Trip to Jordan and Syria to Research Plight of Iraqi Refugees

by Medea Benjamin

Day One ~ April 29, Amman, Jordan

Medea with Amman Collateral Repair Project Team and Asma

It was an amazingly full first day in Jordan. Asma Al-Haidari, a brilliant Iraqi woman who lives in Amman and works with political as well as humanitarian groups, picked me up at 8am from the Toledo Hotel. Our first stop was the office of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), where a group of about 40 Iraqis was waiting on line to register with the agency or ask for some type of assistance. We started talking to the people on line. One woman, who was completely covered in a black abaya except for her eyes, had a disabled son she was trying to get medical help for. Another woman had a child with a tumor who needed an operation. All had fled the violence in Iraq and were living in Jordan without funds and in legal limbo.

A group of men gathered around us and started talking all at once.

“Please help me. I need to get out of Jordan.”

“We're not allowed to work here; how are we supposed to support our families? We have used up all our savings.”

“If we go back to Iraq we'll be killed. Can't you help me get to the United States?”

I asked the men what they did back home. One was in the army. Another was a sports trainer. Another an engineer. All were used to working hard and taking care of their families. Having fled the terror in Iraq, they were now living hand to mouth without jobs, without a future and feeling desperate. I felt terrible that I wasn't able to do anything for them.

We went inside to talk to the staff at UNHCR, including Anna-Maria Deutschlander, a “Senior Protection Officer” in charge of helping Iraqis to be resettled in other countries. She talked to us about the long, difficult process of resettlement and how few countries wanted to take in the Iraqis. “The Swedes were originally very generous, but now they are clamping down. Most European countries feel the U.S. is responsible and should take the lead, but the U.S. has a goal this year of only 12,000—a drop in the bucket—and I doubt they'll even take that many,” Anna-Marie told us.  

We also talked to one of the program officers who deals with the food and cash assistance programs. I was shocked to hear that the UNHCR only distributed cash assistance to a tiny percentage of the refugees, just 1,800, and food assistance to only 3,550, which they distribute through a group called the Jordanian Alliance Against Hunger. Moreover, only 53,000 of the estimated 500,000 refugees in Jordan have even registered with the UNHCR.

I asked why so few were registered. Some Iraqis, they said, are afraid to register because they are in Jordan illegally, and they think it is better to lay low. They also see little benefit to registering, as there are few services and people don't have to be registered to get them. Whatever the case, the UN outreach and support seems to be surprisingly limited. “If we had more staff and more funds, we could of course do much more,” said Anna-Marie. “But our present budget is just until June and we have no idea what we'll have to work with in the future, so it's very hard to plan.”

In a diplomatic way, the staff also conveyed their frustration with the politics that infuses the refugee situation. In Syria, where the government is at odds with the U.S., the government is more open about the plight of the refugees and UNHCR has more of a public presence. In Jordan, the government is an ally of the U.S. and wants to downplay the plight of the refugees so the UNHCR has to be more low key. Also, in Syria there are more refugees, and poorer refugees, so the need is greater. But with Iraqis in Jordan depleting their savings as time passes, the UNHCR staff obviously feels inadequate to cope with the crisis.

Homeless in Iraq

Next Asma took me to visit a women's self-help group in the home of the group leader Maha Al Muneem. In the U.S. this group works with the Collateral Repair Project, and CODEPINK has hooked up with them to raise funds for their activities. About 15 lovely women greeted me at the door, most dressed in pink in honor of CODEPINK. They knew about our work in the U.S. to try to end the occupation, and were grateful for our actions. I, of course, felt terrible that we have been so unsuccessful, and apologized profusely for the horrible damage our country had done.

Some of the women began sharing their stories. One young woman's brother had been burned to a crisp by a U.S. shell that hit his car. “We couldn't even recognize his body,” his sister said, her eyes tearing up. One woman had been the victim of a botched kidnapping, and while she luckily survived, she had been dragged for blocks hanging out of a car and still has trouble walking. Another woman broke down as she recalled how the U.S. soldiers raided her home, traumatizing the family and stealing all their savings and family jewels.

