Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Children's Losses - March 7 09

Christina's family is an example of how different faiths and even nationalities melded in families in Iraq prior to the US invasion. Christina is Christian, her husband was from Egypt and a Muslim. They were married many years but a year after fleeing Baghdad in 2004, they divorced. The usual strains marriages often face are often compounded by the hardships couples must cope with living as refugees.

Christina and her three children live in a tiny one room flat that rents for 60JD (less than $100) - utilities cost another 25JD per month.

They cannot pay for much of their needs with the small UNHCR monthly cash grant. It is only 60JD per month and is only for Christina. The children are not eligible because they are "technically" Egyptian because of their father's country of origin. It does not matter that he lived in Iraq for 25 years before they had to flee and that the children were born there. Christina works a couple of days a week cleaning houses. She makes between 10-20JD ($14 - 28) per week. Christina said her church used to help them occasionally - until they found out that she had been married to a Muslim.

The youngest, Marian, complains, wanting her own bed on a frame. Christina exclaims, "If we could buy one, where would we put it!"

They fled Baghdad in 2004. First there were two separate kidnapping attempts on Sally - now 19. The final straw was when her school bus, filled with laughing girls on their way home after school, was attacked by militia. Although the driver sped as quickly as he could to try to get away from the attack, all of the girls in the back of the bus were killed. Many of them were Sally's friends. Sally survived only because she was sitting in the front.

Both of the older children did not complete their educations and have not attended school since they left Iraq. Jordan began allowing Iraqi children to attend public schools only in September of 2007. By then Sally was too old to re-enter school as Iraqi kids cannot attend public schools after they reach the age of 16. Her younger brother, Osama, had missed too many years and was too far behind to return. Sally tells us, "Marian is lucky - she was at the right age to enter school last year when classrooms were opened to Iraqis"

Marian made a self-portrait of herself - tall with a wasp-waist, surrounded by sunshine and flowers - certainly not depicting the cement and busy highway outside their door. Perhaps in this make-believe world where she imagines herself there is a house with a garden outside. Maybe it has a room just for her and with her very own bed. Maybe she is able to smile in this world. She did not for the entire time we visited.

Friends in Need... March 7 09

Mehdihah is Christina's friend and neighbor, living above her in a small one-room flat. She is not married and is alone in Jordan. Her brother had come with her but he was caught by authorities here soon after they arrived in Jordan in 2004 and returned to Iraq. She has tried to arrange for him to be allowed to return with no luck. She talked to a relevent Ministry here and they told her to pay the 45JD fines he owes and then to come back and they will "discuss it". She does not have this relatively small amount of money (approx $65) and fears that the "discussion" would only be another denial of her brother to join her. Like Christina, Mehdihah cleans houses a couple of days per week.

***Iraqis who came to Jordan were given very temporary short visas. The understanding was that they were to return to Iraq or go elsewhere when their visas expired. When they do not leave, just like anyone else overstaying their visa, they must pay a fine of 1.5JD ($2.60) per day for every day that they stay past the expiration of their visas. This is a per-person fine. Can you imagine the amounts owed by families with many children who have been in Jordan for several years?***

These two women provide each other with mutual emotional support and share what they have with one another. We provided both of them with Food Assistance.

"We can't go back to Iraq. What have we there? Half of our family has died in this war" - March 7 09

Tahani's story is beginning to be a familiar one: her husband was caught working illegally a couple of years ago. A Jordanian man agreed to "sponsor" him so that he could remain in Amman with his family instead of being sent back to Iraq. He's demanding money constantly and threatening them if they do not pay. For Iraqi men who risk trying to support their families, the price can be high and payments toward it never-ending.

Tahani told us that they have moved twice in the past year to escape his demands and threats. He recently told a mutual aquaintance to tell her husband that if he sees him, "I will do something" That "something" is unspecified but quite clear: they will be hurt in some way by it.

She continues, in tears, "We are afraid. We stay and home and never go out"

Her husband, locked in by fear, debt and inability to work, is depressed. Recently he began getting mental health counseling through a NGO. I wonder how one can be counseled to accept such circumstances. I wonder how one can maintain sanity when always having to look over their shoulder, waiting for certain pain.

The three young children play around us as we talk with Tahani in their tiny living room. The two older kids - 6 year old Hadeel and 4 year old Abeer - color cloth quilt squares that I will bring back with me to the US when I return. The youngest, one year old Mustafa, tries eating the crayons when we forget to watch him closely.

