Friday, September 26, 2008

Hard Wind in Amman

Nights in Amman are usually still; the heat of day lingering long enough that I use my fan to stir the air. But tonight a forceful wind intermittently moans and then whispers malevolently, rattling the summer parched fronds of the two palms outside of my windows. I slide the windows shut to keep out the inevitable desert dust but I cannot shut them tight enough to block out this distressful dirge. It seems an apt sound-track for my thoughts as I try to put them in order so I can share them with you.

I do not know where to begin - which family's story is the most compelling. Every day that Manal and I go out to visit several families, I come home with a head full of tragic stories and my heart aching. There isn't a home we visit that doesn't have a heap of needs - many of them at crisis point.

Most families that have been receiving a monthly cash grant are reporting that they have not received their grants for the past two months. They have not been told why and, when they ask when they can expect to receive them, they are told to wait, do not call, they will receive a message when their grants are available. These small grants are the only income for most; it pays their rent and puts food on the table. Most do not have savings or other means of taking care of these vital needs. Some are borrowing from friends and neighbors. But loans are piling up quickly and, unless the grants are released soon and include back months, these families will be destitute, with large personal debts that will not be able to repay.

As it is Ramadan, the usual Muslim generosity to those who are in need increases dramatically. Our Amman Team leader, Maha spends her evenings - until late hours, distributing food boxes to hundreds of families from her home. These are made available through donations from the Arab community. For many, this is the only thing that is putting food on Iraqi tables now. I wonder what will happen when Ramadan and Eid (the celebration at the end of Ramadan) ends if the cash grants do not arrive. I know I will find out when people come to us to help.

This week we spent a few hours with a past recipient of a micro-project. I will not share their names with you because of security concerns for this family if they are identified. I will call them "Abu and Um H" and tell you of their current situation because, of all of those we have visited recently, their needs are weighing most heavily on me tonight.

This is a young couple with two small children, the youngest born 3 months premature and with a plethora of physical challenges. She seems to be improving and now, at age 2, she is finally uttering her first words. The parents attribute this to the powered milk containing vitamin supplements she's been drinking for the past few months - in fact, she is refusing all other food and only wants the milk. At the hefty price of 12JD (nearly $20) a bag, they are not sure how they will continue to get it for her.

The couple is expecting another child in February. When I asked if Um H was pregnant, she nodded affirmation then rushed to inform me, "It was an accident!" Their circumstances are precarious. This is no time to welcome another child into their lives when they are worrying about how to care for their others.

This is the first family I have met that followed the Jordanian government's mandate to register and, as incentive, to pay only half of their fines for overstaying their visa. My concerns about the possible repercussions Iraqis who registered might face were validated when they told us of their experience.

(read about this mandate HERE - scroll down to about mid-page )

This mandate was annojunced when they were in better circumstances; Abu H was working under the table at a local shop, being paid substandard wages for long hours but, with their small cash grant, the extra income allowed them to move out of a nearby grim apartment into a larger one on a fenced roof-top where the children could go outside and play. The couple was able to set aside a small savings by being frugal.

Wanting to honor the law and hoping to gain at least temporary legal status, Abu H paid the fine and was given a three month visa. He was told to return at the end of this period to pay any accrued fees and re-register. He did and was then given another visa - this one valid for only two months. When he then returned to renew it, this time he was given a visa valid for only one month - and a printed form that stated at that, at the end of that month, the family must return to Iraq!

This month is well over now and they cannot return to their country. It would be suicide. Now they are in violation of the mandate. If they stopped in a routine check or even injured in an accident and their passports are examined, they will be deported immediately. If Abu H is caught alone, he will be returned to Iraq, leaving his family alone to fend for themselves. Every venture outside of their home is accompanied by ruthless anxiety.

An informant told Jordanian security about his illegal work and his workplace was raided twice in an effort to catch him. He escaped out a side door both times but, because employers caught hiring undocumented workers are heavily fined, he was told not to return after the second raid.

About this time the family's monthly cash grant was reduced significantly (no reason given). And, as with many others, has not arrived at all this month.

Now their landlord has told them that they must move at the beginning of October; a relative is marrying and wants the apartment. Their few belongings are in boxes, lining one wall, ready to be moved. The problem is, they have nowhere to move to. There is no money coming in and what they had is diminishing rapidly by buying food and their daughter's milk.

Abu H scours the rental section of the paper, almost obsessively. His two very young daughters, hearing their father talk about newspaper, brought some to Manal and me and laid them on our laps as if they are precious gifts. The children are too young to understand why but they already understand that these papers somehow hold the key to something vitally important.

Abu H becomes animated, leafing through the pages of the paper, showing us page after page of rentals and the price of even single rooms with no kitchen facilities are beyond their means. He tells us that he found one apartment with low rent but, when he met with the owner to sign the agreement, his distinctive Iraqi accent was the deal-breaker; the rent suddenly shot up astronomically. This is not unusual; unscrupulous landlords have taken advantage of Iraqis desperation and know they will pay whatever they can to gain the security of a place to live. Since the massive influx of Iraqis to Jordan, rental prices overall have shot up dramatically.

So now, with four days until they must vacate their apartment and, as of yet, no place for them to move to, they are frantic. This stress is worsening Abu H's condition. He suffers from acute depression.

He showed us his psychological evaluation. It states, in part: "the patient suffers from low mood...anger for the past six months...excessive nervousness...loss of interest in all life events...insomnia... despair...night terrors...loss of appetite...sad..feelings of worthlessness.."

He is not alone. After enduring the terrors of Iraq, the loss of everything they owned, living in the shadows fearing being sent back, unable to support their families - depression is common in Iraqi men.

CRP provided this family with the equipment to cook kubba so that they could sell it for extra income. The intent of our visit was to check in to assess how well their micro-project was working for them.

As Abu H pulled neatly packaged bags of the frozen product from their freezer to show us, he told us that they have not been able to sell it - local restaurants and shops want inspected goods; the neighbors in their area are not friendly to Iraqis. Now, with the added fear of deportation, they are reluctant to approach anyone in an effort to market it.

We suggest that it might be easier for them to sell their product and that they might also feel more secure if they move into an area of Amman that is heavily populated with other Iraqis. They will blend in better and be in a more supportive community. Several other families who received the same micro-project are doing well, selling to their neighbors and even local shops.

But this advice seems absurd given their situation. If only it was just choosing a better location! If only.

I leave sad and frustrated. This family has approached all of the major NGOs with their story and pleas for help. Several have told them they cannot help. Some others told them that they would "look into it and get back to you." None have. And now we've sat in their living room for hours, played with their children and listened as they opened themselves to us to tell us of their plight, hoping that we might help them - and there is nothing CRP can do either.

With the focus in the US on the elections and the economy, donations to our projects has slowed to a trickle. We are trying to adjust, to compensate by restructuring and downsizing CRP in hope that we can continue to provide assistance to Iraqis here, if in a reduced capacity.

I hand Abu H a ten JD note, telling him it is for "bus money, to look for an apartment." We tell them that they can get a box of food rations through Maha. It is all we can offer. I know it is too little.

So tonight I listen to the storm blowing outside from the security of this room with many windows. The night is a dark curtain behind them but I know the morning will open them with its light and bring renewed calm. There are many others in this city tonight who will waken tomorrow to a day as dark as this night. And we cannot help them.