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]