Friday, January 30, 2009

Children Without Much Hope for a Future

We were invited to visit a family of 6 living in Al Joffa neighborhood of Amman – a very impoverished area with many Iraqis. They live in a simple 3 room house – living room, a bedroom shared by the entire family of 6, and a kitchen area. Before they moved in to this home, it was a barn housing livestock. Despite their poverty, they were very generously warm in their hospitality – like all other Iraqis I have met, sharing a lovely meal with us.

This family consists of Nadia, her daughter, Thukra. Thukra’s husband, Ali and their three children: Mustafa (age 15),

Sara (age 10)

and the youngest, Mohammed, age 4.

The eldest two children are from Thukra’s first marriage. The eldest, Mustafa, is a quiet boy, gentle and polite; a sparse, newly acquired mustache adorns his upper lip. Sara has a sweet roundmoon face, framed by thick wavy hair.

Thikra was married in Baghdad to a Palestinian who came to Iraq in 1989 from Egypt. They married in 1992. They divorced but he visited his children often. In 2003, Thukra’s husband disappeared and she worried that he had been executed by militia.
In June 2004, three masked men forced their way into Thukra’s home and threatened Thukra, hitting her, shoving her to the ground, and giving her two days to leave Baghdad or she and her children would be killed. Why? Because the two older children are considered “Palestinian” because of their father’s nationality, even though they were born in Iraq.

Even before the invasion, many Iraqis resented Palestinians because Saddam gave them many benefits that Iraqi citizens were deprived of. After the invasion, Palestinians in Iraq who previously had enjoyed the special protection and privileges under the sovereign government of Iraq, were harassed and persecuted by militias because, when the US invaded and rendered the police and military useless, the rule of law was destroyed. Resentments could be acted on with impunity. Gangs formed with many agendas. Palestinians and their offspring were only some of those targeted. To this day, Palestinians in Iraq are not safe.

After being threatened, Thukra took her family and stayed the night at the home of a neighbor. Early the next morning, she went to her aunt and uncle’s house. Thukra’s mother, Nadia, sent them money so that Thukra’s uncle could bribe an official to get passports quickly. They fled to Jordan within a few days.

On entering Jordan, Thukra was given a 3 month visa while her two children were only given transit visas for 72 hours (a transit visa allows one to enter a country for a short period of time on their way to go to another country) because they only had their documents showing their father was a Palestinian from Egypt. Even though the children had never lived in Egypt, they have a form of residency permit for Egypt because of their father’s status there. The reason they were given a transit visa instead of a temporary one is because Jordan does not make it easy for Palestinians to enter. Since the children have these Egyptian papers, they are expected to reside in Egypt.

Although Palestinians are 80% of the population of Jordan – or perhaps because they are the majority of the population of this resource and water-deprived country are Palestinian refugees – Jordan controls entry to those who may want to settle here and put more strain on its limited resources. Usually, Palestinians in transit are held at the border until they can complete their travels to the third country but, because these are minor children, accompanied by their Iraqi mother, they were allowed to enter with her. Technically, they have been in Jordan illegally beginning three days after their entry here.

Thukra and her family moved in with her mother, Nadia. Nadia – a registered nurse – came to Jordan in the 1990s on a 6 month visa because, at that time, Iraq was under the brutal sanctions that devastated its economy – along with killing over 500,000 of its children. Nadia worked as a private nurse in Jordan on her temporary visa in order to send money t o support her family left behind in Iraq.

Later, in 2006, Thukra found out that her husband had actually fled from the threats in Iraq back to Egypt because he had distant relatives there. It is assumed that he had not gotten in contact with her or the kids because he feared that his life would not be safe in Egypt either. Thukra was informed that he had died of a heart condition a short time after he arrived in Egypt. She then traveled to Egypt to obtain custody papers – granting her custody of her own children! Jordanian authorities insisted that first, before Thukra could have custody, any relative of her former husband should take custody. Luckily for Thukra, Mustafa and Sara, there were no living relatives in her ex-husband’s immediate family remaining in Egypt and she was granted custody.

In 2004, Thukra remarried an Iraqi man, Ali – a friend of her family from Baghdad. Ali received death threats because American service members visited the musical instrument shop he owned. He was also threatened, by sectarian militia, accused of being a “flute for Saddam” because he his father was the only news commentator to accompany Saddam on his trip to Mecca – meaning that Saddam trusted him very much. Also, in the lead-up to the US invasion, his reports had given the government’s slant. When he ignored these threats, he was gunned down one day as he crossed the road in front of his shop. Lucky for Ali, his assailant was a poor shot and he only received a bullet to his leg. He got the message loud and clear though. He rushed from Iraq, leaving the hospital before he’d recovered because it is common for militia to enter hospitals to finish off any botched jobs and assassinate victims helpless to escape while ill or injured.

Thukra and Ali now have a young son together, Mohammed.
life has not been easy for them. Of course, they have over-stayed their visas because they cannot return to the threats that remain in Iraq and because no other country will accept them. This has had even more devastating effect on Mustafa and Sara than on other Iraqi refugee children. Because of their paternal “nationality” they cannot get UNHCR registration for Mustafa and Sara – this prevents them from receiving the small monthly cash grant given by UNHCR for Iraqi refugees. And, even more devastating for this family, these two children are not allowed to attend school.
Thukra approached many schools – both public and private – begging that her children be allowed to attend. She has been denied by all but one private school. The headmaster, for a hefty fee that this family cannot afford, “does them the favor” of allowing the two kids to audit classes. They attend class like all other students, take tests, but are not given any record of their attendance or grades. Thukra scrapes these fees together, the family doing without, because she knows that without an education – even one that is unrecorded – they will have no future.

But, if they stay in Jordan, these two children will have no opportunities and be forced to live in the shadows more so than other Iraqi children. All Iraqi refugees without legal residency status cannot work legally. Those with formal education and skilled professions cannot work here. But, at least now Iraqi children are allowed to attend school and have recorded grades so that they will be prepared to continue their educations and to have careers if they are resettled in a third country or if Iraq becomes safe enough for an eventual return.

Mustafa and Sara’s futures are bleak – as Iraqis, their country will not accept them, as “Palestinians” in Jordan, they are not only non-residents here but they are also” non-persons” for no crime other than having a father of Palestinian descent. Their only hope for any kind of a future is if they are resettled in another country.

Only a very small percentage of Iraqis are selected to immigrate of the two and a half million displaced in Jordan, Syria and internally displaced inside Iraq. This family’s chances of resettlement are very slim.
Mustafa and Sara’s old passports from Iraq now have CANCELED stamped over their photos in it. It is hard for me to look into their bright eyes and to imagine that the light in them may eventually be dimmed as more and more doors slam shut in their faces, their right to full lives canceled at such a young age.