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Stories of the Displaced

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:29 pm
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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.

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