Friday, December 18, 2009

Witnessing the Iraqi Refugee Crisis in Amman

On August 9, 2009, nearly seven years since my last trip to the Middle East, I arrived at the Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan. From there, I took a bus into the city and then a taxi to the home of Sasha Crow, the founder of Collateral Repair Project, a grassroots organization formed to connect Iraqi refugee families with social services in Amman. 

Sasha had prepared a home-cooked meal for the two of us to share as we made plans for the first day of a children’s art and culture camp. The camp was intended to bring together Iraqi, Palestinian, and Jordanian children for two weeks of creative activities. It was a joint effort of Collateral Repair Project and International Relief & Development, an NGO with offices in Amman.

Working with Omar, an Iraqi volunteer with CRP, and a team of dedicated assistants, Sasha and I launched our program the following day. Over the next two weeks, she took the lead in organizing a wonderful mix of hands on art activities for the children. Under her careful and loving attention, they created their own papier-mâché masks, drew portraits of each other, and even made a pair of treat-filled piñatas. In addition to assisting Sasha, I told Arabic folktales to the children, led them in creative movement exercises, and directed them in a dramatic enactment of a traditional tale.

For the final day of our summer camp, the children’s families were invited to come to the Women’s Center where the camp was held. After viewing a display of the art work, they watched their children perform on stage. During the show, the children wore the colorful masks they had worked so hard to create. Many of them also used the paper puppets Sasha had them make for their characters in the play. As a final celebration, the children gathered around their piñatas (one piñata at a time!) and gave them enough good whacks to break them open.

Helping to run the camp with Sasha was only part of what I did with Collateral Repair Project. In the evenings, she and Omar introduced me to some of the Iraqi refugee families CRP has been assisting. For me, these meetings were the heart and soul of my time in Amman.

I had come to Jordan hoping to hear the stories of what these families had endured in Iraq and what their lives were like in Amman. Upon returning to the U.S., I planned to share these stories, through articles and talks, in order to raise awareness of the consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Thanks to CRP, I was able to meet quite a number of families from a variety of backgrounds. For this entry, I would like to recount one such meeting as an example of the very high price these families have had to pay and of the good work CRP is doing. The text is from my journal, which I kept up the whole time I was in Amman. (I have not used the real names of the family members.)

“Tonight we visited another family whom Sasha cares deeply about. The family is Assyrian and comes from Baghdad, although their roots are in Anbar, which is north of the capital. James met us on the street that runs past his building, and then took us up a short flight of stairs to his family’s apartment. His sister Miriam and his elderly mother Hajia were sitting in the front room watching TV. CRP, through donations, was able to purchase a prosthetic leg for James’s sister. Since then, they have come to feel very close to Sasha, whom they regard as their saving grace.

“James calls Sasha his sister. His mother considers Sasha her daughter. Hajia is only 81 but she looks much older. After her husband died, she had to raise their children by herself. In Iraq the family lived in Baghdad Jadida (New Baghdad), where many Iraqi Christians once lived before they were driven from their homes.

“The family has successfully completed all their interviews with IOM (the International Organization for Migration) and expect to be resettled in the state of New York. But they don’t know when their plane tickets will arrive. Their home is practically bare of furniture. A few decorative items adorn the walls. In the parlor, there are some Christian iconic images along with paintings of English royalty. James’s mother named her two sons after British kings. The namesake of one of her daughters was a British queen.

“At one point during our conversation, James said all they have left is Jesus. Everything else in their lives has been taken away from them. He spat out the name of Saddam Hussein and, stretching out his arm, shouted, “Go to Hell! He destroyed everything.”

“James did agree that under Saddam, Christian minorities were safer and not likely to be persecuted, but still discrimination did exist. Before the war in 2003, he and his non-Christian neighbors were friends. But after the war, everything changed. People threatened him, told him to leave Iraq or they would kill him.

“Last fall in Baghdad, while shopping in the market, James’s sister Miriam became the victim of a car bombing. She had to have part of her right leg amputated. She also lost hearing in her right ear. She had been a secondary school teacher for 27 years. Her subject was mathematics. Several of her students were killed from the same bomb that disabled her for life. Shrapnel tore into her body. She pulled up the left leg of her trousers and showed us several deep scars from the shrapnel. While brother and sister described this tragic event, their mother Hajia, with a look of such deep sadness, openly wept for her daughter’s pain and suffering.

