My taxi is one of many pulling up to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. It is only 8am yet sweat gathers in all crevices. Scanning the long line of Iraqis already standing outside in the quickly disappearing shade, I spot Amjad, my Iraqi interpreter. He is wearing a crisp button-down shirt complete with tie, an uncommon sight here in the Middle East where men wear their collars unbuttoned, tieless and open. He, his wife, and their two young children are here this morning joining other Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers in the hours-long wait for a registration interview. Amjad and his family are seeking resettlement to another country. Prior to the US invasion, he had been manager of a clothing shop in Baghdad. Post-invasion, he moonlighted for an Iraqi company that trained security contractors for Dyncorp, an international security provider. His starting salary of $200 per month increased to $500 and due to the long hours required by the interpreting job, he quit his job in retail. A note slipped under his door in August 2005, signed by a known al Qaeda-connected group, told him he would be killed if he continued working as an interpreter. Amjad moved his family to Amman three months later. “Life is safe here, but we are suffering from unemployment. It is a difficult life. We need to make a living but as Iraqis we are not allowed to work.” Amjad’s two brothers in Germany and a sister in the US help by sending money. “I wish to settle in a new country and start a new life, maybe in the States.”
Amjad’s story is just one in this exodus from the violence, unrest, ongoing military operations, religious and other forms of persecution, kidnapping, and general insecurity in Iraq. Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes per month, according to Rana Sweis, spokesperson for the Jordanian office of the UNHCR. More than 1,000 are making their way to Syria on a daily basis, where it is estimated that 1.4 million Iraqis now live. The Jordanian government claims another 750,000 Iraqis live in Jordan. An equivalent figure applied to the US population would equal 40 million refugees.
(A May 2007 report by Refugees International, an international organization specializing in providing humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced persons, estimated that there were one million displaced Iraqis pre-2003. This was the result of twin ethnic cleansing campaigns pursued by Saddam’s regime after the end of the first Gulf War against internal opposition groups. “Arabization” efforts forced Kurds from their homes in Kurdistan while Arabs were sent north, and the southern marshlands drained, forcing marsh Arabs from their homes. Skyrocketing present day exodus numbers make former displacement figures pale in comparison.)
The exodus also represents the complete spectrum of Iraqi society. “Rich, poor, middle class, uneducated, and the very educated,” make up the Iraqi refugee population in Jordan, said Sweis. A formal UNHCR registration process asks Iraqis to bring all identification documents—both legal and forged, without threat of penalty—to appointments where the most vulnerable Iraqis can be identified, given individual assistance, and for a limited few, resettlement to another country. While the registration process serves as an identification system for all refugees and separates out those who seek more permanent asylum due to persecution in Iraq, it does not protect registrants from punitive actions by the Jordanian government, such as deportation or incarceration if they are caught in the country illegally—that is without official residency status. Nor does it aid refugees in getting this much-needed residency status in Jordan—a requirement not only in order to remain in the country legally, but to work, enroll children in school or even create schools among refugees, get access to health care and other social services provided by the Jordanian government, and avoid the 1.5 Jordanian dollar per day immigration tax levied against people who overstay their visa or who do not have a residency permit. (For a family of six, that equals approximately $12US per day or $4,320 per year in immigration fees.)
Resettlement, which is what Amjad desires, is an option available only to the most vulnerable, according to Sweis. “It is not the solution for the majority of Iraqis in Jordan. Resettlement is up to the host country—they decide how many they will take.” Of the 3,950 Iraqis in Jordan who have applied to nine countries for resettlement through UNHCR, only a small number—a few hundred—have actually departed. More than one million Iraqis are estimated to have fled their homes since the Samara mosque bombing in February 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq. Another 4.5 million are either internally or externally displaced and tens of thousands flee their homes monthly. Such figures make the recent US announcement stating it would accept 7,000 displaced Iraqis for resettlement—from Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Egypt combined—seem ludicrous at best. (It is reported as of early March that Egypt was hosting 100,000 Iraqi refugees, a recovering Lebanon 40,000, and the Gulf states another 200,000.)
Between Iraq and a hard place
With Jordan’s population numbering 5.6 million, the impact of Iraqi refugees on its infrastructure is enormous for a country already rife with domestic problems. Jordan suffers from a lack of water resources (one of the world’s 10 poorest in terms of water resources), high unemployment, and an 18 percent poverty rate among Jordanians. “That is why the international community must step in and help Jordan with this burden,” said Sweis, “which is what we are trying to do as well.”