Abeer finishes her quilt square and shows us a picture she has drawn of a large razer blade. Her mother tells us that a much older boy threatened her with a blade like that as she walked to school recently. Since then, Tahani walks her to school and home. Iraqi children are frequently targets of bullying and worse by other kids. There is prejudice against Iraqis and bullies know they will not be held accountable or even stopped; Iraqis cannot complain or they risk getting into trouble with the authorities themselves.

Despite their hardships here, Tahani does not look at a return to Iraq as an option to escaping them. She tells us, "Now if you tell me I must go back to Iraq, I'd refuse. I remember our bad situation there. Now it is worse than ever. We can't go back to Iraq - what have we there? Half of our family members have died in this war. Cancer is bad there (they are from Basra which endured heavy bombardment from US weapons containing Depleted Uranium during both the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion) We lost family members from cancer - one was only 20 years old. Our only hope is to be resettled"

Article: The Refugee Crisis: Pain and Suffering of the Iraqi People

Full article on Global Research HERE


"... the United States is still unable or unwilling to recognize the damage it has done to Iraq, its infrastructure, and its people. Fifteen per cent of Iraq's population are refugees and permanently displaced people. To put this in context, 15% of the American population is 45 million citizens--imagine if a group of people greater than the population of Canada, more than half the population of Germany, or two-thirds the population of France, or two-thirds the population of the United Kingdom was left homeless by war.

The State Department spokesman is entirely correct. Nothing will be done about the Iraqi refugees and internally displaced citizens (or the flood of Afghan refugees from Barack Obama's scheduled escalation of the conflict there). If only Iraqis (and not Afghanis) were given all the 70,000 U.S. refugees visas available annually, it would take 57 years to bring them to America..."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"We found our mother's body cut into pieces...." March 7 09

We delivered food assistance to Intisar, her sister Anam, Anam's husband, Ala'a, and the couple's young son, five year old Mustafa.

They left Iraq after a series of harrowing events. Ala'a had papers thrown at him that carried the words "Leave Iraq or you will be killed". Then the unimaginable - Intisar and Anam's mother left her home to visit relatives and her travels led her down the dangerous road that runs by Abu Ghraib. She never made it to her destination. Anam tells us, "We found our mother's body cut into pieces" They speculate that she was a victim of a sectarian-motivated attack because they are of a minority sect who lived in an area that had been taken over by the other sect.

They struggle to pay for their most basic needs. Ala'a works as a custodian at a computer center two to three days per week. He receives only 2-3JD ($3-4.50) per full day's work though. The family has not received the UNHCR cash grant. They rely on charity to pay the relatively small rent of 80JD per month. Intisar tells us, "Sometimes we cant pay the rent. The owners live above us so this is difficult. But when we get assistance from people, we pay it"

In addition to the food assistance, Maha called to make sure that this family is put on a list to be evaluated for eligibility for cash assistance from UNHCR

Report on Iraqi women: "In Her Own Words: Iraqi Women Talk About Their Greatest Concerns and Challenges." - Oxfam

Study: Iraqi widows struggle in new roles as breadwinners


While violence decreases across Iraq, women in the war-ravaged country face worsening hardships as warfare has thrust them into the role of family breadwinners, an aid group's survey said.

An Iraqi woman who sells incense and candles to support her children says, "to work is to preserve your honor."

In a release dated Sunday coinciding with International Women's Day, Oxfam International issued, "In Her Own Words: Iraqi Women Talk About Their Greatest Concerns and Challenges."

Many women have been widowed and have had to run their families because their husbands "had been killed, disappeared, abducted or suffered from mental or physical abuse," the survey says.

As a result, many have been unable to earn a decent living. While there are no precise numbers, there are now an estimated 740,000 widows in Iraq, Oxfam says.

"Women are the forgotten victims of Iraq," said Oxfam International Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs, in quotes included in the survey.

The survey found that largely because of the conflict in Iraq, 35.5 percent of participants were acting as head of the household and that "nearly 25 percent had not been married."

"If this reflects Iraq as a whole, it is the highest rate in the larger region, a result of the loss of men of marrying age as a result of the conflict," the survey said.

Oxfam and its Iraqi partner group Al-Amal Association, conducted the survey in five provinces -- Baghdad, Basra, Tameem, Najaf and Nineveh. Questioners interviewed 1,700 respondents starting last summer.

While the survey doesn't represent the situation facing all Iraqis, it provides "a disturbing snapshot of many women's lives and those of their children and other family members."

"A quarter of the women interviewed still do not have daily access to water, a third cannot send their children to school and, since the war started, over half have been the victim of violence," Hobbs said.

