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Iraqi Refugees: No Place to Call Home

Jessica Malter


Iraqi refugees cautiously sell shoe polish and other small items on the streets to earn some money.
Photo: Jiro Ose/The IRC

Posted july 14, 2008

Jessica Malter is blogging from Amman, Jordan. She arrived there in June to support the International Rescue Committee’s regional programs to aid uprooted Iraqis.

Even though more than four million Iraqis have been displaced within and outside of Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the humanitarian tragedy of the war story remains largely untold and misunderstood. That’s part of my assignment here for the IRC – to help tell this story.

Before I left, many of my generally well informed friends asked if I was going to visit refugee camps in Jordan. The fact is, there are no refugee camps here. Iraqis fled terrible violence, family by family, and now live scattered throughout the poorest neighborhoods of Amman and other Jordanian cities, tucked away in back alley apartments that often take two or three phone calls to find.

I spent a recent morning doing home visits with Hiba, a young Jordanian caseworker. She works for a joint CARE-IRC program that aims to provide social services, counseling and cash assistance for Iraqi refugees.

It was a draining morning hearing story after story of despair. All the Iraqis I spoke to that morning expressed a similar sentiment: while they feel safe from violence in Jordan they do not feel free. Their lives today are nothing they would have ever imagined for themselves. Most of them are in dire financial straits. Not allowed to work and out of savings, they are living on whatever they can earn doing odd jobs, help from family members and what assistance is available to them. What I found most shocking were the horrendous living conditions. Few of the places I saw were fit to be called "home", though glimmers of lives past were discernable if you looked closely enough.

In the center of Amman, through an alley and up a treacherous flight of decaying stone steps, we found Fala. Fala is married with two young children, ages five and two. His family fled Iraq two years ago when they returned home one day to find a note on their door from a local militia, saying, "Leave now!" He didn’t want to take a chance. Now they live in a hovel with no running water or electricity. They eat only what they can prepare on a single gas burner. The family sleeps together in an area of one room that Fala told me was safe enough, though it didn’t look that way to me. The ceiling was caving in and it seemed any moment chunks of concrete might descend. The room was crammed with their few possessions: broken toys; clothes; some tools and a variety of old electronics such as a tape player, VCR and clock radio. Fala studied engineering back in Iraq and I imagine trying to repair these devices was a way for him to pass the time and maybe earn a few dinars. His children are too young for school and the thought of them spending their days in such an unhealthy and confining environment is disturbing. Fala is especially worried about his five-year-old; he says he barely speaks anymore.

Next I met Hassan. He pays the equivalent of $20 US dollars a month to live in a shack constructed on the top of a building. Hassan fled Iraq after being repeatedly threatened because he had worked for the Baathist Party. His brother had already been killed. Now in Jordan, he has no viable source of income and is fast running out of his small savings. He had been working illegally in Jordan but was caught and given a stern warning by the police, who confiscated his passport. He said his two years in Jordan have been like being in prison. Even so, he will not consider going back to Iraq, believing a violent fate awaits him in there.

Then there was Ahmad, who lived in a dark and dingy room with no furniture and few possessions. He fled after receiving death threats. He earns what he can ironing and fetching coffee for people in the neighborhood. With no steady income, he has given up eating meat and is now limited to fruits, vegetables and bread. The few clothes he has hang from hooks on the wall. Among them is a perfectly pressed suit hanging in plastic–a constant reminder of his past life in Iraq where he held an office job.
Living in the room next door to Ahmad was Mohammed. Clutching a book, with reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, I was particularly struck by how out of place he looked in his surroundings. And that’s the thing– none of the Iraqis I met that morning belong where they are. They all deserve better. Mohammed had been a teacher in Iraq, before going to work for the U.S military. He fled Iraq after receiving death threats as a result of his association with the Americans. He had applied for asylum in the United States and when he learned that I was from there he said to me in English, "Can you help me?" "Inshalla" I replied, a common expression in Arabic meaning "God Willing".

The Iraqi refugees I met that morning, like most that have had to flee their homes, live in a grey zone, having little idea of what their futures hold and no particularly good options.

:: Article nr. 46162 sent on 03-aug-2008 17:52 ECT


Link: blog.theirc.org/2008/07/14/no-place-to-call-home/

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