“Miriam spent 3 weeks in Al Kindi Hospital in Baghdad. Surgeons amputated the lower part of her leg but left a bony stump. In November, about a month after the bombing, the family left for Jordan. In Amman, Miriam received a heavy prosthetic leg, which she and Sasha refer to as the “dinosaur.” It hurts her to wear it. Now she has a lighter prosthetic which she saves for special occasions like going to church. Miriam is afraid it will be damaged on the many broken steps and fractured pavements in Amman. She knows it is strong and durable, but it has become so important to her that she doesn’t want to take any unnecessary risks with it. Around the house, she wears a third prosthetic. This one doesn’t fit well and causes her unrelenting pain.

“When Sasha first met her, Miriam never went outside and, without a prosthetic, crawled from room to room, becoming more and more depressed. Now her mood has brightened considerably, and she was able to talk freely with us. She showed us photos of her former students, her colleagues, and even her college graduating class.

“James smoked furiously while an Assyrian TV station showed the carnage from yesterday’s car bombings in Mosul and Baghdad. He changed the channel. The screen came alive with Assyrian singers and musicians performing while young people did traditional dances. Pointing to the television, James said, “This our people. This our music, our dances.” Tears filled his eyes. It was this moment, perhaps more than any other, that gave me a deeper sense of what it means to be separated from one’s homeland, one’s culture, and one’s family, and to face an almost unbearably uncertain future.

“James had been an agricultural engineer in Baghdad after graduating from Baghdad University. He showed us his transcript and proudly pointed to his grades. He hopes this document will improve his chances in the U.S., and wanted to know if he would be able to advance himself there. I recalled my own family and how my grandfather had come from Italy with nothing. By the time I was in high school, my own parents had advanced far beyond my father’s family. This seemed to offer some assurance to Edward whose love for his aged mother was so evident throughout our stay. He often stood by her side as she sat on the sofa with hands folded in her lap, and touched her ever so gently while thanking God for keeping her alive.

“When it was time for Sasha and I to leave, James followed us down an unlit stairway and along an alley to the street. Like a good shepherd, he watched over us until a taxi stopped and took us home.”

Seaonal Appeal

To all those known and unknown readers of this blog, I send this sincere apology for not keeping it up to date. And I include a bouquet of seasonal good wishes for that ever-elusive peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

This morning I left the house with three urgent messages on my answering machine. The messages were from my families in Iraq. I would like to report that their lives are slowly improving now that the "civil war" has diminished, security has improved, and U.S. troops have pulled back somewhat. Sadly, that is not the case. Five of the six families currently supported by the Iraq Family Relief Fund are headed by poor women whose husbands have either died or abandoned them. None of these women have been able to find any sort of work or to develop a small, sustaining business.

Each time we speak with one another they invariably begin by apologizing for once again having to ask for help. It's not like they are asking for inordinate sums of money. All they want is enough to pay the rent, put food on the table, and cover any medical costs that come up. In these respects, their situation is quite similar to what so many U.S. families are experiencing under current economic conditions.

But there are important differences. For one thing, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth.In just this month alone, car bombers in Iraq's capital murdered over 120 people and wounded hundreds more. Even more alarming, at least to my mind, is the continuing rise in birth defects and cancer throughout Iraq, but particularly in the cities of Falluja and Basra. While the link between DU and cancer and birth defects has not been unequivocally established, Iraqi doctors attribute this rise to the use of weapons containing depleted uranium (DU) by the U.S. and its British ally. In the first Gulf War of 1991, about 320 tons of DU were used. In the second Gulf War of 2003 an unknown amount of DU was used. According to a recent report in Global Research,

In September this year . . . 170 children were born at Fallujah General Hospital, 24 per cent of whom died within seven days. Three-quarters of these exhibited deformities, including "children born with two heads, no heads, a single eye in their foreheads, or missing limbs". The comparable data for August 2002 -- before the invasion -- records 530 births, of whom six died and only one of whom was deformed.
Our families in Baghdad live with the ever-present threat of death from car bombs, with a shattered infrastructure, a dearth of jobs, and the rising cost of food, clothing, and shelter. One of the families has called me multiple times this week to tell me how cold their apartment is. They would like to buy a heater but can't afford the price, which would be around 100 dollars. Another family has a heater but can't afford to purchase fuel for the heater, which runs on kerosene. A third family is without food and can't pay the rent (300 dollars) without our assistance.

