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.