Saturday, April 11, 2009

The "war" is not over

Shemiron's brother, Edward, meets us at the door and welcomes us in. His elderly mother, Zarifa, sits on the sofa, surrounded by the remains of their dinner and hurries to try to clear it when she realizes there are guests. She greets us warmly but silently then sits back on the sofa wearing a hat that reminds me of another era, seeming to retreat into some secret place of her own. Her 5 year old grandson, Philip, plays quietly as the grown-ups talk.

Shemiron limps into the room to meet us. Her right leg, from the knee down, is covered up by a stiff prosthetic leg. Her face is in a constant grimace of pain. Her eyes are the saddest eyes I have ever looked into and when I do, I feel myself falling into her grief and pain. Tears line her eyes like crystal eyeliner. Edward tells us that she cries often, especially in the night.

Shemira was an elementary school teacher in Baghdad for 24 years. She loved her work and sent money to help support the rest of her family who had already fled to Amman. She also cared for Zarifa - the two lived together.

But all of that ended last November when she stopped on the way home from the school to pick up some medicine for her mother and bread for their supper. She met her sister at the market and the two were hurrying to finish their shopping before curfew when a car bomb exploded, severing Shemira's right foot completely off, torturing the flesh on the back of her left leg and ending the hearing in one of her ears. Her sister escaped with only shrapnal wounds.

Edward exclaims "Al hamdilelah!" (Thanks to God!) as he tells me of their narrow escape from death and repeats the phrase many times during our conversation and the ferver in his expression seems like that of a man who has only just moments ago realized that the worst has not happened. Shemira, too, appears to still be in shock from the experience - that and losing her foot, her career, her home - her life as she knew it.

Two months after the explosion, Shemiron and her mother made the long trip from Baghdad to the Jordanian border and the two women, one very elderly, the other severely injured, were refused entry. They tried again ten days later and were successful on this second attempt.

Shemiron went into the kitchen to make tea for us and when it was ready, Edward insisted that she sit down while he brought us the cups from the kitchen. She bent to remove the prosthetic. Her foot is completely missing, the stump of her leg uneven and the scars appear still new. She shows us the back of her other leg - it is criss-crossed with scars and
buckled skin.

Edward brings in the tea and tells us that their sister in Baghdad - the one who was with Shemiron in the explosion - sent 300JD to buy the prosthetic leg. Before she got the prosthetic, she had to crawl to get around the house. Although 300JD is the usual cost of a good prosthesis here, the one she received has many problems - it is stiff, it has no ventilation so her foot is at risk for infection. Edward says she cannot keep it on for long - if she does, it gives off a bad odor. The foot on the prosthetic is longer than her remaining foot - the heel of her plastic "foot" hangs over the back of her shoe nearly 2 inches. Worst of all, it hurts her to use it. Every step she takes is tortured. They took the prosthetic back to the clinic where they purchased it and asked the doctor to adjust it. He made a small adjustment and when that did nothing to improve her comfort, told Shemiron that there was nothing else that can be done.

Edward and Shemiron's sister comes in the door, wearing an exhausted face. She is a doctor at the hospital across the road. As an Iraqi, she is paid only 300JD per month and she is supporting everyone in her family - including Philip's parents and their other three children - with this small amount.

She tells me that they hope to immigrate and have been offered resettlement in the US. They have heard how bad the situation is for Iraqis and that other doctors and highly professional people are working in hotels changing sheets or other menial jobs - if they find employment at all. She will refuse to resettle there if it is offered. The family contemplates whether they should accept resettlement to the US for Shemiron and her mother...perhaps it might be ok for them because neither can work and should be eligible for social security support. They do not want to be separated but what can they do? They cannot provide proper care for Shemiron and her mother there when they are struggling just to pay rent and put food on the table.

Edward tells me he came to Jordan in 2004 with his sister. He is an agricultural engineer and was working on a small farm. He told me that machine gun toting militia came into his work, grabbed him by his collar and threw him out on the road, warning him, "If we see you again, we will kill you." He never returned again to work and a month later, he fled.

For those of you, so far away from Iraq and sheltered from the truth of the ongoing violence, it may be easy to think that the 'war' is over and believe the official statements that "things are getting better". They are - insofar as violence is down from what it was two and three years ago - but it is certainly grossly higher than it was before the US-led invasion. Every day, more families like Shemiron's grieve new losses and those who can flee, hoping to find a safe haven from the daily risk that they might be 'next'. The living - those who survive - are accompanied by relentless ghosts of horror, trauma, loss, displacement, fatigue, and unimagineable insecurity that haunt their days and will not allow them peaceful dreams if they can dare to dream at all. The "war" is not over.