Friday, April 3, 2009

Orphan Day 2009

The Middle East designated the first Friday in April as "Orphan Day" when special attention is paid to children who have lost one or both parents. We set out early to brighten the day for a few of Iraq's orphans here in Amman.

First we went to the toy shop at our local mall and had a small shopping spree - snazzy remote-control cars for the boys, dolls for most of the girls, beading kit for an older girl, and toddler toys for the youngest. The friendly shop keeper wrapped them all in bright metallic paper while Maha put the names on the tags...

...We called our favorite taxi driver, Khalid, and set off to deliver the gifts to four families whose children had all lost their fathers.

We had not met these families yet but they had been recommended by social work volunteers from another NGO as being "needy" so we were a little surprised when we entered the building where the first family lives - it was quite beautiful - certainly much nicer than the types of dwellings most Iraqi families live in.

We brought gifts for three brothers: Taher - 13, Ali - 9, and Hussein - 5. Their mother, Eman, met us at the door and invited us in graciously. I was immediately struck by how humbly dignified she was - and how deeply sad she looked.

Eman and her husband were from different sects - as was very common before the US invasion and it was basically "not an issue". But afterwards, as neighborhoods and districts began dividing by sect, their neighborhood became Shia-dominated and her husband began receiving threats after one of their neighbors told the militia he was Sunna.

They first came to Jordan in 2006 and only stayed for 6 months before going to Syria to get medical treatment for Hussein who has a blood disease. They were in Syria only one month when her husband returned to Baghdad to try to sell the shop he owned there. He never returned. Militia shot him multiple times in the head.

The family returned to Baghdad because the hospital would not turn over his body unless she herself came to get it. The militia had taken over her husband's shop and their home. They lost everything. Tahir, only 10 years old at the time, became the target of threats. He received a note wrapped around a bullet - the message was clear. His life was in danger.

Eman moved her family from area to area of Iraq for awhile, back to Syria, again to Baghdad and then to Jordan a year ago when they were finally granted visas . The eldest boy, Tahir said that it's been very difficult for him to get his education while living on-the-run but he told us that he studies extra hard and his grades are good.

Eman told us that they receive no assistance from UNHCR or NGOs; Collateral Repair Project is the only organization that has offered them anything. Tears well up in her eyes as she tells us they rely on charity to survive. The nice apartment belongs to one of her husband's business colleagues and he lets them stay there rent free. Family in Iraq helps sometimes by sending money. One of her husband's brothers pays for the kids school fees. They had been a wealthy family before the invasion. Eman has a difficult time accepting charity from even her family but must to survive.

I ask Tahir what he remembers about Iraq. With amazing calm he told me:
"I was in school, in my classroom and we heard the sound of planes. There was huge sound and they dropped a missle on our school. All I saw was blood and more blood and all of us were crying. The missle killed all of the kids in the classroom where it directly hit. All I got was shrapnel in my legs" He says he has 'bad' dreams sometimes.

Hussein wants to return to Iraq and always asks his mom, "When can we go back to our house in Baghdad?"

Eman tells us she found the boys playing in their bedroom the other day, one with his head wrapped like a militia member, another with a toy gun, and the other with his eyes blindfolded and his hands tied together.

She tells us that they received an offer to resettle to the US but she refused it. She said she cannot go there - knowing no-one - especially since her health is bad. She has a blood clot in her brain and the doctor told her that if there is a second one, she will likely die. She cannot work and needs medical care. Eman knows she will not get support she needs in the US.

Although these kids escaped the violence of Iraq, their loss and the horrors of war will follow them wherever they go.

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"

Honoring the strength, selflessness and courage of Iraqi mothers

March 21rst is Mothers Day in the Middle East. Maha and I delivered special cakes and potted flowers to Iraqi refugee mothers on their special day.

Many of the mothers we honored have lost children and husbands because of the US-led invasion. All are trying to care for their children under the most daunting circumstances. They struggle every day to provide adequate food and shelter for their kids. They fight to provide their children with education. They comfort children who have been traumatized by war. Many of their husbands are despondent without the ability to work to support their families and these wives endure much and they do their best to support and respect their partners during these difficult times. They nurture their families despite being traumatized themselves and the incredible challenges each day presents to them.

To make their day special, we honored them with cakes that they could never consider being able to afford and that they could share, as they share themselves so unselfishly, with their families. We brought them growing flowers as symbols of the beauty of their effort to nurture the lives that came through them. When we could, we gave the children the gifts to take into their homes to present to their mothers, resulting in many delighted smiles and kisses!

And with each delivery, we told these remarkable women that "Amrikan" and others of many nations give these gifts -

"with our love and respect for the courage, selflessness and strength
of Iraqi mothers and that we have not forgotten them"

photos of some of the mothers you honored on Mothers Day