be able to offer her a solution. It feels ridiculous to be approached with a life and death dilemna and to respond with an offer of a micro-project. It is infuriating to know that saving her child's life is possible but that it is beyond our means.
I could not help but think of the trillions of dollars that are poured into the destruction of Iraq while children are dying from lack of medical care and families live in desititution. I cannot find the words to express my feelings. All I know is that this is, on a very basic and simple level, terribly terribly wrong.
We sat together and wept together, the five of us - not as "Iraqis" and "Americans" - but as five women who understand that every child is a precious gift to be cherished and protected. Our grief was not for just this one child whose life has a cost too high for us to pay, but for all of the children who are being sacrificed for the profit of a very few.
Fatima has decided that she would like to have salon supplies so that she can visit women in their homes to provide them with beauty treatments as she cannot expect them to climb to the top of her building.
We leave drained and promise to "do what we can". It feels like an empty promise and we are caught in the dilemna of whether offering her a thread of
hope is a kindness or cruelty. Is false hope better than no hope at all?
We will soon have nine other stories on our web site of Iraqi refugees that need micro-projects, including Fatima's.
in peace & action,