Saturday, January 31, 2009

I just want to go home...

Last evening, after spending the afternoon with a large group of Iraqi friends at a picnic, Maha and I accompanied one of the families to look at some empty apartments. I have just rented a flat and had looked at these apartments while on my own quest for a home here.

Right now, this large family - mother, two adult sons, one of the son's wife and their children - two year old twins and a ten month old - are living in a small, two bedroom flat in a slum area of Amman. The married son, his wife and children all sleep, piled on top of one another in one room. As the children are growing, they have outgrown the apartment. They are desperate for a bigger space.

This family is luckier than many others here; two of the adults work as "paid volunteers" for a relief agency so their income, although substandard and insufficient to meet the families needs, is larger than the majority of Iraqis here who must rely on the excruciatingly small income provided by UNHCR's monthly grants. Their current rent is a little over $200 per month and they have determined that they can spend up to $300 for a larger place. They need at least one more bedroom or perhaps two small flats close to each other in the same building.

I stay in the car with the young wife and the sleeping babies while her husband, mother-in-law and brother-in-law go into the building to see the flats. While we wait, we talk in quiet tones so as to not wake the babies.

"Haleema" asks me about the flats: How many rooms? What size? Is there a garden (yard) or balcony so that the children can play outside? All of my answers are negative - the flats I looked at each have one bedroom and the rooms are small. They do not have balconies and there are no gardens. They are better off, for now, in the flat they are in.

Her disappointment is palatable. She is always exhausted from running after the twins, caring for the youngest, cooking and cleaning. These few moments we have to talk with one another are a rarity, only made possible because the children are miraculously all asleep at the same time.

She looks wistful and asks me "You have been to Baghdad?" I nod, "Yes - before the war". Haleema reminds me. "The houses all have gardens - every one! At my parents house, we had a big garden I would play in. When I married and moved in with my husband's family, we shared their big house. My husband and I had the entire upper floor and I could go into the garden any time. Now...", she hesitates, "Now you see how it is. My children have no place to play...I just want to go home." Her voice caught as she finished,"Please God, I just want to go home".

Many, many of the Iraqi refugees in Amman were the former middle class of Iraq. Well educated, with successful professional careers. Although sanctions devastated Iraq's economy and wages were pitifully low compared to pre-sanctions, they lived relatively well. Many had lived fairly opulently before sanctions and they kept their homes and possessions through sanctions. Although times were hard, they were surrounded by the promise of a better future that their past reminded them of.

Now, destitute in Jordan, most having lost their homes and possessions in Iraq when they fled, without the ability to work legally, they do not know how to cope. It is not that they do not try - they do; they have learned to rely on handouts for survival. They live in substandard housing and their diets are limited and marginally nutritious. But they are easily devastated by an unexpected expense - such as a medical crisis or even the high cost of a winter utility bill. In this they are no different than those who have always been impoverished. But there is a difference.

Those who have always lived in poverty have honed skills and relationships that help them to cope and survive. They tend to live in parts of the city that have a high concentration of the chronically poor. They have a strong support base of others and it is common that people of the community share resources. Aid organizations tend to locate in these areas, making access to them easier. News of new assistance projects and relief programs travels quickly through the community grapevine.

But for those unaccustomed to destitution, coping can be more of a challenge. They tend to live in isolation from others in their situation. They are not practiced in seeking out or even knowing what assistance programs exist. They find it hard to ask for charity - especially when many of them had generously given to charities themselves when they were in better circumstances. They have to learn how to shop in areas of the city that they are not familiar with. And sometimes we have heard that families applying for assistance have been denied; they are told they are "dressed too nicely" so they must not be needy when they wear the clothing they brought with them when they fled Iraq. In many ways, the former middle class of Iraq now suffer from their destitution more than the habitually impoverished.

But for all Iraqis, life in Jordan is hard and, in addition to the struggle to put food on the table or to pay rent, there are the other losses:a room big enough for everyone, a garden for the children to play in...a place that is truly "home".