"And to add further insult more than three-quarters of widows, many of whom lost their husbands to the conflict, get no government pension which they are entitled to."

The report urges Iraq to invest in social welfare essential services.

"A whole generation of Iraqis are at risk. Mothers are being forced to make tough choices, such as whether to pay for their children to go to school and receive health care, or to pay for private power and water services. These are choices no mother should have to make. And they are not only threatening individual families, they are also threatening the future of Iraq itself," Hobbs said.

Here are some of the survey results.

• Security and safety are the top concerns of nearly 60 percent of women.

• More than 40 percent of respondents said their security situation worsened last year.

• 55 percent had been victims of violence since 2003.

• Some 45 percent of women said their income was worse in 2008 than in 2007 and 2006.

• 69 percent said access to water was worse or the same as in in 2006 and 2007.

• 80 percent said access to electricity was more difficult than or the same as in 2007.

• Nearly half of the women said access to quality health care was more difficult in 2008 compared with 2006 and 2007.

• 40 percent of women with children reported that their sons and daughters were not attending school.

You can read the full Oxfam report HERE

Watch 2 minute video HERE

Monday, March 9, 2009

"This is my life now - I am either on this pillow sleeping or lifting my head to take medicine'" - March 7 09

Mohammed lives with his son and daughter-in-law. He told us that he had been living in a small, rundown 1 room place under a building until they invited him to live with them. Now he spends all of his time on his sleeping mat in front of the television. He tells us, "This is my life now - I am either on this pillow sleeping or lifting my head to take medicine'"

This is very different than his life before the US invasion. Then he was a manager in the Transportation Ministry. He had a Masters degree and two undergraduate degrees. His son was well educated and became an engineer. Mohammed lived comfortably with his wife and their children in Baghdad.

But academics and those who worked in government institutions became targets for assassination after the invasion. Mohammed found his name on a hit-list on the front page of a newspaper. Then, when he was at the UN, giving a presentation, he heard that one of his colleagues that was supposed to also present had been killed. Mohammed left the country immediately. He told us that most of those whose names were on the hit-list have been murdered.

Mohammed's wife and their three unmarried daughters are still in Iraq. They live in a tent refugee camp in Baghdad and rely on charity to live. He has nothing to offer them. He said, "In my profession, I could make 3 million dinar a month in Iraq. But if my life is threatened there, what good is any of that?"

His son is not in but his wife, Evan, is. She sits pensively on a mat across from me while her father-in-law tells us that her husband had also been threatened, probably because he was a professional - an engineer. Militia burned their house and stole their car. Mohammed adds that Evan was also threatened because her mother was a Christian married to a Muslim. Her brother was shot while attending university. Evan sold all of her gold jewelry in order to finance their exodus to Jordan. Now all of the money is gone. The stress has taken it's toll on her husband; he now has diabetes.

And, as many couples who endured such upheaval and trauma, the couple have not been able to conceive. Evan tells us that they checked to see what it would cost to get infertility treatment. It would cost $2000 - an impossible sum for them in their current circumstances.

Mohammed hopes for immigration. He complains that many who came to Jordan after they did have already been resettled. There is no sense to it, in his mind. He wants his son to be able to work, for him and Evan to have children. He wants help for them, at least, to be resettled so that they can have a chance at a life.

Mohammed has diabetes and other ailments. He shows us the bag of prescription medications he must take. Their total monthly cost is around 150JD. His UNHCR monthly grant is 115JD.

"We lost all that we had in Iraq - our home, our cars, our money, all of it. Here everything is so expensive. We can't buy anything here. I need treatment but I cannot afford it"

This or That? - Feb 28 09

Bayda and her 5 year old son, Ali, met Maha and I at the taxi to carry her food assistance box to her flat. She hurried as Zaha'ra, only 20 days old, waited inside.

Bayda, her husband, Manaf, and their two children share their small flat with Bayda's father. He had returned to Iraq a few years ago to sell their family home in order to pay for an eye surgery he needed. After selling the home, he stayed in a mobile home while he waited to get the surgery in Baghdad. Because of his poor eyesight, he tripped and knocked over a small gas stove. The mobile home quickly became engulfed in flames and although he survived the fire, all of the money from selling their home burned. He is despondent, blaming himself for losing all that they had.

Manaf and Bayda fled Iraq in 2003 after a militia came looking for Manaf at his parents' home. Manaf had been in the Iraqi military and this militia had been killing off anyone who had served in the military. At the time, Manaf was visiting his wife's family though. When the militia did not find him there, they took his brother instead. The family later found his body, beaten badly and then shot. Manaf's mother insisted that he leave Iraq then. She was not only worried about him but that other family members may be targeted.