The saddest story was that of Um Marianne, single mother whose husband had been killed. She started crying hysterically about how difficult life in Jordan was, with men preying on her, bosses cheating her because she was working illegally and couldn't complain. She was despondent that she was unable to provide a decent life for her daughter. Suddenly, all the women were weeping—for their own plight, for the plight of their sisters. It was heart-breaking to witness, knowing that my government was responsible for their suffering.

What the women did have, however, was the camaraderie of each other and a profound social conscience. After spending a few hours with them, I realized that the reason Iraqis are not literally starving is not because there is an effective network of UN and NGOs, but because they all help each other. The wealthy look after the middle class, the middle class look after the poor. There was a large pile of clothing in Maha's kitchen, for example. The women had gathered old clothes from rich Iraqis by literally going door to door asking for donations. Then these women, most of whom had been middle class back home, carefully washed, folded and bundled the clothing not for themselves, but to take to Iraqis living in really poor conditions. The women did not get any compensation for this work, but did it out of a sense of moral obligation. “It's our duty to help those who are suffering even more than we are,” they said.

Within this informal collective, the women looked after each other like sisters. “We are all worried about Um Marianne,” they said. She had been working several jobs, often in sweatshop-like conditions, and leaving her daughter home alone. So the women got a donation to buy her a sewing machine so she can work at home.

The women have set up a series of “micro-projects” like this that the U.S. Collateral Repair then tries to fund. One woman got funds to set us a hair salon in her home. Another got a heavy-duty sewing machine to sew leather—she buys old leather jackets and cuts them up to make beautiful wallets. Another woman wanted video camera and good digital camera to make money filming weddings and other celebrations (unfortunately, there is not much to celebrate these days, she admits). They hope to start a bakery project, a home-pickling business, and for some poor men, they plan to buy a machine to clean floor tiles and one to make keys.

Some of the women have formed a craft collective, and brought out their wares—mosaic paintings, ceramic bowls, place mats, dresses, intricately painted jewelry boxes. They make the products in their homes and the collective helps them market their goods.

After spending several houses with the women, and eating a lovely lunch together, we parted sisters, vowing to stay in touch and help each other.

My next stop was the office of Medecins San Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), where I met the Communications Director Valerie Babize. I had met the MSF staff in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, before it became too dangerous to work there—and to visit. After leaving Iraq they set up shop in Amman, renting an entire floor of the Red Crescent Hospital where they have provided reconstructive surgery to over 400 Iraqi civilian victims of violence-—be it from the Americans troops, the Sunni insurgents, the Shia militia or Iraqi army. “We see the most horrible cases,” Valerie told me. “Children whose entire faces have been blown apart and they can barely eat or talk; people who have lost limbs and through poor treatment come in terrible pain with severe bone infections. We perform miracles; they come in wheelchairs and terribly disabled. They leave walking, talking, eating.”

Refugee Children

But one of their biggest problems is that since January 2008, the Jordanian government has clamped down on Iraqis trying to enter the country. While the group has a capacity to treat 80 patients at a time, they now have only 20 or 30 patients. “It's such a shame,” said Valerie. “There are thousands of Iraqis in desperate need of our help, since the hospitals in Iraq are now so terrible and so many of the doctors have left. But now we just say to the patients, if they can get in, we will treat them but they have to figure out a way to get here.”

My next meeting was with Dina, a beautiful 28-year-old Iraqi woman who I had been in touch with over the internet. Dina had written to CODEPINK out of desperation, looking for help to get into the United States. She had worked as an interpreter and program officer for a U.S. AID contractor in Iraq called Research Triangle Institute, or RTI. At first, it was wonderful work, educating Iraqis about women's rights and democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But the violence in Iraq increased, and it became more and more dangerous to be seen as a U.S. collaborator.

