Monday, June 20, 2011

World Refugee Day

Helping You Help Iraqi Refugees.
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Today is World Refugee Day. Like most issue days, this one will come and go with the usual level of dutiful, if somewhat mechanical, attention. UNHCR will comment, an automated email from the State Department will appear in my inbox containing an official statement, and concerned organizations will host fundraisers, hoping to capture a moment of the world's short attention span.

Last year on this date, the Iraqi refugees that I met in Jordan adopted a grim sense of humor surrounding June 20th, accompanied at times by anger. "Do we say 'Happy Refugee Day,' or 'Sorry you're a refugee?'" one asked, followed by, "We know we're refugees. We don't need a day for it." For the world's 10.4 million refugees, every day is refugee day. Every hour is more time spent in an impossible situation, worrying about the future and waiting on a resolution.

In volunteering with Collateral Repair Project, a small NGO that provides assistance to Iraqis in Jordan, I've heard many variations of the refugee narrative. Individually, the stories are piercing and demand all of a room's emotional energy. During home visits, the director and I breathe in and glance at each other nervously when the household head tears up and the family story begins to spill into the room. Lumped together in the mass of the Iraq war's debris, they meld into one blurry, tortured backdrop of war. They become part of our matter-of-fact conversation as we file family profiles. The son whose eye was gouged out as a warning to his father; the severly disabled child affected prenatally by U.S. use of uranium; the widow who searched through a room of body bags to find the chopped up body of her husband; the man who saw dogs eat the body of a dead countryman in Baghdad. You get the picture (and possibly wish that you didn't).

Each of these stories (and so many others) is attached to a person who currently lives in Amman, powerless over their own situation, waiting for the policies and procedures to work in their favor. Barred from employment in Jordan, many live in desperate poverty, and U.N. aid isn't anywhere close to meeting the need of the estimated 500,000 Iraqis here, and 1.8 million in the region. (Whether the U.N. can not or will not meet the need is another matter). Meanwhile, a smattering of NGOs is scrambling to fill the gaps and still falls pitifully short.

The young adults are especially affected, having no money for higher education and seeing their lives indefinitely placed on hold. Resettlement creeps along and is not an attainable resolution for many families. For the few that are accepted into the program, the process can take years and is not guaranteed. When I was here last summer, I knew at least two families who were said to be "in line" for resettlement. One had already been assigned a country - a positive step. When I returned to Jordan ten months later, I found those families still here and still "in line."

Iraqis are often subjected to discrimination in Jordan, regularly experiencing petty incidents like taxi fare rip-offs, and are vulnerable to false accusations; Iraqis are often presumed guilty until proven otherwise. Their situation is not helped by the world's waning interest as donors tire of Iraq's never-ending saga. Many of the families with which we work lived solidly middle class lives in Iraq as professionals, business owners, or trade workers. They are eager to find employment, to resume a stable life for their children, and to contribute to society, if given the opportunity.

If we cannot yet make Iraq safe enough for them to return, then we must create a safe home for them elsewhere. The U.S., being the precipitator of this crisis, has to take the lead in its resolution, either by significantly increasing its acceptance of families for resettlement, or by creating dramatic improvements in conditions for Iraqis in Jordan and Syria. They need substantial and sustained funding for basic emergency food and rent assistance, trauma counseling, legal protection, and education scholarships. None of these offers of support can replace a home lost or a relative dead, but can provide these war weary families with a hopeful, if altered, future.

Lucy Perkins is a 2011 graduate of Tufts University and a volu
nteer with Collateral Repair Project in Amman, Jordan.

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