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)

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