Unfortunately, donations are not what they could be, so I am unable to help any of these families until I receive help. On a more upbeat note, the family of Amal Maseer, the Iraqi artist, is doing well in their new home in New Paltz, New York. The family has been living with their American sponsor since they came here as refugees last March. They would like to move into a subsidized apartment in New Paltz but can't do so until they pay 500 dollars to the managers of the apartment complex. This amount will cover the repair of damages done by the previous tenants. For the life of me, I don't understand why Amal is expected to pay for someone else's wrongdoing.

So in the spirit of the season and for the sake of these families, please consider making a donation to the Iraq Family Relief Fund. Your contributions will go immediately to relieve their most urgent needs for a way to keep warm through a Baghdad winter, for enough to eat, and for keeping a roof over their heads.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Clavichordist for Peace

This June, during Boston's Early Music Festival, clavichordist Judith Conrad from Fall River performed at the Paulist Center opposite the Boston Common. Wearing a shirt with the words, "Clavichordist for Peace," she informed her audience before each concert that their donations would be given to the Iraq Family Relief Fund. Her series of performances raised several hundred dollars for the families.

Judith has been a steadfast supporter of the Fund for several years. In addition to fundraising through her music, she has arranged for me to come to Fall River and talk about the situation in Iraq with local activists and other concerned citizens. She belongs to the Greater Fall River Committee for Peace and Justice.

After this year's Early Music Festival, Judith sent me a translated poem by the Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her photo appears on this post

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Family Update

I've just completed the latest newsletter for the Iraq Family Relief Fund and will be mailing out hard copies to donors. The electronic version will be available on this blog in another day or two. The big story, as far as the families go, is Amal Maseer's re-settlement in New Paltz, New York where she and her 3 children are now living. The children are slowly adjusting to their new life. Abeer, 17, Amal's oldest, attended her junior prom this month. She went with her girlfriends and, I have no doubt, looked absolutely lovely. Abeer's brothers, Anoush and Omer, are doing exceptionally well in school, according to their mom. Both boys are now taking hip hop dance lessons in addition to enjoying other extracurricular activities.

In March when my wife and I drove to New Paltz to visit the family, I gave the boys a used Apple laptop. It's a very old model with no Internet access and less than one gigabyte of memory. But its word processing software still gets the job done. The boys use this computer for some of their homework assignments even while they enjoy poking fun at its relative antiquity. Amal told me that the first night they had the computer they took turns making up jokes about the laptop's age. Anoush told his brother it was so old it once belonged to Cleopatra. Omer said the screen would show them what the Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually looked like. And so on. Several months have gone by since our visit and they're still making up jokes like these.

At least Omer and his family are not dodging bullets in Baghdad or reeling from car bomb explosions. Sadly, this past Wednesday a car bomb went off in a poor, Shia neighborhood in the capital. It happened around 7 in the evening while people were shopping or sitting in restaurants. The death toll now stands at 41 with over 76 people wounded.

As far as I know, nobody in our Baghdad families was hurt. I won't know for sure until one of them calls me. These days I can't phone any of them since their land lines are usually out of service. They have to borrow a mobile phone in order to get in touch with me. I did receive one phone message today. It was from Siham, a mother with 4 sons. She told me she is very sick and hopes I can send her enough to buy some groceries for her family.

The Iraqi government continues to provide food rations. The food rationing system was begun under Saddam's regime when U.S. and UK-enforced sanctions were devastating the economy. The rations were never adequate but they did prevent starvation. Today, despite the lifting of sanctions, many families still depend on government-supplied rations. Our families in Baghdad tell me that rations are much less than they used to be and only include a portion of the items that once were part of the monthly food basket. Because of this shortfall, families have to shop in the local markets where food prices are much higher than they were before the invasion.

