Friday, March 20, 2009

Faces of Collateral Damage

Since the beginning of Collateral Repair Project, we felt that one of our most important obligations is to show the world the faces and stories of some of the real people whose lives have been devastated by the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. We liken ourselves to Google Earth - a program that allows you to zoom in from a view of the earth in space to see your own home, in your own neighborhood. We take the broad and removed term "collateral damage" and zoom in to the men, women and children who are discounted by that term.

Although each of their stories have similarities to the others: they have all lost nearly everything; they are all impoverished; all have lost loved ones; all fled their beloved country under very real threats of death; all are traumatized; almost all have no hope for the future - but still, each of these people and their story is as unique as any of ours. Their stories are important in that they reveal to us what is lost when one becomes "collateral damage"

My intention was to document each family's story as we visited them to deliver assistance but because of the demands of our long days in the community and a bout of the flu, I've fallen behind.

Below are some of the photos of some of the recipients of your compassion and generosity whose stories and challenges I have not had time to post here yet

Note: There are many others who have received assistance who did not want their photos taken because of security or other concerns.

love's light reaches far - March 12 09

Um Mohammed was one of CRP's very first micro-project recipients and, at the time, this family was in some of the worst conditions of any we had visited. Then two different donors reached out in compassion and friendship to this struggling family provided them with a heater, carpets, furniture, and a replacement for Um Mohammed's initial sewing machine that she had to sell in order to pay for a critically needed surgery when she had no other options.

I have seen a dramatic change in their outlooks as well as their living situation since the first time we met two years ago.

They no longer live in the small damp apartment with mold-blackened walls that was accessed by climbing down a very long stairway on the side of a steep hill. They recently moved to a different flat, in another area of Amman and although it is very low rent, it is bright and much larger and in a thriving neighborhood. But not all of the improvements in their situation are tangible.

On my visit to them before I left Amman in Jan 07, Um Mohammed was depressed and crying, telling us that she and her husband were seriously considering returning to Iraq because of their bad situation here. She wept, "If we only had the $2000 to pay the *fines, we would leave here now"
* most Iraqis in Jordan have overstayed their initial visas. There is a 1.5JD fine Per Person, Per Day for every day one stays beyond their visa. The total amount owed in fines must be paid to immigration before one is allowed to leave Jordan. For large families, this amount rapidly becomes formidable.

They hoped for resettlement to a third country and this past year, they were interviewed and then refused resettlement because, at their final interview for resettlement because Um Mohammed's husband, when asked what would happen to him if he returned to Iraq, had answered honestly; he told them, "I do not know" Of course he did not know for certain but it is very likely that the death threats that forced them to flee will not have gone away. We referred their case to Yale Law Group who has now filed an appeal on behalf of this family.

Also, our local community in southern Oregon wrote letters to IOM, offering to provide non-financial support to integrate the family into our community and new culture if they are allowed to resettle there. Um Mohammed and her family know that there are people a half world away who care about them and who are doing what they can to repair their lives. They know they are loved.

Every time I have seen Um and Abu Mohammed now, their smiles come easy and with a very upbeat attitude. They and their children have become "family" to us. They think of faraway people they have never met as family, too.

We brought gifts for the kids from "the people in America". Here's what your love looks like beamed back at you!

A boy's education held hostage - March 7 09

We delivered food assistance to Um Tariq's home and when we asked what their biggest challenge is, Um Tariq did not hesitate: her son, Tariq's education.

Tariq had been attending a private school where he had received partial support from an aid organization to pay the tuition. A very bright boy, he had high marks in all of his classes and enjoyed school tremendously. But this was his last year at this school as it was only for students through his grade level. He wanted to continue his education and attend the next level at a public school as his parents cannot afford to pay tuition.

When Um Tariq went to the school to get his transcripts to give to the public school, she was told that his records would not be released until past due tuition was paid. The 300JD ($420) amount was, for this impoverished family, beyond their ability to pay all at once. Um Tariq tried negotiating with the school, asking them to allow her to make payments and begging them to release her son's records so that he could continue attending school. They refused and told her she must go to the aid organization that helps with education for Iraqis and get the money from them.

She tried but her family had received the maximum amount per family already. When we visited, Tariq had been sitting home for months, feelingbored, frustrated and depressed. He had continued studying on his own but this would not satisfy requirements to rejoin his class level if he was able to get his transcripts to attend public school. He also had missed the important final exam and was preparing himself to take it - hoping he would somehow get the opportunity somehow. Maha admired Tariq's dedication to his education and said she would try to help.

Maha and I accompanied Um Tariq for another visit to Tariq's last school to see if there was a solution. Luckily, the headmaster was out for the day and we were directed to speak with one of Tariq's teachers instead. Um Tariq told us that this teacher had been the most sympathetic and supportive of Tariq so we were hopeful.

After an hour of Maha's gentle but persistent pursuasion, the teacher reluctantly relented and said that the school would release Tariq's records if a payment of 100JD was made. Maha paid this from money donated by wealthy Iraqi donors in Amman. But, when Um Tariq asked when she would receive the transcripts, the teacher suggested she return after the weekend "alone" to retrieve them. Maha, sensitive that the instruction for Um Tariq to return "alone" would likely mean that the records would not be released. Again Maha gently argued that this was not acceptable and made it clear we would not leave until we had the records in our hands that day. Five minutes later we left with them!

Iraqi donor funds paid for Tariq to take his missed final exam at another school so that he can be admitted to the public school soon. A small triumph that has life-long benefits for this boy.

Many Iraqi students find road blocks thrown up before them that resident students do not usually face. The Iraqi donor funds, Maha's pursuasive skills and determination, and probably the presence of an American interested in this case facilitated Tariq being able to complete his education. But many children and their parents are left on their own to contend with a system that sometimes discriminates against them solely because they are Iraqi.

I will be going to visit the head masters of two public schools soon to politely advocate for a couple of young students who are strongly considering leaving school altogether because the teaching staff are being abusive. It will be a test of my skills in diplomacy that I cannot allow myself to fail. You'll be able to read how effective I have been on this blog soon.