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.

Orphan Day 2009 - continued (see previous posts below)

Our last visit was to deliver gifts to Intisar and her four children - Hani (9), Ziad (6), Shaymin (3) and Firas (1 1/2). We had begun our morning, delivering gifts to a family who lived in a lovely apartment, in a nice area - but only because they have to rely completely on the charity of friends and their apartment was given to them rent-free. But as the day progressed, each home we visited was in worse condition that the previous ones. Intisar and her kids live in one of the very worst homes we have ever been in.

When we reached Intisar's home, we had to climb stairs that reminded me of nightmares I had when I was a child - they were suspended without support and without handrails. The walls were made of brick that appeared to have no motar holding them together. We entered the apartment into a large, empty room with cement floor, with dark water flowing through a large corner of it. A peek into the single bedroom showed me walls covered with mold. The small sitting room was cheerier - with a bright carpet on the floor. A broken computer covered with a thin film of dust sat on a table by the window. They pay 40JD per month for their rent. They rely solely on charity to meet their needs. It is not enough; they are 6 months behind in paying their electricity bill.

Intisar and the kids share the one bedroom flat with Intisar's deceased husband's "other" wife. (most of the marriages I have encountered are with only one wife - however, occaisionally I meet a family where the husband has two wives - rarely more than two) The two women tell us they are happy with the arrangement and have always gotten along well. They share household chores and taking care of the children. Now that they are both widowed, they provide each other with emotional support as well.

Their husband's death is not war-related. He died of an aneurysm in April of 2007.

We are happy that we brought toys to these children even though their father's death is not directly related to the way and they came to Jordan prior to the US invasion. These simple gifts are probably the nicest things they have received in a long, long time. Their faces lit up brightly when they received their toys - although it took young Firas a while to lose the grimace on his face he had upon waking from his nap and finding a foreign-looking stranger with a camera sitting near him!

Orphan Day 2009 - continued (see previous posts below)

Next we went to the area of Amman that is designated as "New Camp" - a Palestinian refugee camp within the city. New Camp is not a tent camp - it consists of mostly low income apartment buildings connected with narrow roads and with a highly concentrated population of mostly impoverished Palestinians - and now, a growing population of equally impoverished Iraqi refugees. We were visiting Bushra and her family in a lively area with a lot of activity on the streets: kids playing soccer, teen boys hanging out in small bunches, teen girls and young women walking together arm-in-arm, and older people visiting one another, sitting on their stoops.

Bushra told us that had they lived in Baghdad near the airport. When the Amrikans came they were in terror under intense bombing night after night. She tells us, "Many of our neighbors houses were hit by the bombs. She recalls that one time the US dropped burning photos of Saddam from the air onto their neighborhood. She said, "Then the Amrikans came to us and told us to leave our houses or they will burn them with us in them."

So the family moved to her sister's home in another part of the city. When they were finally allowed to return to their home, they found that most of their valuables were gone. The Amrikans had killed their small home flock of ducks and chickens and also had cut down their precious pomegranate trees, chopping them off at ground level.

Bushra and her four children: Bethana (11), Shayma (9), Harith (11) and Malik (8) left Iraq soon after the beginning of the US invasion in 2003 after militia burst into their home and shot the children's father in the head in front of them. Bushra told us that she lost both her husband and brother as they were both killed on the same day - her brother was murdered by militia while he was out shopping. She speculates he was killed because he had worked in Saddam's government.

Soon after militia contacted Bushra, telling her to give them a huge amount of money "to pay to buy a kidney" or they would take her to use her kidney. They had no choice but to flee.

Life has not been easy for this family since arriving in Amman. They live in a one room home in terrible repair. Bushra had worked as a housekeeper for a Jordanian family and earned enough to pay their rent and buy food but her employers moved away a few months ago and now she is 3 months behind in paying the rent of 60JD per month. They do not receive the UNHCR monthly cash grant but Bushra told us that they had an appointment scheduled with UNHCR the following day and hopes they will begin to get cash assistance. She pleads with Maha, "If you know anyone who needs their house cleaned, please call me."

Bushra's eldest brother was just released a month ago after being held in Abu Ghraib for four years. She said that when she called him recently, he told her that he was beaten, kept naked much of the time, humiliated when female US military members would come to look at him, threatened with dogs, kept blindfolded often, and that food and water were with-held for long periods of time. She says he is broken - he remembers these details of Abu Ghraib but lost much of his memory about his past. He is beginning to remember his children but he still cannot remember his wife.