Siham's family does not have a reliable source of income to cover the cost of food. Her husband is too sick to work. One of her two older sons has a job but his wages are very low. In order to put food on the table for her family, Siham regularly runs up a tab at the stores where she shops. The Family Relief Fund is critical to helping this family keep its grocery debt under control by providing a monthly food subsidy.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Brief Reflection

I had my eyes examined today. The doctor is a friend who happens to be Iraqi. Two of his sisters have opened a restaurant/tea room down the road from his office. Judging by appearances, they are doing well despite the current downturn. Their parents, originally from Baghdad, have become pillars of the community, respected, admired, and loved by their many friends. Their children, now adults with their own families, are highly successful, each in his or her way.

At one time, my wife and I happily counted ourselves as part of this remarkable Iraqi family. During the years of U.S.-enforced sanctions against Iraq, I sometimes visited their relatives in Baghdad and brought back photographs, gifts, and weighty boxes of a traditional Iraqi confection called min' simma, which literally means "from the sky" in Arabic. (It's somewhat like torrone, an Italian nougat candy.) But in recent years, we've lost our connection with this family, and that is something my wife and I deeply regret.

On the drive home today, after my eye exam, I found myself thinking about their success and, in the same breath, about the Iraqi diaspora--the thousands of families displaced inside Iraq or living as refugees in neighboring countries as a result of the U.S. invasion and the violence that resulted. And I thought about organizations like Direct Aid Iraq and Collateral Repair Project, two grassroots efforts to assist displaced Iraqi families in Jordan. Each organization has both an American and an Iraqi team working together to connect families with social service providers.

The war in Iraq has created one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world. The suffering of the Iraqi people continues despite the recent decrease in violence. So what are successful Iraqis in this country doing to ameliorate this suffering and end the occupation? Perhaps a more basic question is: are they obligated to do anything at all? Is it enough that they are doing their best to provide for themselves and their children while making invaluable contributions to their communities? Is anything more required? Then too, what are the rest of us doing to address the needs of the Iraqi people, including those who have come here seeking asylum, those who remain displaced, and the many others in Iraq living under occupation and with the ever-present threat of violence from one source or another?

(Photo: Iraqi refugee family)

A Short Story

Next month Sharook will turn 29. When we first met, she was still in secondary school in Baghdad. One afternoon in April of 1999, she and her aunt Sundus came to a relative's house in order to meet the strange American who was coming to Iraq on a regular basis and spending time with families. Because she was studying English, she and I could communicate fairly easily. We liked each other from the start and have sustained our relationship first through sanctions and now through war and occupation.

Until fairly recently, Sharook called me at least once a week from her mother's apartment in Baghdad to tell me how things were going in her life, to keep in touch, and sometimes to ask for support for her mother. She had wanted to go on to college and eventually become an English teacher but the invasion of Iraq forced her to postpone a college education. A few years ago she decided to pursue a career as an optician and began taking classes. But when militias began escalating their attacks on each other, murdering civilians who belonged to the "wrong" sect, kidnapping professors, and in some cases even raping and killing female students, her mother insisted she stay home and not put her life in danger by attending class.

Her father, who had divorced Sharook's mother years ago, pressured her to marry and begin a family but Sharook continued to dream of having a career and becoming an independent woman. She turned down marriage proposals from various suitors and went on living with her family while the violence around them intensified and eventually forced them to abandon their apartment and move to a relatively safer neighborhood.

At one point, her brother was falsely accused of murder and locked up in an Iraqi prison where he was beaten repeatedly and forced to sign a confession. After spending almost a year behind bars, he was finally released thanks to the intercession of human rights advocates. Fearing one of the militias would try to kill him, he fled to Syria, leaving his wife and child in Baghdad.

While her brother was in Syria, Sharook accepted a marriage proposal from a man whom her family had known for some time. Last year, she left her family and went to live with her husband and five young children from the man's previous marriage. They live in a small town about a five-hour drive from Baghdad. Since there is no phone service where they live, she can only call me when she returns to Baghdad to visit her mother.

Lately, her visits have become more frequent. She needs medical attention for what may be a serious illness. A few weeks ago, Sharook had a CT Scan after experiencing bouts of dizziness. For the past week, she's tried to reach me by phone to tell me the results of the scan. So far, we haven't managed to connect, partly because of the 7 hour time difference and partly for other reasons. I am hoping the doctors have told her there's nothing to worry about and that she can get on with her life as the sensitive and loving person she is.