Due to its experience in relation to the Palestinian crises in 1948 and then again in ’67 that saw a flood of approximately 2.5 million Palestinians enter the country and eventually reshape Jordan’s political, socio-economic, and cultural life, the Jordanian government is loath to create a hospitable atmosphere for Iraqi refugees. Although disenfranchised in many ways, according to Sweis, the Palestinian population placed their children in schools and took over the social services. Most of the original refugees were granted citizenship in 1950, and today they represent more than half of the Jordanian population. “The Jordanians do not want to see this happening again in their country—that the Iraqis would stay,” said Sweis. “The best solution for all is that the Iraqis would be able to return to a safe Iraq. What we [UNHCR] are trying to do is to make their life easier while they are here, and at the same time help the Jordanian government cope with this crisis. The solution will have to be a political solution. [What we are doing now] is a temporary solution.”
In Geneva, at a UNHCR conference addressing the humanitarian needs of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons in April of this year, Jordan reported that hosting 750,000 Iraqis, who have come to represent 15 percent of Jordan’s total population, is costing them $1 billion annually and asked for that amount from the international community. The Iraqi government has pledged $25 million dollars to help Iraqis outside of Iraq but that money has yet to be delivered. According to UN estimates, it would cost $78 million just to educate the children of Iraqi refugees.
One important issue raised by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the conference had to do with violations of international law, specifically refugee law, concerning non-refoulement—that is, protections against refugees being returned to home countries where their lives or freedoms could be threatened. In the case of Iraq’s refugees, there have been reports of some neighboring states refusing entry to Iraqis, and also the forcible return of refugees to Iraq. According to a statement drafted by a broad spectrum of NGOs at the conference: “At present, those fleeing violence in Iraq are received by neighboring countries as temporary visitors, not refugees with recognized rights. This situation is further exacerbated by the difficult renewal process of their visas, with the result that most Iraqis living in third countries quickly lose their legal status and are left to fend for themselves, living in fear and subject to exploitation.”
Caught in the crossfire
Hatem Oday was a colonel in the Iraqi Air Force. In 2004 he received death threats from the Iran-linked Shiite Badr militia in relation to his participation in the Iran-Iraq War some 25 years previous. On May 30, 2004, 11 pilots living in the same Baghdad district were killed in one day. Oday left Baghdad three days later with his wife and six children. I asked his eldest daughter, Rafel, age 16, how it felt to be living in Amman. Her eyes filled with tears as she managed to respond, “I am bored. I miss my friends and wish to go back to my country,” before bolting from the room sobbing. Mamoud, the eldest boy said he is bored as well. A male of 14 years, he is especially at risk from random detainment or deportation.
Their mother, Souad, is in the process of setting up a cottage sewing industry under the direction of Faiza Alaraji, a wealthy Iraqi woman married to a Jordanian who arranged for Souad to receive a sewing machine. With her children’s help, Souad sews Iraqi-insignia bracelets and women’s handbags. Hopeful as to the eventual Iraqi soccer team’s victory in the Asian Cup finals, she has sewn strips of red, green, and black material together to make Iraqi flags, which sell like hotcakes, as do the bracelets. Just as the POW bracelets of the Vietnam era were bought by thousands and worn as a reminder, Souad hopes her bracelets reach an international audience of people concerned about the welfare of the Iraqi people.
Things are no different in the Hashem home. Ali Hashem, a Shiite, has been living in Amman for six years. Jailed for four days in 2001 by Saddam’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, in Karbala, he was released on conditions that included his promise to report on the activities of his brother, Hussein. Both were accused of participating in the “opposition” during the first Gulf War. “The occupation is very bad, there is no safety. We had hopes for the occupation but we have been disappointed,” said Hashem. “Even in 1991 during the uprising, the Bush father said, ‘We are going to free Iraq.’ But he didn’t comply.” Things were better for Hashem and his family before this latest US invasion, referring to Jordanian resentment of the growing Iraqi presence. “We were accepted here before the war but now with the influx of Iraqis, life is much more difficult for us.”
Hashem’s eldest son, Ali, never ventures far from their home. His mother, Haleema, panics if he does not appear immediately when called, especially given the tales of deported Iraqis being dropped off at the Iraq/Jordan border being scooped up by “terrorists” who then cut their heads off. I ask her how she knows terrorists are doing this. Unlike Westerners, who use designations such as “insurgents” and “mujahideen,” Iraqis mince no words. “Anyone who creates terror for the people is a terrorist,” is Haleema’s response.
