Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fire and Water

SEEHAM has little recollection of the day in 2004, not unlike many others, when she walked in the local souk (open-air marketplace) to do some shopping. Despite her lack of memory about this day, it ended up to be the most memorable day of her life.

As with too many Iraqis since the US-led invasion of Iraq, going about their usual business, her life was irrevocably changed by what should have been the most ordinary of errands when a suicide bomber detonated near her in the marketplace.
She does remember the carnage; body parts strewn around her and then, nothing. Seeham carries enough evidence with her now to let her know exactly what happened. Her head and right side of her body are badly scarred and deformed from the burns she suffered in the attack. Her right hand is nearly useless.

Seeham found out about CRP and asked to meet with us about her situation. My Iraqi colleague and translator, Ghazwan and I had an earlier appointment with another family that ran late. It was dark when we finally arrived outside Seeham’s building and Ghazwan called her to let her know we were outside and needed directions to her apartment. She told us to wait and in a few moments a woman, disguised by the evening shadows, came out to meet us and directed us to go up the stairs, following behind us. It was not until we entered the apartment that I saw her terribly damaged face.

Seeham made us at ease with the seeming comfort that she has with her body and its dreadful fate. She spoke with confidence and made no effort to hide herself. After a few moments, I barely noticed her disfigurement as it was obscured by her dignity and determination. Although she is only thirty-six years old, her age seems timeless.
She told us as much as she could remember of the event and showed us a form issued to her on the day of the bombing by the local police. It read “victim of suicide bombing. Provide care at (name of) hospital”. It hit me as odd that this form seemed so matter-of-fact, as it was just a routine occurrence that scorched this woman’s body but then, in Iraq, suicide bombings are routine now. ..phenomena that did not exist until after the invasion.

Seeham first entered Jordan in July of 2009 when doctors in Baghdad told her that she needed a procedure that Iraq’s beleaguered medical system could not provide. Seeham describes it as “shaving” of the burned layer of skin from her face and chest. Her beloved cousin brought her to Jordan and the procedure was attempted at a hospital here in the capital, Amman. But the equipment broke down while she was undergoing treatment and was canceled. She and her cousin returned to Iraq – and Seeham carried another burden with her; when she returned to Baghdad, she was diagnosed with Hepatitis that she likely contracted in the hospital.

Seeham was treated for the Hepatitis and spent a good part of her time in hospitals and then, at home, under the care of her cousin and his wife. As she spoke of them, it was obvious that her dependence on them was for her emotional well-being as much as for their care of her ailing body. Her face brightened and she stated firmly that she “must” be with them. She shows me another medical report that states she must have the shaving procedure because, if not, she will certainly develop skin cancer.

Then, in January of this year, Seeham returned to Amman with her cousin and his family. Her cousin had been notified that he, his wife and child would be resettled to Germany. Seeham was hopeful that she would be allowed to go with them or, at least, join them later. But, since her case file with UNHCR is separate from theirs, she was not included in the resettlement but, instead, her case was referred to resettlement alone. Offered resettlement to the USA, she refused it, knowing that this would end any hope of joining her cousin. Now she has been offered the opportunity to be interviewed by an Australian delegation for resettlement. She wanted advice about whether or not she should turn them down, too. She desperately wants only to be reunited with her cousin and yet she is terrified that she will remain stuck in limbo in Jordan and without the follow-up care she badly needs. She told me, “I cannot sleep at night. All night I lay awake, trying to decide what is best, what I should do. I cry all night. I am so tired but I cannot stop thinking about this. I need to be with them (her cousin and family). If I go alone to another country, who will take care of me? I cannot be alone.” She pleads with me to help.

I offer to contact a NGO in Amman that may be able to help her get the skin-shaving. She is not interested. She only wants to join her cousin and “then have treatment when they can take care of me”.
Seeham had told me that she heard Germany was no longer accepting Iraqis. I told her that I would try to find out. Sadly, I was told that as of now, Germany is not accepting any new Iraqi immigrants from Jordan as their quota is closed and there are no German delegations scheduled to come here. I was told to tell Seeham to not count on German delegations coming in the future, although it is possible that they will send more, depending on if Germany opens its doors to more Iraqis.

Seeham also asked me to find out what will happen if she turns down the offer to be interviewed for resettlement to Australia. I was told that “if some-one refuses resettlement to a certain country that case will normally not be submitted anywhere else.” However, in compelling cases, subseq
uent offers of resettlement are sometimes granted.

I will talk with Seeham tonight. I’m afraid that I have nothing to offer her to give her hope or make it any easier for her to decide whether or not she should agree to be interviewed by the Australian delegation. If she turns it down, there is no guarantee that her case will not be removed from consideration for resettlement completely – and even if it is not, there is no way to know if it could be possible in the future for her to be considered by Germany.

I dread situations like this, where I am approached to find solutions and can only offer bad news in response. Iraqis have suffered tremendous trauma from war and its losses. In exile, without legal residency, they have few rights and even fewer of those rights allow them any power to change their situations. They are desperate for anyone that they perceive (accurately or not) to have “more power” than they do to intercede for them. I have learned to be cautious and brutally honest; there is little if anything I can do and to foster false hope and then suffer it being crushed is the cruelest pain of all.

