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The Plight of Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Attuned to Tom and Jerry

by KATHY KELLY

Last week, Umm Daoud, (her name means "Mother of Daoud"), met me and three friends at a bridge that crosses into her neighborhood. It was just after sundown; the streets were darkening as she guided us toward the narrow path which leads to her home. She and her five children live in a humble two room apartment in a crowded "low-rent" area of Amman.

As guests, my friends and I sat on a makeshift piece of furniture, an old door placed atop two crates and covered by a thin mat. She and her children sat on the floor. Apart from a television and a small table, the living room had no other furniture. The television remained "on" while Samil, her youngest son, seemed completely absorbed in a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon.

"Tom and Jerry" antics are a favorite in almost every home I visit here. Spanning multiple generations and regions, the duo’s popularity seems to reflect benign values. "Sometimes Tom wins and sometimes Jerry, and sometimes they both win, especially if they team up against an enemy," a young Iraqi woman told me. "You love them both. It’s a bit like fights between brothers and sisters."

Incalculably less benign are the "real life" chase scenes Umm Daoud’s family has endured. When I first met them, five months ago, Abu Daoud, the father, told me that he had been a prosperous goldsmith in Baghdad. "We had two houses and two cars," said Umm Daoud. "Now, I have two brothers killed, and all this suffering, and no way to take care of my children." Abu Daoud told us that two years ago, Daoud, his teenage eldest child, was kidnapped for ransom in Baghdad. Fearful for their son’s life and wanting to save him from torture, the family sold all that they had, gained his release, and swiftly escaped with him into Jordan.

Abu Daoud came to Amman and moved his family into their current home, hopeful that he might eventually find work. But for an "illegal" resident in Jordan, among hundreds of thousands of others who’ve fled Iraq, there was no work. He sought help from the few groups doling out rations of food and assistance with rent. Young boys would taunt him, calling him an old man and an "Iraqi terrorist", while adults would threaten to report him to the
authorities as an "illegal"–but still he had to keep seeking work.

Three months ago, Abu Daoud learned that his cousin, in Iraq, had received a death threat. The cousin tried to flee Baghdad, but was unable to do so swiftly enough. When his body was found, it was chopped into pieces. This news further traumatized Abu Daoud. Engulfed by pain and misery, he became abusive toward his wife and children. Fights erupted between them. Two months ago, Abu Daoud disappeared. His wife believes he fled because he couldn’t bear facing them, each day, with his feelings of anxiety and guilt.

Umm Daoud’s eyes fill with smoldering fury as she spills out feelings of frustration, mistrust, and humiliation.

Neighbors in adjoining homes practice a very conservative form of Islam. Even though Umm Daoud is a Sabean, she fears being judged harshly by them and opts to cover her head whenever she leaves the house. When her husband left her, some of these neighbors said this was a punishment she deserved. She’d like to live elsewhere, beyond their threats and curses, but she can’t afford the rent anywhere else.

Two of the daughters are diabetic, needing weekly insulin injections, but Umm Daoud can afford neither the medicine nor the lab work to track their illness. Now, one of her daughter’s eyesight is failing. Untreated insulin can lead to full blindness. Umm Daoud has to hide all of this from her neighbors. They may be here for a long time, and if the neighbors find out that the girls are diabetic, she fears it could destroy their future. Would it be difficult to find suitors for them? I’m not sure. Looking at these beautiful young women, it seems unlikely, but blindness is a frightening condition, –who am I to guess? Umm Daoud herself needs medical attention for a kidney ailment, but her daughters’ untreated medical crisis takes up all her attention.

Caritas, a charity organization in Amman, offers free medical checkups for Iraqis, but no medications.

Through registering with the UNHCR, the family became eligible for a "salary" of 60 Jordanian Dinar per month. This barely covers rent. A light fixture in the room where they all sleep is broken, but they can’t afford to fix it, nor can they manage a simple plumbing job to repair a faucet that steadily, noisily leaks.

They are too terrified to invite a repair man into the home because the daughters are vulnerable and could be exploited. If a man took advantage of them, they would have no recourse for protection because anyone could accuse them of being illegal residents, causing them to be deported back to Iraq.

Umm Daoud has already been stung by the humiliation of being so vulnerable. Once, in Amman, a gang stole a sum of money from her. She reported it to the police. In the investigation, someone accused her of being a prostitute and the police department dropped the case.

One note of good news gladdened Umm Daoud and her daughters. Daoud, the older son, excels in soccer and recently qualified for an Iraqi team invited to compete in Seoul, South Korea. For Daoud, a victim of torture when he was kidnapped, playing soccer has been part of recovery. He’s in control on the field and the sport has been an important form of therapy. Numerous Iraqis in the "illegal" community pooled money for Daoud’s trip.

Toward the end of our visit, Daoud called from Seoul. The family was jubilant, except for little Samil, watching his Tom and Jerry cartoon with his back turned to the family. From where I sat, I could see his face. He showed no emotion whatsoever and never took his eyes off the TV screen. I remembered the playful ten-year old I’d first met, in January of 2007, a little boy whose eyes were alight and animated, who loved climbing onto his father’s lap. The family seems to understand his need to withdraw.

Before leaving, Noah Merrill, who, with his wife, Natalie, has worked hard to design a project called "Direct Aid Initiative," (see www.electroniciraq.net), suggested that they could help cover some of the family’s medical expenses. He assured Umm Daoud that this would be an act of friendship, not charity. "Of course it’s not charity!" she said, flinging her hands upward in exasperation. "You already have our oil!" She cocked her head slightly, a smile on her face. "You are perhaps living well with our oil," she said, as we all nodded our heads, "so this is not a charity." Such humor, as if this whole nightmare of the war and its complications were just brothers and sisters fighting, and she could wryly forgive.

The UNHCR has appealed for $121 million dollars to assist Iraqis who’ve been displaced from their homes, 2.2 million of whom are internally displaced inside Iraq and close to two million more who have sought shelter in neighboring countries. UN documents appeal to people’s charitable instincts, but UN workers know full well just how politicized the discussions have become.

The U.S. could direct the amount of money spent on just six hours of the war in Iraq and fully meet the UNHCR request to assist millions of people who have barely survived this U.S. "war of choice."

This week, the U.S. government will continue deliberating over how much money to earmark for particular defense expenditures. They will serve the insatiable demands of the largest lobby on Capitol Hill, the defense lobby, which is asking for a total of $648.8 billion dollars.

Even Senator Kennedy, one of the few Senators advocating measures to benefit Iraqi refugees, recommends allotting $100 million in the 2008 defense budget for a new General Electric fighter engine. (The Boston Globe recently reported that the Air Force said it didn’t even need the item.)

Democratic candidates claim they are interested in ending the Iraq war. They claim concern for Iraqi victims. I believe these claims. Yet by obediently funding the war machine, most of them play predictable, scripted roles in a dull and murderous war without end. The victors are always the same, the bloated and menacing producers of weapons,–General Dynamics, Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed, General Electric,–the fat cats whose menacing force always wins. The losers can watch their children become crippled, starved, maimed or dead. Period.

Yesterday, Umm Daoud and her daughters paid me a visit. Samil chose to stay behind. He didn’t want to miss an episode of Tom and Jerry.

KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and author of Other Lands Have Dreams. She can be reached at: kathy@vcnv.org.