(Photo: Sharook in her aunt's kitchen in Baghdad, December 2002)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Family News

Special thanks to all the folks who contributed so generously to the Family Relief Fund on behalf of Amal and her children. We succeeded in raising enough money to allow this family to leave Amman, Jordan and come to New Paltz, New York as Iraqi refugees. They are now living temporarily with an American family in New Paltz. The children are in school while their mom is looking for work and an affordable apartment. Hopefully, the family will begin receiving temporary government assistance in the form of food stamps and monthly cash payments. But until this assistance is available, the family continues to need our support.

Over the past six years, Amal and I have stayed in touch through regular phone calls and email. I've saved our entire email exchange, which must number well over a thousand letters. Many of Amal's emails to me contain moving accounts of life under occupation and as a displaced Iraqi driven from her home by violence. She and I have talked about the possibility of one day creating a book together based on her experience. I'm also thinking about writing a play that explores our relationship as it has evolved, from the late 90s when Iraq was under sanctions and continuing to the present through six years of war.

Amal's sister-in-law, Siham, who still lives in Baghdad, called me the other day with some very uplifting news: her son Samer is now engaged to his cousin Amal. Samer is in his early twenties. His fiancee must be eighteen by now. She often calls me on behalf of her mother Sundus, who knows very little English. I remember the many times she and her family would visit her aunt Siham when I happened to be there. Amal was such an affectionate child and loved playing games with me. I think she and Samer will be very good together. Although it's been a long time since I've seen Samer, he struck me as unusually sensitive and introspective. His mother, Siham, was very concerned about him a few years ago and wanted to find a way to get Samer out of Iraq. The violence that was taking place around them on a daily basis had traumatized him. His parents thought the best way to help him deal with this trauma and the emotional problems that resulted was to have him go to Syria or Jordan. But Samer stayed in Baghdad, which in retrospect, was probably the right choice since there are scant opportunities for Iraqis who flee to neighboring Arab countries.

Of course, Samer's story is not unique. Iraq has become a nation of traumatized children who have witnessed or experienced horrendous acts of violence as a result of the invasion and occupation of their country. Cesar Chelala, a correspondent for the Middle East Times, reports that last August the Central Pediatric Teaching Hospital in Baghdad opened Iraq's first clinic for treating children with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Quoting Dr. Haithi Al Sady, the dean of the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University, Chelala writes that "28% of Iraqi children suffer some degree of PTSD, and their numbers are steadily rising." A UNICEF report published in 2003 states that more than half a million Iraqi children had been traumatized by the invasion of their country.

Since that report was written, more than two million children have been displaced from their homes by violence. A UNICEF report issued in December 2007 states that "Iraqi children, already casualties of a quarter century of conflict and deprivation, are being caught up in a rapidly worsening humanitarian tragedy." About 75,000 of these children are homeless and have taken to living in "camps or temporary shelters." Hundreds of other Iraqi children, some as young as nine years old, according to Chelala's sources, are being held in overcrowded jails where they are apt to become victims of sexual abuse and beatings.

As Chelala reminds us, the U.S. and the UK, the two main occupying powers in Iraq, are responsible under international law for addressing the medical needs of the Iraqi people. "Children's mental health is among the most urgent of those needs," he writes. A recent report by UNICEF (released in February 2009) gives a sobering look at the humanitarian situation in Iraq. Despite a drop in violence and a corresponding improvement in security, conditions remain grim for Iraq's most vulnerable groups, in particular, women and children.

(Photo: Siham with her two younger sons Thafer and Mahare and her nephews Ma'mood and Omer standing in front of Siham's home in Baghdad, 2006)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Human Cost of the Iraq War

Thursday, March 19, 2009 will mark the 6th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the U.S., UK, and their assorted partners in crime. Here in Massachusetts our local peace and justice groups will be holding vigils to commemorate this sombre occasion. A press release for one such vigil includes the following statement:
"The 6th anniversary . . . offers all Americans the opportunity to take a dramatic turn away from our disastrous war policies and to insist on the immediate, safe, and humane return home of all our troops from Iraq. It is a day to remember that this war has already lasted longer than World War II and yet our government's present plan keeps U.S.troops in combat for at least another year and a half -- then leaves tens of thousands on bases for at least another year after that.

