Thursday, May 1, 2008

trip to jordan and syria part 2

[see photos at bottom]

Amman, Jordan, Day 2, Wednesday, May 30, 2008

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:

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.”

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.

Some of the women I met with:

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