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)