"But most important, the 6th anniversary is a time to remember the human cost of this war:
  • 5 million Iraqis killed, maimed, tortured, and displaced (many by American firepower, home invasions, and torture, and many others by sectarian militias, suicide bombers, and death squads).
  • 4,258 American soldiers dead.
  • 45,000 American soldiers wounded.
  • Widespread psychological trauma and increasing suicides among U.S. soldiers.
"Meanwhile, we continue to borrow billions of dollars from abroad to keep the war going while teachers are not hired, houses are not built, and families go without food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare, and while an economic depression brings more and more unemployment, foreclosures, and despair. The money spent on one day of the war could cover the entire Massachusetts budget deficit for 2009!"

I've been invited to be one of the speakers at a candlelight vigil to be held in Watertown Square on the 19th. The organizers are allowing each speaker only a few minutes to speak their peace. I will have to choose my words very carefully. It will be a challenge given all that has happened since the U.S. launched its war of aggression in 2003. So much suffering, so many lives wasted, so much blood spilled. Thankfully, we can take some degree of comfort in the illustrious words of our great and former VP Dick Cheney. During a recent interview, he had this to say about our compassionate crusade: "I guess my general sense of where we are with respect to Iraq and at the end of now, what, nearly six years, is that we've accomplished nearly everything we set out to do. . . . "

(Photo: Iraqi mother with her wounded child)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Against All Odds

Over the weekend, my wife and I drove to New Paltz, New York to see Amal and her children, who have come here as refugees from Iraq. We hadn't seen each other for six very long years, the length of the U.S. occupation of Amal's homeland. We met in 1998 during my fourth trip to Baghdad as a peace activist, and have been close friends ever since. Now we are more like brother and sister. So reuniting after a six-year separation was a momentous occasion for both of us.

A few months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, I went to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness (now renamed Voices for Creative Nonviolence). When it was time for me to leave, I had no idea when I would see Amal again or if she and her family would survive the military juggernaut looming in the background of our final days together. One of the most resourceful and resilient people I have ever known, Amal did indeed survive. She loves her children with a fierceness born of incessant struggle against what some might say were impossible odds. Time after time, Amal has risked her life for the sake of her children. Their safety and well being have been uppermost in her heart and mind through a six-year odyssey from Baghdad to Syria and then to Jordan.

Amal was not content to remain as a displaced Iraqi living in Amman with little hope of re-building her life. So she applied for the right to immigrate to the U.S., believing that immigration was the only path open to her and her children. Some of her friends doubted that she would ever be able to leave Amman and counseled her to return to Baghdad or move to some other country in the Middle East. After all, she lacks the sort of specialized skills that facilitate resettlement for some professionals, and she never worked for the U.S. military, so getting a special immigrant visa was out of the question.

Despite these obstacles, Amal would not give up. She is a fighter and for over three years she fought against despair, isolation, illness, and poverty to make her case known to immigration officials as well as to members of the U.S. Congress. And now she is here, living with her children in the home of an American family while grappling with yet another daunting set of challenges.

(Photo taken in New Paltz of Amal and her children with George and Nancy. The image on the wall is one of Amal's paintings.)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Iraqi Family Finds Asylum at Last

Right on schedule, Amal and her children landed at Newark International Airport on Tuesday, February 24 after three years of living as refugees in Amman, Jordan. Their host family welcomed them at the airport and drove them to their new home in upstate New York. I spoke with Amal a few days after her arrival. She is already looking for an affordable apartment and has enrolled her children in local schools. Thankfully, Amal is fluent in English. With the help of her sponsoring group, she is trying to locate the resources she'll need to create a life for herself and her children. It won't be easy for her since she has few technical skills and has arrived in the U.S. during a severe recession. But having lived through sanctions, war, and the brutal occupation of her country, Amal is truly a survivor and will do everything in her power to give her children a decent and dignified life.

