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.”