Now the family lives on only a small UNHCR monthly cash grant that Bayda's father receives and the $100 per month military pension of Manaf's. The couple asked to receive the UNHCR cash grant last November but still have not received it. Sometimes Bayda takes illegal cleaning jobs but, with a new baby, she cannot work right now.

Their situation is very stressful for her. She told us, "My (breast) milk is not enough and the baby cries all of the time." We counsel her to continue to nurse and that she will eventually produce enough milk. We advise her that this is healthier for her baby than formula and costs nothing. She is not convinced. She wants to be able to return to cleaning houses because they need the income and bottle feeding would free her to do this. We then caution her that the monthly expense of purchasing formula will be more than what she earns housekeeping. We can see she is not convinced.

Perhaps, for Bayda, feeling useful by being able to bring income to her family overrides what we may consider to be a sensible choice. Perhaps, with so little to feel good about in her situation, she gains some esteem in being able to provide for her entire family. Perhaps she is concerned that, if she does not work, her husband will risk working and she may lose him. The penalties for men found working are harsh and can include being sent back to Iraq. I don't know but I can see her shutting down and wanting to end this conversation.

Nothing is clearcut any longer for most here. Lives have been turned upsidedown and suspended. Nothing is as it should be or would have been if the US had not invaded Iraq. Who am I, as a citizen of the nation that caused this damage, to tell her what is best?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Running in Place - Feb 28 09

Ahlam was blur of motion from the moment we met her until we turned to wave our last ma'asalama (goodbye) when we left. She met us at the taxi, rapidly hefted the heavy box of food onto her head, and took off at a brisk pace down the narrow alley to her home. When Maha and I caught up with her, she had the box in her house, on the floor, opened and was rummaging through it, chattering animatedly all the while. I looked at the photos I took during our visit with her and not one is clear. It seemed that she just could not sit still!

Ahlam lives in a very small flat - one room, approximately 12' x 12', a tiny kitchen and hamam (bathroom) The entire household sleeps in this one room - Ahlam, her husband, her mother-in-law, her sister and her daughter. The rest of the family was out when we arrived and I wondered if Ahlam's expansiveness in her movements was her exhileration at being able to move so freely in this room that must be extremely cramped when the entire family is home. Despite having so little room, Ahlam invited me to come to live with them, indicating the spot on the floor I could sleep!

They sought safety in Jordan in 2005 after her mother was killed. She worked at a university and had gone to pick up her pay. She never made it home. She was kidnapped, robbed and then thrown from the kidnapper's car and run over. She only lived a few hours after being taken to the hospital.

Ahlam's husband was caught working illegally two and a half years ago and was arrested by Jordanian authorities. He spent six months in prison. The UNHCR tried intervening but it was not until a Jordanian aquaintence agreed to "sponsor" him that he was released. Now this man demands that the family pay him 60JD every month - "forever" - until they leave Jordan. If they do not, he will terminate his "sponsorship" and Ahlan's husband will be returned to prison and then possibly to Iraq.

Their UNHCR cash grant barely covers their meager rent, Paying the fine is a burden they can't afford to pay - and cannot afford not to. Only Ahlam and her husband receive the grant - the rest of the family members have not received it yet. She was very happy to receive food assistance.

While Maha and I drank the thick aromatic Arab coffee she served us, Ahlam told us she would read our fortunes with her prayer beads. Her premonitions bounced back and forth, from Maha's and mine as fast as her fingers moved over the beads. All good news. I wondered but did not ask if she had read her own future and, if so, what she saw.

As so many, the family are waiting for resettlement. They want to plan for a future; they want to work. She said that they have been told they would be resettled to Canada. They were told this 14 months ago. They have heard nothing since.

Photos of Ahlam and her husband in better times hang on the wall. They show her as a well-dressed, well made up woman - a voluptuous beauty. I was stunned when she told us that the photo was taken less than five years ago. The stresses and trauma of her life since then have taken their toll. Her face tells the story of their life these few years. But, in spite of her losses and the hardships she endures, she still has a ready smile and vivacious manner.

the "Waiting Room" Feb 28 09

Next we delivered food assistance to Khabel, Naheda and their two sons, Ram and Remon - ages 14 & 15.

