|Day One ~ April 29,
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.
Two ~ April 30, Amman, Jordan
Medea with Amman Collateral Repair Project
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
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
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.”
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.