Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Between Then and Now

Dear Supporters

Our apologies for the long lag between our last post and now. CRP co-director, Mary, who was here in Amman with me, had to return to the US suddenly because of illness in her family. We only had a short while to try to accomplish as much as we could while she was still in Amman, waiting for a flight home. We spent our time "doing" rather than writing about it. I'll try to recap our activities for the past couple of weeks.

We began visiting other NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) that are providing assistance to Iraqis in Jordan. We hope to find out what services and assistance are available to Iraqis here so that we can refer people to them that need the services they offer and we also want to built mutually supportive relationships between CRP and others within the NGO community.
We traveled to Damascus, Syria, to meet with an international NGO there to discuss whether CRP would invest donor funds in one of their projects that provide relief and assistance to some of the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled to this small country. We were impressed with a project that they are developing to create a sewing training center for women. It will provide 3 months of intensive training in a training facility for 25 women per 3 month session. The facility would change locations throughout Damascus to ensure that women in every district would have this opportunity and to avoid them having to pay for transportation to the center, an expense most cannot afford.

During this session, the women would be doing production sewing for a Syrian school uniform company (many public school students in Syria wear uniforms) and paid for their work. As in Jordan, Iraqis without legal residency in Syria cannot be legally employed so, unfortunately, once the training session ends, the women would no longer be able to make an income from sewing uniforms. However, the NGO will have held pack a percentage of their wages to give to the women upon completing their training, enabling them to purchase a home sewing machine if they choose so that they can do an informal business in thier homes (similar to our sewing micro-projects in Amman) to earn a small living sewing for neighbors. They will also be able to sew clothing for their families.

We were able to meet several Iraqi women who came to the offices of this NGO and asked them about their situations and how they felt about this opportunity. Most were very interested and felt it would improve their lives - both by providing training in a skill that they could use to contribute financially toward their family's needs and by filling their time productively. Without work, their days are spent caring for their families and with too much time to spend dwelling on the dangers they survived while in Iraq and their current unstability in their host country.

We feel this is a valuable project and compliments our work in Amman in that it provides income to families who have greater needs than they have resources and we were seriously consider sponsoring part of this project as a means of contributing your donations to expand CRP's work to Syria.
Then Mary and I went to the area of Damascus near the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, an impoverished area where the majority of Syria's Iraqi refugees live.
The lovely golden, onion-shaped dome of this famous mosque glistened in the late day sunlight and the souk across the street from it was thronged with pilgrims and shoppers. We wandered into the souk and immediately a young boy of perhaps ten, grabbed onto my hand, making it clear that he wanted money.

I usually do not give money when there are throngs of people begging because when I have, there is never enough for everyone who asks. Also, it is impossible to know if a child begging is actually working under an exploitative adult who confiscates what the child can bring in. He persisted, refusing to let go of my arm, begging me with tears in his eyes, kissing my arm over and over again. I was terribly sad to refuse him.

Later, we stopped at a shwarma kiosk to buy a sandwich. Immediately, two children ran up to us and made it clear that they were not asking for money but wanted food. I ordered two more sandwiches but, by the time I had placed the order, more children arrived. And then more. We had very little money with us and ordered as many sandwiches as we could and still have bus fare back to our hotel across town. It was not enough to feed all of the children who gathered around us. Some were crying when we tried to explain there was no more money. Others just kept asking and pulling on our arms. A merchant from an adjacent shop came out and began beating on the kids with a stick. It seemed he did not like this ragged gathering in front of his shop's doorway, possibly impeding customers from wanting to come near. This didn't phase the kids and they stayed near us, either waiting for their sandwiches, crying because they were left out, or pulling on our arms to convince us to feed them, too.

I have a problem with low blood sugar and had not eaten for several hours and was getting shakey so I kept the last sandwich for myself. I took it and began eating it as we walked away from the kiosk. One little girl about 5 years old kept trying to reach up and take my sandwich from my hand as I ate it. Other than providing the nourishment my body was demanding, the sandwich was giving me no pleasure. How can one eat when a child is so driven by hunger that they will beg like this? I gave her my hald-eaten sandwich and she scampered off.

This scene has stayed with me since. Even in Baghdad under sanctions, before the invasion, the children didn't beg with such determination and urgency. Children should never have to beg to be fed. It is another of the unseen (to most) crimes of this illegal war that these kids are so far from their homes, without the care of parents who have the right to have the ability to work to feed their families.

So, although the sewing training project is admirable and worthy, we think that you'll agree with us that your donations should go first to feed the hungry in Damascus. We are researching to find out if there are already any organizations providing prepared free meals that we can contribute to and, if not, if we can encourage one of the existing NGOs to provide this with some support from CRP. I am returning to Damascus in October and hopefully will be able to report back to you that we have been successful in finding a way to help to feed these children through your help.