Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bitter Tea

It astounds me that we've been in Amman for two weeks. Time passes both slowly and quickly here; it's hard to track it. The days are measured in faces and stories, one after the other, all different but too much the same also. Every family we meet tells us of incredible loss and grief; that is consistent. Most fled Iraq under threat of death and many had family members killed to give credibility to the threats and most left suddenly, without the time to pack much or even say goodbye to friends. They brought out only what would fit into a hurriedly packed suitcase.

Now, grateful to be living without the threat of eminent violence, they live under another threat - of complete destitution. A recent report cited that an estimated 80% of Iraqis in Jordan have used up all of their savings. A small percentage of the neediest of the needy receive a small monthly cash grant but it is insufficient against the high cost of living in Jordan and inflation. People are worrying about paying the rent on their shabby and small apartments, buying food for their children and paying their school fees, and those whose family members have chronic or severe medical conditions are frantic to find care and medications for their loved ones. Every home we visit has compelling needs and they beg us to help.

Many want us to help them immigrate out to a third country where they can begin to rebuild their lives. Many of those we talk to had worked for the Occupation forces and contractors or with other US-associated organizations and cannot ever return to Iraq because they are targeted for collaborating with the occupier. One man who had worked as a translator for high ranking US officials when they were in Baghdad said to us "I worked for them for 3 years; I risked and lost everything. Now what do they do for me? I am forgotten." Before the occupation he had a successful career in Iraqi media and a comfortable life. Now he, his wife and their two very small children live in a cramped one-room hovel and rely on charity of neighbors for rent and food. They applied for asylum to the US a year ago but there's been no movement on their case.

Another man - the husband of one of the women your contributions provided with a sewing machine that we delivered this week - had worked as an intelligence officer under the former regime. Since Bremer's "de-Baathification", he and others who worked in any capacity under Saddam face death if they return. He begged us to help him get to the US. It was dificult to have to tell him that he would probably not pass the security scrutiney that US immigration requires, but we could not leave him with false hope. He then begged us for help immigrating to any other country saying, "I am in a cage here, a jail. My life is stopped and has no future." Even though we tell people that we have no influence in these matters, they beg us anyway. As westerners with 'means', we are assumed to have more power and influence than we do. It is heartbreaking to say again and again that we will think of them if we discover any way that we might be able to help. We are sincere but not hopeful that we can ever offer this help.

We have also been visited past recipients of CRP's micro-projects. It is tremendous to finally meet the people whose stories we've put on the web site and whose faces we had only known from their photos until now.

We visited the sisters, Nadia and Badyia, who received a home salon micro-project from us. We were a bit surprised when we entered their home as, compared to many others, it was spacious and comfortable although not afluent. We found out that this was a temporary residence for them. They'd recently moved out from the one room apartment that Badyia shared with Nadia, her husband and their 9 year old son. The couple and their son had slept on the floor in the one room while Badyia had her thin mat on the floor of the hallway. Now they are staying for two months in the home of a relative but they must leave again when he marries soon. They showed us what belonged to them -- four thin foam mats for sleeping, blankets, some clothes and an old tv. When they move again this will be what they are able to take with them. They do not know how they will be able to afford to move into another flat. The sisters have been making some money from the salon as they have recruited some neighbors in the area of their temporary home as customers. They offer reduced rates for their haircuts and make-up over what the local salons offer. Now, when they must move, they will lose this customer base that has been so hard for them to build.

Nadia's son, Sakhar (which means "rock" in Arabic) comes into the room quietly and snuggles up to his mother. She kisses him on the top of his head gently. Sakhar's fingers and toes are blue. He has dark circles under his eyes and he rarely lifts the corners of his mouth in smile.
Nadia tells us that he is her third child, the only surviving one - the last died in-utero, the second died when she was one and a half years old, and Sakhar has the same severe heart condition that the others died from. She shows us a photo-mug with images of her deceased daughter on it. She is a beautiful child with an engaging smile. Nadia would like to have more children but she fears that she will only lose them, too.

She is desperate for medical care for her son; she does not want to lose him. He was examined and had extensive testing a year ago. She was told that there are no surgeons in the Middle East that are capable of performing the surgery her son needs - the only one capable is a surgeon in San Francisco. He might as well be on the moon and, even if she could get a flight there as she has no money to pay for this. She does not know what to do. She does not beg us nor even ask. She just quietly tells us their situation as she cuddles this boy whose life is so fragile. She does not cry but her eyes are bright with unshed tears; she smiles and offers us tea.

We give her the money to get a current examination for Sakhar and we take his medical report of last year with us to give to a friend here who is good pals with an Iraqi cardiologist. They said that they "will see what we can do" but if anything, it will have to be a lesser operation than he needs and paid for by Iraqi and other donors in the region. The Iraqi and Arab communities are quietly doing what they can, contributing for food deliveries and pitching in to pay for what critically needed surgeries that they can. But the need is greater than the resources from those who have given so much already.

Iraq's medical care was the best in the region and on par with the best of Europe's before the deadly US-imposed sanctions and then the final destruction of it with the invasion and violence of the occupation. Medical treatment was free. Now families here watch as their loved ones die from preventible diseases only because of lack of funding and because they are stateless. We feel such responsibility and yet there is so little we can do. We all need to do whatever we possibly can to alleviate some of the suffering that has been caused in our names. We must continue to insist on an end to this occupation so that Iraq can begin to heal and rebuild - Iraqis beg us. This we can do.

Sakhar goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, a mirror propped in front of him and his paint set laid out. He painstakingly paints his own face - first the bottom half to look like an Iraqi flag, then he continues to paint until his face loosely resembles the Spiderman that was on the colouring book that we brought to him.

He paints on a mask of courage and super-human strength but he is just a dear little boy whose body is tired and who will leave his mother's arms empty soon if a solution is not found.
Sometimes we visit Iraqi homes for tea and conversation and leave with life and death in our hands.