Wednesday, April 1, 2009

risks - and responsibilities

When I began this blog, I intended to create a post each night about the families we visited and brought assistance to that day so that you could experience, as I do, these families' stories and perhaps get an idea of the immensity of their struggles and suffering

I want to do this because I see how much more is needed and I know that you would be overwhelmingly compelled to do anything you could to alleviate their suffering if you could be here as I am, sitting in their simple homes, hearing over and over again, day after day their sorrows and fears. I wish I could share with you the palatable helplessness and hopelessness in nearly every home I visit. I wish I knew how to bring their tears to this page and their amazing and unfathomable forgiveness for those of us whose nation cause these tears. I get upset with myself because I just don't have the skill to make their pain real to you and I am frustrated that the long hours of our days and emotional exhaustion leave me little time or energy to write.

At times I am overwhelmed by knowing where to start and just which of the many, many ways Iraqis suffer and struggle here should take priority when I do have time to write. In every aspect of their lives and for Iraqis of every age, the challenges are myriad; their losses immeasurable. I start out stunned and outraged at one problem in the first home we visit in the morning and then, by the end of the day when I sit down to choose which family's challenges to share with you, of all their many and equally compelling challenges, I cannot decide which is the most critical.

Every aspect of Iraqi refugees' lives is a crisis and an emergency. Now I often sit on all of these stories for a few days, waiting to see which one nags most at me, demanding me to tell it.

One of these is the insecurity of living here without legal residency. I think of a family we recently took food assistance to. When we arrived, only the mother and youngest children were at home. She was anxious and explained that her husband and eldest son were at the police station, trying to convince them to give their passports back. They had fallen only one month behind on their rent and the landlord was angry and he called the police. The police came and took her husband and son to prison for two days. The landlord put them and their things out in the street. A friend found a new apartment for them and loaned the family money to pay the back- rent they owed at the first apartment. Even though the debt had been satisfied, the police took and would not return the family's passports unless they would get a Jordanian "sponsor".

Like most Iraqis here, this family does not have Jordanian friends who can provide sponsorship. This results in unscrupulous people offering their sponsorship for a "fee" that is usually beyond the Iraqis' ability to repay. Too often we meet Iraqis here who suffer threats and intimidation when they fall behind on paying off their "sponsors".

The woman we were visiting told us she was nervous, waiting for her son and husband to return from the police station. She knows her husband, because he is a man, is especially vulnerable to imprisonment or being forced to return to Iraq. "But", she told us, "if my son went alone, we do not know what they might do to him."

I consider going to the police station to intervene, in hope that perhaps a westerner's presence and interest might facilitate the return of the passports. I decide not to this after considering the high risk that my "interference" would only provide the authorities provocation to further harass this family after I leave Jordan .

Iraqis without residency are extremely vulnerable. They cannot count on justice in the same way citizens can. They cannot ever feel confident in their safety - only because they are Iraqi.

It is not uncommon that citizens and some police "toy with" Iraqis here, letting them know they are not welcome and that they are powerless. Police do random stops of Iraqis - especially men - in the streets. People are pulled in for questioning (which provokes terror of forced repatriation to Iraq) for no discernible reason. If there is a simple problem between neighbors - or even between children, if the police are called, Iraqis take all of the blame and suffer unreasonable consequences. Iraqi victims cannot report crimes against them because it is likely they will be persecuted while their perpetrators remain free. Even some Iraqi children suffer harassment and, in some cases, violence against them at school. If they report it to their teachers, they are punished. I hear them too often to discount the stories about some Jordanians who work in some large aid organizations and who belittle Iraqis or deny them assistance arbitrarily for no apparent reason. Risk - of being forced back to Iraq, of imprisonment, of assault, of emotional abuse - is a fact of life for most Iraqi refugees here, causing many to stay cooped up inside their homes.

This came up recently when Maha and I were discussing possible ways CRP could give Iraqi mothers a special day on Mothers Day. At first we considered renting a couple of buses to take the mothers and their families out of Amman to a beautiful location for a picnic and day of fun - something they rarely experience in their harsh lives. We knew this would provide a memorable occasion for them and temporary distraction from their troubles. But then we had to consider the risks of being stopped at checkpoints and what might happen when the guards found a bus full of undocumented Iraqis. We next considered a picnic at a local park so that families could find their own transportation. But even this was too risky; gatherings of Iraqis would cause unwanted attention. We then came up with the much more modest plan to deliver cakes, flowers and good wishes to them in their homes to avoid causing problems for them.

Last night, I walked home along the busy street on one side of the huge Sports City complex and park that has a football (soccer here) stadium. There were scores of police lining the street, armed with long clubs. I asked why and was told that a game was about to end and that jubilant fans might become unruly. I was also told that often, if Iraqi or Palestinian teams have won, the police randomly beat celebrants on their way out of the stadium. Since both are resented here, racism lays just beneath the surface and events like this give opportunity for that racism to go over the line into violence. My friend told me that they had even seen an elderly woman beaten on her head as she exited the stadium. With a sigh he continued, "Iraqis and Palestinians are not even allowed to celebrate their joys openly"

I struggle as I try to understand this.