Another of her brothers was beaten badly by US military members and now is partially paralyzed.

Bushra's and her two small children live with them. Her sister was away - in Baghdad - when we visited. She was in Iraq, arranging for her husband's funeral. He had gone back to Baghdad to sell their house there and was killed in a bombing a week ago. Now these two yery young children are orphans, too.

I ask Bethana what she remembers about her life in Baghdad. She told me, "Where we lived we played with our cousins. There was a stationery shop near our house where we would go to buy candy from the shopkeeper, Um Ahmed. On the main street there was a man selling cigarettes, sitting on the ground. On the second street was our school. Our uniforms were blue dresses with a white blouse. We had a roof and in summer we slept on the roof and in winter our grandmother would sleep with us in our room. I had many friends. For us, it was better in Iraq; it was our school, our area, our home..." She adds, "It was a better education and our teachers were better than the ones here. Our neighbors there were very kind to us, not like here. Here they always ask about everything we do, always watching us."

Buthana added,
"We were with our hearts together with everyone there"

Friday, April 10, 2009

Orphan Day 2009 - continued (see previous post below)

Nada and her three children live in a one-room apartment with a tiny attached kitchen on the top story of a shabby building. Despite their deep poverty, Nada tries to make their humble apartment a cheery home for her children. As we stopped to catch our breath after the long climb up the stairs, we were greeted by several pots of bright flowers. There was a garland of dried yellow blossoms hanging near the entryway inside. Nada said her daughters had made it when they went on a school picnic. Inside, the small room that was both living room and bedroom for the four was tidy and homey.

Nada, her husband and children fled Iraq together in 2006 after her husband had been kidnapped. Nada asked the two youngest children - 10 year old Ab'rarr and her brother, Zaid, 8 - to go outside to the rooftop balcony to play for a minute. She quietly told us, "When the militia came to our house to take their father, they destroyed everything in the house and they beat us. I don't want to remind them of these things." She continued, "The militia took him away and then called and asked us to pay a certain amount; we argued but then I paid and they released him"

Nada told us that they spent all their money to pay the ransom and then to escaped to Jordan together in 2006. A month later, her husband went back to Baghdad alone to try to get some money he was owed. He was kidnapped again and she agreed that they would pay the ransom. The voice on the other end of the phone told her that they would call her to set up an 'appointment' to get the ransom. They never called again and her husband was killed. She tells us, "That was two years and seven months ago."

Now the militia have taken over her husband's shop and their home. They had put an advertisement in the local paper which stated that they "..made a contract to 'buy' the house and if the owner disagrees he has one month to come forward or he will forfeit the house" Of course they knew he was dead when they wrote this.

12 year old Aaraf sits solemnly listening, sadness seems a part of her being. She suffers from kidney disease. She is shy and blushes easily when I ask her what she remembers about Iraq. She answers in a small voice, "I miss everything in Iraq." Despite missing a year of school because they did not have their documents with them when they arrived in Jordan, she does well in school now and blushes again as her mother proudly told us that she is the head of the student council.

Nada tells us that Ab'rarr often cries wanting to go back to Iraq to see her grandfather who she loves and misses greatly. She has anemia.

Life is challenging here for this young mother and her children. Nada is Palestinian by ancestry so she herself does not qualify for the UNHCR cash assistance for Iraqi refugees but her children do. I asked how much they receive and Nada told me that they were receiving 120JD ($168) per month but then the UNHCR began distributing the cash grants through ATM cards that were given to families so they could withdraw the funds directly rather than having to go to designated NGOs to pick up cash. Because Nada is "Palestinian", the UNHCR put the ATM card in her eldest daughter's name. But when they took the card to the bank to activate it in their system, the bank refused to activate the card in a minor child's name. For eight months they had no income at all until they were able to straighten this out between UNHCR and the bank.
They did not receive the past months' grant after their card was finally activated - only 150JD ($310). Now their grant has gone down and is only 110JD ($154). They have very little left to buy food and other necessities after paying the 65JD rent and utilities. Nada is only 36 but sadness and the exhaustion of trying to provide for her children with so little make her appear older.

Nada brought out an album and showed us photos of their family while they lived in Iraq, before the US invasion - when the children still had their father and their lives were very comfortable. Now they've lost their home, their livelihood and the man who loved and protected them.