In August 2007, she got a terrifying phone call from saying “We know you work with the Americans. We know how to reach you and your family. We will kill you and your American friends won't be able to do anything to help you.” Having seen many of her colleagues meet a gruesome end, she quickly packed up and fled to Jordan. The rest of her family—a sister and elderly parents—following soon after. Dina thought the Americans would help her get a job in Jordan or get into the United States, but she found herself abandoned with no income and no support. In the email we received from her she said, “The Americans say they want to help the Iraqi people. They talk about human rights, women's rights. But how can they help the Iraqi people if they can't even help the staff who worked with them under dangerous circumstances? Are we slaves to be discarded when our lives are in danger? They don't know the risks or feel our suffering because they hide in the secured area of the Green Zone. I can't go back home because I will get killed or raped for my association with Americans. I can't stay in Jordan because I am not allowed to work and have no money. Please, I need your advice because I am depressed and don't know what to do.”

Dina came to meet me with her mother, a frail woman whose face revealed her severe anxiety of leaving everything familiar to come live in a strange land. A Christian woman married to a Shia man, she was at first happy to see Saddam overthrown, until life post-Saddam became hell. Now the family is totally dependent on their young daughter for their survival.

We talked about Dina's prospects for getting into the United States. She already had one interview to establish that she indeed worked for a U.S. company. Now she will have another interview to convince the Americans that her life was in danger in Iraq. It is a grueling and long process, but I promised to do what I could in the US end to help her.

“When I wrote to CODEPINK I never thought I'd get a response much less meet you,” Dina said tearfully as we parted. “I hope our next meeting is in the United States.”

Asma and I had dinner with her friend Auf Al-Rawi, a good-natured, intelligent and charming man had fled Jordan with his wife and two boys after a series of harrowing experiences which he recounted in detail. One of the lucky ones, Auf had a job in Jordan working for a U.S. agency called Life for Relief and Development, which was started by Iraqi-Americans. Unlike others, he also has a good prospect of being resettled with his family in the United States. Auf beamed with pride when he talked about his sons. “America tore my country apart,” he said, “but perhaps it can give a better life for my children.”

I spent the evening at Asma's apartment, as she insisted I stay with her instead of in a hotel. It was spacious apartment in a nice, quiet neighborhood, but it was sparsely furnished. “I am furnishing this apartment little by little, as my funds allow,” Asma explained. “How ironic that I used to run a business in Baghdad that made beautiful furniture and now I can't afford to furnish my own apartment.” “Bush would like us all to be beggars but we are proud people,” she added. “I predict that the Americans will be forced to leave in about two years, and we will get our country back. Inshallah--God willing.”

Day Two ~ April 30, Amman, Jordan


Medea with Amman Collateral Repair Project Team

Maha from Iraqi Collateral Repair Project picked us up at 9am to take some aid to a poor Iraqi community. An Iraqi businessman had volunteered to drive us there, and Maha had packed the truck of the car with meat, drinks and other food supplies. The women had also brought toys for the children, carefully wrapped like Christmas presents. “Every month we bring food, especially meat, and other gifts because these people are really just barely getting by.”

After about a 20-minute drive, we reached a very poor neighborhood that had been full of Palestinian refugees and now was also home to Iraqis. The house of our host, Nadia Um Ali, used to be a stable for sheep but now housed several families.

In the modest living room about 15 women and children had gathered to meet me. Before we started talking, Nadia asked her 7-year-old granddaughter to recite a poem she had written herself. The poem said something like, “We had been promised happiness, and all we have gotten is misery and sorrow. There is no happiness for the Iraqis.” The women nodded in agreement.

After some general introductions, the group decided it would be best to hear from them individually. So on the couch in front of me, the women came forward one at a time to tell their grim stories while Asma translated.

We stayed for almost four hours, hearing tale after tale of sorrow, each more tragic than the next. A wave of guilt would come over me as each story unfolded and I realized that it was my government's policy that led to her misery.

I'll recount some of the stories below:

Medea meets Iraqi Mothers

Nadia is a young woman with a round, jolly face and a quick smile that belies the tragedy she carries within. Married in 2002, a year later the couple was eagerly awaiting their first child. When the baby was born, her husband was out of town on business. He was rushing back to Baghdad to see his baby daughter when a US convoy approached from the opposite direction, spraying bullets. He was killed instantly. “My daughter, Daria, never got a chance to even see her father,” Nadia cried.