They had recently moved from another flat to this one. It was small and in bad shape but they were happy to be there. They said this was a 'lucky flat" because those that lived in it before them had been immigrated quickly. They are waiting to be immigrated to Canada and hope that they receive word that they will go soon. They've been waiting four months since they were told that they will be accepted.

Khabel was a goldsmith in Baghdad and came from a long linage of goldsmiths. He had his own shop. They lived a comfortable, middle-class existence. But things changed radically for this family after the US-led invasion.

Khabel told us, "Before the invasion, as Sabians we were treated no differently than anyone else. There were no differences between Muslims and other religions." But after the invasion, he was threatened because he did not go to pray in the mosque and Naheda was harassed because she, as a Christian, did not wear hijab.

Then things went from very bad to umimaginably worse.

Young Ram was only 8 years old and was approached by a man carrying a football. The man told him to take the football to some nearby US soldiers. Ram knew that it was not "just a football" - her was certain it contained a bomb - so he ran. The man followed and tried to catch him - unsuccessfully. But a month later he was kidnapped.

A neighbor saw the car stop and the men inside grab him. Ram was held for two weeks and then the kidnappers called and demanded $10,000 ransom. A cousin was enlisted to hand over the money and retrieve Ram. The boy they had returned to them was not the same as he had been before the kidnapping; he had been very badly mutilated and, despite having had two intensive operations since coming to Jordan, he will never be able to marry. He carries deep scars within him as well as those on his body. He left school. Only recently he has begun attending some informal training courses through a UNHCR funded program.

Other family members were brutalized also. Naheda's brother was kidnapped. When the kidnappers entered their home by breaking down their doors, they violently shoved his wife, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with. Her mother was living with her brother and his wife at the time. The kidnappers tied up the elderly woman, blindfolded her and dragged her up the stairs. She survived but became very ill and died soon afterwards. Her husband was released after a large ransom was paid and they quickly left Iraq for Jordan and have now immigrated to the US.

A nephew was kidnapped and held a month. He was released after the family paid a large ransom. But he was warned to leave the country that day - that if he had to be told a second time, he would be killed. His shop and home were burned to the ground. They fled to Syria.

This family has suffered unbearable loss and trauma. Khabel suffered tremendous psychological problems until recently getting treatment. Before that, he would often pound his head into the wall, over and over again. It was hard for me to imagine this dignified, intelligent man at such a loss - but then, it would be hard to imagine not being altered terribly by what had happened to his son and by losing everything.

He said, "I can't stay inside these walls without work, with no future. You can imagine: how any man would be without work, without a future" With his two sons sitting next to us, we understood that there were also heavier things weighing on his heart but that this was not the time to talk about them.

The family cannot wait to immigrate. They are tired. They want safety and security. Khabel wants to resume taking care of his family again; he wants to move forward. I told him that, with his skills as a goldsmith, he should find it easy to get work in his profession once resettled in Canada. He was quick to respond, "If I can't work in my job, I will do anything"

"We can't afford anything. We need much." Feb 28 09

Our first stop for the day was to take food assistance to Raghad and Khalid's family. Khalid stayed out of sight as many of the men do when we visit. Perhaps it is because Maha and I are both women and leaving us to talk with their wives may be deemed more proper by some men. My suspicion is that it often has to do with their sense of shame in having to accept handouts. These men - like family men everywhere - want to support their families themselves. Although our assistance is welcomed because it is needed, it can also provoke feelings of worthlessness and helplessness - especially in the men.

Raghad looks harried. She has three little ones: 5 year old Sajad, Kamar - 3 1/2 and a toddler, Melak to keep her more than busy. The kids romp among piles of clean laundry ready to be folded. We do not photograph her because she is not wearing her hijab and we respect her dignity and privacy.

The family had lived in a neighborhood of Baghdad that lays between two areas that have each been taken over by opposing sects. Their neighborhood was a battleground between the two. Their home was shot up by a barrage of bullets one night. Then they were threatened by militia because Khalid had been a soldier in the sovereign military. They fled to Jordan in 2006.

"We did not want to come here. We love Iraq; we miss it and we want to go back. But we can't go back because my husband graduated from military college. Then, when his brother and sister were kidnapped, we knew it is now impossible for us to return"

***Note: Raghdad's husband is the brother of Faten - see "Warmth for a Cold House" Feb 26 09***

Now Khalid works one or two days a week for low-paying wages helping our in a banquet hall. Even with their monthly cash grant from UNHCR, they struggle to pay their basic bills and put food on the table. Raghad tells us, "The worst thing about our situation here is that there is such distance between us and our families. But also our bad finances. We don't own anything. We can't afford anything. We need much."