A photography class taken in the days before the recent Iraqi influx has turned Ali into a budding photographer. I tell him he, rather than Western journalists such as myself, are the perfect vehicles to get the story of the Iraqi people out to the world. Only 16 years old, Ali has already spent four months in an Amman jail for fighting after religious-based taunts by friends at school. His mother is beside herself with fear that not only will he fight again, but also that someone will report him to authorities, which could result in detention or deportation.
Although the numbers of detentions and deportations have been small, and the Jordanian government has pretty much turned a blind eye to the presence of the illegals, the fear of being detained or deported runs high. It is important to note that Jordan and Syria have been extraordinarily tolerant and hospitable and have taken in most of the Iraqis who have fled there. However, fear is still rampant in Jordan for all of these reasons and more. In contrast, Sweis said that the Iraqi refugees in Syria suffer no such fear of deportation, detainment, being interviewed or filmed. In Syria, schools are free and work is available to the almost 90,000 Iraqis registered there.
Approximately 50 percent of Iraqi refugees are children. It is estimated 550,000 are of school age with limited access to education. Historically, making sure their children receive an education has been and remains an absolute priority among Iraqis. Illegal families such as the Hashems and Odays simply keep their children in hiding. Yet, even in host countries like Syria that allow Iraqi children to go to school, many do not attend because families cannot afford supplies or uniforms.
The Misinformation Highway: Myth vs. Reality
It has been two-and-a-half years since my last trip to Iraq when, as an independent journalist—which means I make my own travel arrangements, and travel and work alone—I reported on Iraq’s first election in January 2005. In the course of three weeks, I made the death-defying round trip flight between Amman and Baghdad twice. I was refused entry the first time by an Iraqi immigration official despite possessing the proper credentials. He actually did me a favor since the hotel I had planned to and eventually did stay in was damaged the next morning when a truck filled with explosives blew up immediately outside. Thick shards of glass shattered onto my thankfully empty bed. Once in the country, I had a few close calls: My hotel complex was attacked briefly on several occasions by Kalashnikov fire from outside its perimeter; I had a US soldier ready to take aim at me—I was wearing a black abaya and hijab; and while in a stopped car at a checkpoint I got caught in a shootout.
At the time, I felt pretty safe. It wasn’t until stepping foot outside of Iraq that the effect of these experiences left me with no desire to return. However, a desire to lay certain demons to rest combined with an opportune door of entry has brought me back to Iraq.
I have chosen to avoid traveling to Baghdad. Admittedly, fear keeps me away. Iraqis do not have such choices. Under Saddam, fear was a common ingredient to everyday life. Today, among the displaced, this fear is amplified. Even when a safe spot is found, fear abounds—of the unknown, of being made to leave—especially if one is in another country illegally—fear of the future, of death following on one’s heels, of being able to find work or the next meal. The fear simply breeds more fear and as Iraqis talk among themselves and others, the lines between rumor and fact become blurred, merging at times into fantasy filled with conspiracy theory. It is hazardous of the journalist to simply accept all stories verbatim. But it would also be neglectful to completely dismiss these versions of reality, as they do offer a glimpse into the inner psyche of people whose lives are deeply afflicted by war. As one UNHCR representative told me, “Many of these people are suffering from schizophrenia and mental disability.” Just about all are simply doing their best to survive.
Stories from the displaced front
“It is a new idea that people in Iraq know the war was made by the US. The result is that there are five million people displaced within Iraq and five million people have left. The US has said it will accept 7,000 refugees. We don’t want an alternative homeland. We want human rights resettlement organizations to help us solve the reasons behind needing to leave Iraq. Without security the problems of Iraqis cannot be addressed. There are militias, ethnic identity killings, and there is internal interference by Iranians. Anyone who says the US should leave Iraq is insane. They need to stay at least three more years. We would say to the Americans, “leave tomorrow.” But the Iraqi police force consists of 32 militias. Iraqi prisoners pay $50,000 US dollars to stay in American prisons instead of being transferred to Iraqi prisons. In Iraqi prisons they cut off ears, torture and kill. In US prisons all are registered. A lot of people are willing to sell everything to stay in an American prison.”
Haj Ali at one time claimed he was the hooded man in the infamous Abu Graib photo. Everyone from PBS to Envirosagainstthewar.org helped to push his story. According to sources in Amman, Ali later recanted. In Amman, when I asked the towering giant of a man if he indeed was the one in the photo, standing on a box with electrical wires attached to his body, he said he has been advised by his attorney not to answer any questions in relation to the time he spent at Abu Graib. When I pressed him for a response, he said that he was “one of many” treated in this way.