The mother and daughter remained in Baghdad, but in February 2007 American soldiers broke into their home and terrorized them. That's when Nadia decided to flee to Jordan. Daria was so traumatized by the raid that she lost her ability to control her bladder and still has frequent nightmares.

Nadia now faces life as a single mother in a strange land, with no income and no hope. “The Americans invaded my country to steal our wealth, and in the process they stole my personal treasure—my loving husband.”

“I'm so sorry, so sorry,” was all I mutter as we hugged and cried.

Rana looks like a young student, but she is really a 33-year-old single mother of three. She was living with her children and husband, a carpetmaker, in Baghad. They were a mixed marriage—she was a Christian, he a Sunni Muslim—something that used to be quite common.

On September 11, 2006, her husband left the house in the morning and never came home. He simply disappeared. She spent the next days and weeks searching, filling out reports, checking the morgues. She never found him or his body. In the meantime, her neighborhood had erupted in violent Sunni-Shia clashes, so she packed up her three children and fled to Jordan. Two of her children are sick. One had a deformed kidney at birth, the other has severe anemia leading to frequent fainting spells. Rana has received some medical help from the Red Crescent, and Save the Children paid for her children to go to school, but only for one year. In Jordan government schools that are virtually free to Jordanians, but Iraqi children must pay about $100 each for registration, and about $60 for books. On top of that are transportation and food expenses. Rana has no idea how, next year, she will keep her children in school.

Given her financial woes, Rama's in-laws say she can't raise the children well, and have been demanding that she give the children to them. Rama refuses. “I have lost my husband, my home, my future. The only thing I have left in this world is my children and I am determined to keep them,” she claimed. “Somehow, God willing, I will find the means to provide for them.”

Dora, 40 years old, is so thin she looks sickly. She is one of the few women in the group not wearing a head scarf. Dora is a Christian, and grew up in the same neighborhood of Baghdad as our Sunni host. “Those were the days when we all got along, when we all lived as one—Sunni, Shia, Christians,” our host Nadia said. “Our children all played together, studied together, intermarried. That was before the US invaded and tore us apart.”

Iraqi Refugees

Dora is single, but just a month ago, she was asked for her hand in marriage. She refused because she has to take care of her mother. Dora and her mother fled to Jordan when Christians came under attack by the militias. Her mother is only 67, but she has cataracts that have gotten progressively worse. Now she is blind and Dora has to do everything for her. Doctors say she could regain her sight, but the operation costs $2,500. CARITAS can only cover $400, and no one will pay the rest. Her mother is so ashamed of her situation that she won't let anyone see her. She lives like a prisoner in their little room. “It's terrible,” said our host Nadia. “In Iraq under Saddam, medical care was free and she would have gotten the best operation. Today, after we have been ‘liberated,' people go blind for lack of funds.” So much for liberation.

The stories go on and on. Majda's brother was tortured in Abu Graib and has never recovered. Thikra's husband disappeared five months after the U.S. invasion, leaving her alone with three children. She fled after a militia gang threatened to rape and kill her. Zainab's husband was killed in a firefight between U.S. soldiers and insurgents. She fled with two of her children, but left the 10-year-old behind. She broke down sobbing as she recalled that today was her daughter's birthday.

I am reeling from the enormity of the tragedy. There are about 2 million internally displaced Iraqis and over 2 million who have fled to Jordan and Syria. All of them have experienced violence and loss, all of them are struggling to survive.

Meanwhile, most Americans are barely aware that there is a war going on and Congress is poised to give another $170 billion to continue the occupation of one of the oldest civilizations on earth.

In the afternoon I will take one of the “shared cars” that go to Syria. For $14, you get a taxi (with 3 others) that takes you all the way from Amman to Damascus, a four-hour ride counting the time at the border. Syria has even more Iraqi refugees than Jordan, and because it is less expensive to live there, it is home to many of the poorest Iraqi refugees. I will steel myself to listen to their stories tomorrow.