The massive influx of Iraqis to Jordan put a huge strain on limited resources here. Rents skyrocketed as desperate Iraqis poured in, needing someplace to live. Poor Jordanians and Palestinians suddenly had to vie with Iraqis for the limited number of low-price rentals. Some landlords took advantage that Iraqis were willing to pay more than the usual rate just to have a roof over their heads and they would rent to Iraqis at prices residents were unable to afford. Low-wage labor positions at below standard wages were gratefully taken by Iraqis unable to legally work here and desperate to have any employment. Jordanian and Palestinian residents had to accept lower wages and worse working conditions than before along with more competition for these jobs. When residents began to suffer so greatly because of the Iraqis flooding into the country, is to be expected that this would result in resentment directed at those perceived to have caused the problem.

But I was startled when I found out that additional resentment directed at Iraqi refugees is explained and justified because many here blame Iraqis for 'allowing' the US to take out Saddam. He was respected by many here because he sympathized with Palestinians suffering under US-supported Israeli occupation of Palestine. Also, under Saddam, citizens of Arab countries could attend colleges and universities in Iraq without tuition - in fact, many were given stipends in addition to free tuition. Saddam also had the guts to stand up against US efforts to dictate oil prices and Iraq's oil wealth was used to provide its citizens with high standards of living. He was considered to be a champion of Arabs.

Although Jordan itself is considered to be a "friend" of the US, many residents here resent the US meddling in Arab affairs, theft of Arab resources, and the US support of Israel. By some inaccurate logic, many here perceive Iraqis' inability to stop the US invasion and destruction of the Saddam government as either a failure by Iraqis to protect their country or even that they cooperated in its destruction. It is hard for me to understand this rationale - how were Iraqis, citizens of a small nation who had been weakened by 12 torturous years of sanctions, supposed to stave off the world's superpower and its multi-trillion dollar military apparatus?

But, even considering the ways Iraqis are made to feel unwelcome here, I cannot fault Jordan for having the headache of having to deal with nearly a million refugees pouring over its borders from Iraq through no fault of its own. Along with Iraqis, Jordan and its residents are paying the price for US greed. Jordan cannot be expected to pick up the pieces and support those who had to flee from war. With limited natural resources - especially water, - unemployment rates that were already high before the invasion, and sensitive internal political and social concerns, this tiny nation should not have had to take on the additional burdens that resulted by the invasion of Iraq. Despite the imperfection in some of the ways it has dealt with this problem, Jordan is to be commended on its generosity in accepting so many Iraqis to seek safe haven here. The US, the cause of this exodus, by comparison has only admitted a small number of Iraqis inside of its borders.

It was entirely predictable that assimilating a rapid and immense influx of Iraqis would stress this country and its citizens. And it is also to be expected here, as it would in any country, that this would result in resentments and abuse of those who seemingly caused this distress. But Iraqis have been dealt a double whammy - unable to live in their own country, they cannot live freely here. They face death at home and humiliation and intimidation living in extreme poverty here.

Most of us have been taught since we were children that, when we break something, it is our responsibility to fix it or pay for it. The suffering of Iraqis and the great strain on Jordan and its citizens needs fixing - badly. The US, through its criminal folly in Iraq, is responsible to compensate Iraq, Iraqis, and Iraq's neighboring countries for generosity forcibly demanded of them by this situation. Until every Iraqi can return to a safe, functioning and independent Iraq, they - and those who shelter them - must be compensated


I go out each day here and witness the damage that's been done to Iraqis "in our name". I try to understand it so that we can find ways to repair some of it and the immensity of it is beyond what I can comprehend - even after being immersed in this issue and with the Iraqi refugee community for the past few years.

I sometimes feel discouraged when I see the damages as being too large for us to effectively relieve: we feed a few hundred families out of the tens of thousands of needy; we bring heat to a few frigid homes; another hundred-plus now earn incomes in the safety of their homes because of micro-projects. I see that what we do accomplish is vitally important for those we are able to help but not "enough" by any means because there are so many we cannot help and whose problems are bigger than our capability to address them.

But then there are times when I know that what we provide is sometimes not tangible but as important. I think about going as a guest to listen to a small group of Iraqi women tell a US doctoral student about what their lives are like here. I sat quietly at the table between the interpreter and a woman with a broad, sad face.

The women were asked if they felt integrated and welcome into society here. Their responses were spoken through tears by many of the women. The woman next to me broke down and put her head in her arms on the table, sobbing. I reached over and rubbed her back and handed her tissues. When she looked up into my own eyes wet with tears, I gestured my sorrow and sincere apology. She grabbed onto my hand and held it for the remainder of the discussion group. Afterward she said what so many other Iraqis have: "I know the people - the American people are good people and that they care. Thank you. Thank you"

I especially wish that I could share these experiences with you. At these times, I think that it evident that we are the recipients, we are the ones given what we need for our repair, to sooth our sorrow and guilt, to assure us we are still human.

I am amazed by Iraqis and have such tremendous respect for their capacity to forgive - to love - when they have every reason not to and when it must be so hard for them. We have much to learn from them about generosity!

But first we must risk opening our eyes to see what we have done and what we continue to allow to be done in our names. We must risk accepting that if we did, we would understand that our response to repair must be equal to this damage or we are not doing "enough"