After his release from Abu Graib, Ali formed an Iraqi NGO originally named the Association of American Occupation Prisons, with the word “Prisons” changed to “Victims” at a later date. His original focus had to do with the treatment of prisoners and conditions of prisons within Iraq. His NGO now addresses more general humanitarian issues affecting Iraqis. Even though he was tortured in Abu Graib, Ali said, “I don’t hate American people and I don’t want to be seen as a victim, but as a messenger for peace and love.” He wants the Americans to appoint a “salvation government. A government of experts not representatives of militias. We are ready to cooperate with the Americans. We are dissatisfied with the situation. It is time to go to the Iraqi people, not ethnic groups.”
According to Ali, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has secret contacts with Iran and Iranians are controlling the Iraqi economy—a common story among Iraqis. “Hot areas” in Iraq—Salahadin, Tikrit, Falluja, Samara, Anbar—are targeted by an Iranian-financed al Qaeda. Iran is responsible for pushing the Sunni/Shiite divide and recent US talks with Iran are an “unforgivable humiliation for Iraqis because it is a confession that Iran is in control of Iraq.” There is enough food in Baghdad’s Food Storage system for two million people but its distribution is run by the Mehdi militia, who “do not distribute these food stuffs to areas not in agreement with them.” Ali wants five tanks to secure the road to allow for proper food distribution—“some people have not received [their food ration] for 10 months. Iraqis don’t know what is going on and so they are against the Americans.”
A Sunni himself, when pressed as to how many among the 65,000 members of his “ethno-unified” NGO are Shiite, he said, “We represent all Iraqi people. We are all Iraqis. There is no division among us,” and explained that people from different parts of Iraq visit his association that “has helped 23,000 people in Iraq by giving them such things as a bottle of oil or food.” When asked who the funders of his NGO are, at first Ali said that in addition to money he accepts things like “10 boxes of wheat or flour and food.” Later in the interview Ali said his NGO doesn’t take money only goods.” Given the fact that he falsely put himself forth as something he was not—one look at the hulk of a man reveals he could not be the small man in the infamous Abu Graib photo—and that he willingly became a poster child for an anti-war community who for some reason failed to question his story, it is safe to say that Ali is an unreliable source. At the same time, he has stated things that I have heard echoed from other, more reliable sources. Specifically, the overbearing Iranian influence in Iraq.
“I watch the BBC News and I am afraid to go back to Baghdad. I made seven visits to the Green Zone but nobody helps me in Iraq. I need treatment for these girls. How can I work with this in my old age? I am tired. I lost my home, lost everything; the mosques and good people helped me. If Iraq were secure I would rather be there—is there anyone who doesn’t love their country?”
Two empty wheelchairs signal we have reached the home of Um Rawa and her daughters. The door is open and the women inside ask for a moment to cover their heads before we enter. Once all heads are covered, we enter to see three remarkably similar looking young women with huge smiles beaming up at us. All three begin talking at once. All three have speech impediments. All three are in wheelchairs. At the age of 26—some 12 years after her older sisters, Rawa and Wala took to their wheelchairs—Waarka, now 30 years old, began to show signs of the same mysterious affliction.
Rawa and Wala said they have been recently diagnosed by doctors in Amman as suffering from nerve damage brought on by gases released when their complex in Tikrit was bombed by the US during the first Gulf War in 1991. Waarka was away from home when her affliction came on—living in a dorm of her university in Baghdad when it was bombed during the current conflict. Doctors have told her that the cause of her crippling is the same, albeit from newer bombs. They, along with their mother, have come from Baghdad, driven out by the violence and lack of health care.
Carrying huge bottles of orange soda, Um Rawa arrives soon after we do. Despite her fasting to relieve a gastrointestinal infection, Um Rawa continues to work daily at the job she has managed to find in a local bakery where she earns 8JD a day—the equivalent of $5.60. Her husband was killed in the Iran-Iraq War leaving her to care for her invalid daughters by herself. Neighbors in Amman have helped them get an exception from the Royal Court of Jordan—a rare allowance to Iraqi refugees—that enables them all to receive health care. The Iraqi filmmaker friend who has brought me here points out the obvious: “These girls are always laughing and their mother is always crying.”
It is no wonder the mother cries continually. She has sole responsibility over her three crippled children. The girls, although in their thirties, repeat the story of how they came to be crippled with memorized clarity while laughing and giggling among themselves, heads bobbing. It is hard to tell if their affliction has affected their sensibilities, and it is hard to believe that all three would be afflicted by similar events almost 14 years apart. I ask if doctors have considered genetic causes and I am once again answered by giggling, three bobbing heads, and the tear-filled face of Um Rawa.