Even knowing Seeham as little as I do, I have the strong feeling that discouraging report to her will not deter her determination to be reunited with the only family she has. She knows what she needs and she believes, like most Iraqis, that one is not defined by themselves alone, that one forms their identity and purpose by their family and community.

This has been one of the least-acknowledged losses Iraqis suffer. While in Iraq, they’ve all lost family members and close friends to death – initially, by the Coalition forces, and then later by criminals, unfettered because of the dismantling of the police and other security forces under Bremer. Later, many more lives were lost (and are still being lost) to sectarian killings – often brutally executed. Millions lost their homes or the ability to live in them when death threats by sectarian militias forced them into exile – both inside Iraq and to neighboring nations. They lost, not only their material possessions, but also careers and everything they had worked to provide for themselves and their families. Even before this exodus, families were kept apart – travel, even within the same city, meant traversing roadblocks that were often manned by sectarian militias or gangs who demanded to see identification – and if ones name indicated they were from the “wrong” sect, death or kidnapping and torture was likely.

Refugees in Jordan and other neighboring countries suffered these losses but many still had the meager comfort of knowing loved ones remaining behind in Iraq were relatively close – within a day’s ground travel time. Daily “miss calls” (calls that are rung to ones phone but not answered) keeps loved ones in touch, letting them know that , for another day at least, they are alive. There is always the hope, however futile, that things might improve and families and communities can reunite in some way.

But, over years of living in destitution and with Iraq’s security unimproved to any real degree, with the death threats that forced them to flee still in place, most realize that they cannot return to Iraqi. Resources , such as savings, they may have brought with them are gone, humanitarian aid (never sufficient, even at best) is being cut and Iraqis find themselves boxed in, unable to return to the lives they left behind and unable to live in exile. Many look to resettlement as the only way to begin to live again.

But accepting resettlement is not an easy decision for most. They know it means being separated by continents from loved ones. It is a very final decision that they know, in many ways, severs them from their past. I have spent the last few hours with departing Iraqis as their family and friends gather to say goodbye. It’s a bittersweet time; joy for those departing that they can now look forward to living freely, and deep sorrow at parting from one another. Mothers and fathers are separated from their adult children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters and their spouses and children who have always shared the same home grab hold of one another, not wanting to say goodbye, not wanting to leave. When the car arrives to carry them to the airport, the round of farewells and embraces continues, everyone unwilling for it to end, for the final moment when they must leave. Those left behind stand in the street, watching until the tail-lights of the car are no longer visible, tears running down their faces; grown men burst into tears and women clutch their children, burying their faces into their hair as their tears flow. Children who are too young to understand look solemn; they will not really understand until their repeated “Where’s grandma? I want my grandma” for the next days and weeks eventually diminish and then stop when she never returns. But adults left behind never stop hoping to reunite with those who’ve left. It is as if an essential part of them is missing and they have no choice but to be put back together again.

When I attended the farewell of one family, as the car was moving out of sight, I was urged to step back out of the street and onto the curb. Then one of the children was instructed to pour a pitcher of water into the street. It was explained to me that this is an Iraqi custom, that the water symbolizes a way for the loved ones to return to one another. I had to leave this liquid path to make sure that it led directly between those leaving and those behind. There could not be any impediments that might block or divert it.
So I understand Seeham’s insistence that there must be a way. And I know that if there is not, part of her will never be whole. And I wish I could help somehow – to be a part of that clear path that leads to joyous and healing reunion – but the information I can offer makes me only another who stands in the road and blocks the way.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Can You Help This Boy?

"Rahm" is nine years old. He was born early - at only 7 months gestation. He is a twin but his brother did not survive. He has an 11 year old brother and the boys and their parents are extremely impoverished.

"Rahm" got off to a rough start and his life is not easy now but he faces still another challenge - one that can be dealt with - if only his parents had enough money to take care of it. As it is, they struggle to pay the rent and feed the boys. "Rahm", because of his early birth, was born with undesended testicles.

His parents have had no money to take him to doctors to discuss treatment of this problem but, last year, "Rahm" became very ill and was taken to the hospital for emergency treatment. When the doctor examined him, he told the parents that this problem must be dealt with as soon as possible. In fact, the physician told them, it is getting to be "too late" and really, now is his last chance. If he does not have corrective surgery now, he will never be able to have children. This condition also explains why "Rahm" has involuntary urination. Rough on a young boy who already fears going to school because the non-Iraqi students there bully and beat him because he's Iraqi.

CRP does not usually ask for contributions for medical-related issues because their cost can be so high but we know that there are no other options for this boy and we must ask.

Cost for his surgery and related tests and hospitalization will be somewhere between $500 - $800.

If you are able to help this boy, please contact us:

***note "Rahm" is not this boy's name. We want to protect his dignity and privacy by not revealing his true name nor publishing his photo

Iraqi Refugee Kids Get New Wniter Coats