Monday, January 25, 2010

Letter from Amman

“Collateral Damage” (a euphemism if ever there was one) doesn’t stop with the coalition’s last bomb, the draw-down of US troops or the so-called open elections in Iraq. It keeps on “giving” to its victims.

This week we witnessed the on-going effects when we visited three Iraqi refugee families struggling to cope with its damage in Amman, Jordan. Their days are filled with a constant search for affordable housing, medical treatment and just about anything needed to eke out a bare existence.

They invariably show us their thick but orderly files of papers, documents and medical reports from various government and Non-governmental agencies and medical providers they have visited, often many times, in fruitless attempts to get help as they are shuttled back and forth from one agency to another. When the power bill jumps from $28 a month to nearly $200, they, as refugees, have no recourse to complain or even ask for an explanation. When their UNHCR cash assistance is inexplicably stopped or delayed they must wait for bureaucracy to wend its slow, interminable path to ferret out the reason and, hopefully, when resumed, include missed payments.

Meanwhile the rent goes unpaid, the tab at the local grocery accumulates until it’s finally cut-off and the refrigerator and cupboards display bare shelves. Prescriptions for medications for diabetes, high-blood pressure (rampant among Iraqi refugees) go unfilled, there's no money to buy fuel to keep drafty homes warm; children go without meals.

One man tell us of his “heart clot” and his sky-rocketing electric bill. He pulls his medical report out of his file that delineates all the symptoms of PTSD: depression -- feelings of worthlessness, anger, panic attacks, insomnia. His sister shows us her prescription for an anti-depressant.

A widow and her seven children have gone all day, well into the late evening, without food because their cash assistance stopped, due to a bureaucratic glitch when she recently moved to more affordable housing. The house is cold, there is no water heater, no washing machine for the family of 8. She washes all clothes by hand but it is painful due to shrapnel left in her hands and arm from an American bomb on their house in Iraq. This bomb killed her 8 month old baby and the twin of one of her surviving children. The large shard of shrapnel in her left arm is a constant reminder of that tragic loss.

A pregnant Iraqi woman, facing an up-coming caesarian birth that will cost close to $2,000, is declined help from agency after agency, because she is married to a Palestinian. Her husband is refused help because he is married to an Iraqi. ” Their three children, one with Down’s Syndrome, do not qualify for UNHCR cash assistance because they are legally considered Palestinian. She and all three children have been diagnosed with calcium and vitamin deficiency. They survive on what her husband can earn part-time as a fill-in taxi driver and her cash assistance of $106 a month. When she appeals for help she is told “just thank God you receive anything. If you complain, you will lose even that.”

Similar stories are told time and after. Every agency, from UNHCR to Collateral Repair Project, from highest realms of officialdom to grassroots, suffers from dwindling funds while needs snowball into an avalanche. With the slogging on of the global economic crisis and public attention focused on Afghanistan and the disaster in Haiti, Iraqi refugees continue to cope with damages that have been all but forgotten.

Daily we are forced to make heart-breaking decisions as we listen to families detail a litany of needs, invariably for their children. Emergency Assistance and Milk for Kids has supplanted out Micro-projects, because of both funding cut-backs and because this is where the needs are most urgent.

Our work is a pittance in comparison to the overwhelming needs, but that makes it all the more vital as collateral damage keeps on taking from its unseen, unheard victims.