“There are few poor Iraqis in Jordan because the Jordanian government threw them out. My two boys have lost one year of education. The UNHCR funnels money through Caritas and CARE. Some places make free meals but it takes 2 or 3JD to get to this restaurant. I don’t want a meal. I want a solution. I have an ulcer, it is very, very bad. The US must remove their troops. Sunni and Shiite will get together and be fine. Al Qaeda is supported by the US, and the US military supports the violence between the Sunni and the Shiite.”
—Amal Alwan Maseer
The first time I met Amal Alwan Maseer was in February 2003 in Baghdad just weeks before the war. She lived a few blocks from the hotel where I was staying and by then had become good friends with Kathy Kelly, cofounder of the now defunct anti-sanctions group Voices in the Wilderness. Voices was responsible for bringing hundreds of people via delegations—including my own—to Iraq under the sanctions. A mother of three children, Maseer was taken under the wings of peace activists who bought and facilitated further sales of her artwork, which, among other things, has helped her family to survive.
We now meet once again in the kitchen at the al Monzer Hotel in Amman, a gathering place for independent journalists, peace workers, Iraqis fleeing their homeland, businessmen, and others. We have both come to meet with Kathy Kelly. Comparatively speaking, Maseer looks better than she did in those days of uncertainty just before the coalition bombing. Yet she is obviously agitated, bitter and appears to have signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. While her son, Ali Safa, sits quietly beside me drawing on a pad, she answers none of my direct questions but instead continues in an unending breathless tirade against the current Iraqi, US, and Jordanian governments and US troops.
“Money is coming to the Jordanian government but the Iraqi refugees are only getting maybe10 percent. Maliky gave $1 billion to Jordan. Jordanians have been very bad with Iraqis. They cut their water for four days. Most of [the current Iraqi government] has robbed the banks of Baghdad—they are the thieves of Baghdad.”
When I ask what she would want if she had a magic wish, Maseer, unwilling or unable to stray from her course, responds as if she has not heard my question. “Iraqi soldiers with a pickup truck full of dead bodies will come and say, ‘Die or stand with us.’ The US military will come and ask you: ‘How many have been killed?’ You must say ‘10 Shiite.’ In reality, six Sunni and four Shiite have been killed. Fifteen minutes later the US military come. They support the violence between the Sunni and Shiite. When they asked a man how many have been killed, he answers 10 Shiite and is paid $1,000—a bribe. When the US military leaves the Iraqi police come to the man and get $500.”
When last in Baghdad, Maseer says that while exiting the Ministry of Education building a bus exploded, knocking out four of her son’s teeth. In the next breath she tells me that a university student was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between US soldiers and al Qaeda. The bullet passed through six of the student’s spinal bones and when he was taken to the hospital one of his kidneys was stolen. Then she says that the US troops and al Qaeda are working together.
I soon stop taking notes. It is apparent that somewhere between the horrors Maseer has suffered through, her rightful anger, and the conspiracy theories that fly along the communication avenues of Jordan and Iraq, the line between truth and fiction has disappeared. Not to mention the influence of peace activists who push “talking points” and have taught Maseer how to use the media to get a message across, or the idea that it is somehow appropriate to use the “ordinary Iraqi on the street” as a source of factual information (think of your community) other than their personal experience.
The bombing of the Samara mosque in February 2006 signaled a dividing line among humanitarian agencies with regard to issues of displacement. A sudden explosion of religious fundamentalist-backed violence spread across Iraq, killing thousands and sparking a drastic increase of an already burgeoning Iraqi exodus. According to an article in a recent issue of UNHCR’s Refugees magazine, Iraqis, when asked, say that extreme religious groups are driving the violence, the result of which is the exodus. “In times of extreme violence, a blend of paranoia and bad faith can replace rational discourse. The violence gives the radical groups their raison d’etre. The displaced are pawns they use to further their agendas—which are strikingly similar.”
Editor’s Note: Due to a policy reversal by the Jordanian government, tens of thousands of Iraqi children were allowed to attend public school in Jordan when classes began on August 10.
Next month, senior editor Lorna Tychostup reports from Sulaimaniya on the work of Nature Iraq, an environmental NGO documenting flora and fauna in northern Iraq.
- Lorna Tychostup
- In Amman, Jordan, eight-year-old Iraqi refugee Ali Safa shows his drawing of contemporary Baghdad.
- Lorna Tychostup
- Um Rawa and her three daughters Rawa, Wala, and Waarka in the living room of their apartment in Amman, Jordan.