The challenges Amal faces are enormous. Some Iraqi families, coming to the U.S. as refugees, have experienced few of the benefits they expected to find. Federal agencies in states where the families have re-settled can't always provide adequate assistance. Rather than endure degrading poverty, they have chosen to return to Iraq.

Before leaving Amman, Amal required immediate assistance to pay the last month's rent on her apartment, obtain transcripts of her children's grades, get the required vaccinations, and take care of other expenses. As the trustee of the Iraq Family Relief Fund, I sent out an appeal to past donors to raise enough money to cover Amal's needs while the family prepared to leave Jordan. The response from donors has been wonderfully generous. I was able to send Amal the assistance she needed and set aside the remaining donations for other needs that are sure to arise in the weeks and months ahead.

[Original drawing by Amal's daughter; colored pencil on paper]

Monday, February 23, 2009

Iraqi Family En Route to U.S.

This morning at 2 a.m. Amal and her three young children departed from Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan. They will stop off  in Paris and then fly to Newark, New Jersey. The family's sponsors will meet them at the airport in Newark and then drive them to a town in upstate New York where they will begin a new life.

Amal and her children fled Baghdad in 2005 after militias threatened her with death. Getting in to Jordan proved to be almost as difficult as getting out of Baghdad. With so many Iraqis seeking asylum in neighboring countries because of increasing violence in their homeland,  Jordan began sealing its border with Iraq. To enter Amman, Amal had to take her children first to Syria and then, with the help of a Jordanian national, into Jordan. Thankfully, she and her family escaped the fate of countless other Iraqi families that fell victim to criminal gangs, sectarian militias, extremist thugs, and the violence of U.S. occupying forces. 

The Iraq Family Relief Fund covered the family's basic expenses throughout their time in Amman. After three long and difficult years trying to survive as displaced Iraqis, the family was finally granted refugee status and allowed to re-settle in the U.S. 

I spoke with Amal last night as she was getting her children ready for the journey. She shared with me her many misgivings about coming to the U.S. One of her greatest fears is that she will be unable to provide a decent life for her children and will be forced to go elsewhere. She is aware of the hard times people are facing here and worries that, as a foreigner, she won't find suitable work. 

But having known Amal for over ten years and seen how resourceful and resilient she is, I am hopeful that with the support of her American friends, she will find a way to get by. Among her many gifts is an irrepressible creativity. As an artist, she has turned out hundreds of canvases depicting an idealized view of Baghdad, the city where she was born and raised. 

Over the years, I have tried to sell Amal's art work as a way for her to earn money for her family. Once she is settled in her new home, I have no doubt she will start painting again and perhaps showing her work in local galleries.  

[Original painting by Amal; oil on canvas]

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Storytelling Fundraiser a Big Success!

Pathways to Peace: A Storytelling Journey, which took place on Saturday evening, February 7 at the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quaker) in Cambridge, MA, succeeded in raising over 500 dollars in donations. This money will go toward paying for rent, clean water, and food for families assisted by the Iraq Family Relief Fund. Three widely known professional storytellers joined George Capaccio (who is also a storyteller) in a program of stories celebrating the quest for peace and the value of empathy. Performing with George were Norah Dooley, Diane Edgecomb, and Elisa Pearmain. 

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pathways to Peace: A Storytelling Journey SAT Feb 7th

On Saturday evening, February 7, the Peace and Social Concerns Committee of Cambridge Friends Meeting presented an evening of storytelling. Featured tellers were Diane Edgecomb, Norah Dooley, Elisa Pearmain, and our own George Capaccio. Proceeds from this event will benefit George’s Iraq Family Relief Fund, which provides monthly assistance to six Iraqi families. Refreshments were donated by Panera Bread. Stories, both personal and traditional, celebrated times of empathy, courage and compassion along the pathway to peace. Please call George at 781-641-9846 if you have any questions about the event or the storytellers. Many thanks to the Friends Peace and Social Concerns Committee and all who attended.

George Capaccio’s work on behalf of the people of Iraq has been recognized by advocates for peace. His collection of poetry about Iraq, While the Light Still Trembles, won the 1999 Peace Writing Award from the University of Arkansas, and he received the 2001 Peacemaker Award from the Massachusetts Chapter of Veterans for Peace. He continues to help support a group of related Iraqi families through the Iraq Family Relief Fund.