Saturday, January 31, 2009

If they can't afford water, how can they pay for prescriptions?

Maha and I will begin distributing food packages to families in February. But today, on the last day of January, we are waiting for a man to call us with price estimates for him to put together ration packages of staple foods at a better price than we can get at the marketplace. So, today, I accompanied Maha to visit Muna who requested assistance in paying for prescription medications for the 9 year old daughter, Noura. Maha, in addition to coordinating CRP projects also collects funds from wealthy Iraqi donors in Amman and uses these funds to pay for medical treatments and prescriptions.

Muna is divorced and of her three children, only Noura lives with her. Her two other children – a son and a daughter – live with her ex-husband in Iraq. Muna also is responsible for three of her nieces and nephews who are orphaned. Muna’s nieces and nephew’s father was a policeman in Iraq and killed by a suicide bombing. The children’s mother was traveling between Najaf and Karballa and disappeared. Nothing has been heard from her since and she is assumed dead One of her nieces is divorced and has two small children. Her husband returned to Iraq six months ago because he wanted to work to support his family and found it impossible in Jordan. There has been no word of him since he left.

Nine year old Noura shows us the scars from her last surgery. Her first surgery was paid for by an large aid organization; the second was partially paid for by another organization but Muna had to spend all of the funds she received from the family’s UNHCR monthly cash grant to pay the remainder of the cost. She has no more money.

Noura has a mass of benign tumors throughout her body. Her liver is also compromised. She retains excess liquid in her abdomen. This much we could discern from her mother’s explanation and from pouring over the pile of lab reports and test results Muna brought to us. Much of it is in “medicaleese” and we shake our heads, trying to make sense of it all. All we know if that if she does not get these medications she is liable to get a post operative infection and one of the medications prescribed will help diffuse the fluid build-up which makes it difficult for Noura to sleep at night when it makes it hard for her to breathe.

The living room area we sit in has foam mats lining the walls for furniture. Muna explains that the only other assistance she has received from any organization are these mats; a neighbor provided them with the carpet. The room is clean and attractive because Muna keeps it orderly. Her niece, Ausus, brings in a tray of tea for us to share.

After our tea, we prepare to leave to go to the pharmacy with Muna to buy the prescriptions. First Muna shows us the rest of their apartment. The rooms are large and the cement walls and floor hold the winter chill. We see the one bedroom that Noura, her three cousins and two second cousins share. Then we take a look at the kitchen. One wall is covered with black mold from the dampness. There is no table, only a rickety counter with a sink and very few dishes. The walls lined with plastic containers of various sizes that hold water. Muna tells us that they only get water one day a week and fill the containers on that day for use for the rest of the week. If they run out, they beg water from neighbors to fill the containers.

Water to homes in Jordan is delivered by tank truck to tanks on the rooftops. The expense of getting a tank filled is more than many families can afford. The 15 Jordan Dinars (approximately $21) it costs to fill the tank is beyond Muna’s budget. Water for bathing is scarce and this is another compelling reason to purchase the antibiotics for Noura.

As we walk the narrow streets to the main road to get to the pharmacy, a horse-drawn wagon filled with fuel oil for space heaters passes us. I pull out my camera and the driver obligingly stops for me to take a few photos.

Amman is a city of contrasts; in many ways it is modern and cosmopolitan; but then, nestled on a vacant lot between modern buildings, it is not uncommon to find a few Bedouin tents and a small flock of sheep and perhaps a donkey or horse, too. In this city of merging populations and rapid modernization, the old exists alongside the new in surprising compatibility. Although Amman does not have the beauty of Damascus or Istanbul, it has its charm. But it is unwelcoming and cold for those forced to live here as non-persons and in deep poverty.

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".

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.