Dancing in the Darkness
Last weekend was an important one, regarding education, here in Jordan. Jordanian high school students learned the results of exams qualifying them (or not) for University studies. Television news showed students – among the 52% who passed – dancing for joy. And, King Abdullah announced that Jordan will open its public schools to Iraqi students under fifteen years of age. Along with this news came a UNHCR request for $129 million in funding to help provide schooling for Iraqi children living in neighboring countries, especially Jordan and Syria.
I hope this will be good news for several of Abu Mahmoud’s children who have already missed three years of school.
Abu Mahmoud came to Jordan three years ago, after assailants attacked him while he was driving home from his job, in Kirkuk, Iraq. He has pictures of his bullet-ridden car. Having narrowly escaped, he and the family moved into a dingy apartment in Amman, Jordan. Since then, none of his children have attended school. He begged the authorities at one school to permit his oldest son, Mahmoud, to just sit in the classroom and listen, but it wasn’t allowed.
With the government’s new ruling, Mahmoud and his brothers, Ahmed and Ali, may be able to gain admission and perhaps even some remedial help in a Jordanian school. Their sister, Najima, is sixteen years old. It seems that the new ruling won’t open classrooms to children over fifteen years of age. Although Najima has missed formal schooling for the past three years, she experienced a very unusual kind of education during two of these years. Slight and quite beautiful, Najima worked in a printing factory, ten hours a day five days a week, for very little money, making books instead of reading them. The paper-cutting machine she operated was much larger than she is, and I asked her if she ever had trouble with it. “No!” she replied, “Never! And I learned how to lift very heavy loads.” She’s proud of her skill, and should be.
The family relied on her income as the only means to help them make ends meet. Her father had sought work, but he was caught, twice, for working “illegally.” The second time, co-workers had to beg the Jordanian police not to deport him, and the police agreed, but he never risked returning to work. If he is deported across the Jordanian-Iraq border, he could be beheaded, as has reportedly happened to many Shi’a people who were taken to the border and had no choice but to ride along the exceedingly dangerous highway from the border into Iraq.
Najima told me she felt proud of her father because of the work he did in Iraq. In one of his jobs, he had been part of a team, in the northern governorate of Kirkuk, which helped educate Iraqis about democracy following the U.S. invasion. He had also helped to resettle homeless Iraqis who were evicted from housing granted them under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was the “go-to” guy for many families that struggled to obtain housing, blankets, food, and health care. When he came to Amman, he hoped that the U.S. authorities might help him to resettle, since he had clearly risked his life working for a U.S. NGO. But he has yet to be granted even temporary refugee status, a necessary step before being allowed to approach the U.S. Embassy for a visa.
Now, he feels he has nowhere to go, and no one in Jordan to whom he can turn. Najima has stopped working at the factory. Her father could no longer bear the anguish and humiliation of watching his little daughter work so hard. What’s more, he learned that Najima was being paid much less than other older workers.
Najima leaned on her father’s shoulder, as we talked, but sat up straight when she wanted to make a point about her factory work. She was happy that all of the customers knew her. One day, when the owner was away, someone entered the shop and asked who was in charge? “I am!” she said. This story became a favorite amongst many of the customers who were no doubt charmed by the pretty, elfin child. I told her that when I was 17, making money for college, I worked in a Chicago meat packing factory, slinging nearly frozen pork loins onto the conveyor belt of the machine that injected them with pickle juice. We laughed together, sharing “foreman” stories. I recalled not understanding when the foreman was shouting, “Andele! Andele!” – which means “Speed up! Speed up!” in Spanish. I would generally smile and wave, thinking he meant, “Hello,” and then feel baffled when this made him angry. “I know this!” she said, easily identifying with my zany memory. “Yes, I understand!”
I told her about a film, “Dancer in the Dark,” in which a woman from Iceland, a famous star named Bjork, plays the role of a factory worker trying to help her son who is going blind, as she herself is, from a hereditary disease. The woman commits a murder rather than allow someone to rob her of the money she has saved for her son’s treatment.
The film zeroes in on how members of her community react to her and judge her, some giving her aid, others seeking her death. Najima listened attentively, nodding her head and telling me, again, that she understands.
Abu Mohammed’s parents are now here with the family. They left after a neighbor’s small son was killed by an explosive just outside his home. Much of the neighborhood decided it was too dangerous to stay and left homes, cars, and favorite belongings behind them as they fled the country.
Abu Mahmoud’s children eagerly welcomed the grandparents into the family fold. Fourteen year old Mahmoud sat next to his grandfather, massaging his feet; six year old Ali sat in his grandfather’s lap and the ten year old brother, Majid, leaned against his shoulder. The grandmother, sitting next to me, occasionally took my hand in hers, smiling softly. When Abu Mahmoud’s wife entered the room to collect empty tea glasses, the children scrambled to help her.
But of course the arrival of Abu Mahmoud’s parents puts the family in even greater financial insecurity. His father has diabetes; his mother, heart disease. Unable to wait until an appointment could be available through a local charity, he took her to a Jordanian heart specialist, whose fee has cut heavily into the funds he has available for rent, water and electricity. Majid rolled up his pant leg and showed me stitches he recently needed after he fell on broken glass and gashed his leg. This emergency cost the family the equivalent of a month’s electricity and water.
Last week, when I visited with Abu Mahmoud, he received a phone call from a cousin who had fled from a death threat and is now living with his pregnant wife and two small children in a Syrian border camp, under very strained circumstances. Distraught by the news and despairing of life in Jordan or Syria, he told me he sometimes feels so desperate that he thinks of risking a return to Iraq in hopes of finding some means there of providing for his family, although, of course (after calming down) he admits this is a crazed notion. .
Last night, I sat with an Iraqi friend who told me he feels like he and many Iraqis are in a cave, a very dark cave. “But God doesn’t create this darkness,” my friend said. “People are responsible. And we will be judged by the ways we seek to solve problems.”
I responded, “You have a very deep faith,” “Yes,” he said, “I’m grateful to God for this faith. Without it, I think I would become psychologically sick.”
Before leaving the home of Abu Mahmoud, I asked Najima what she would most like to study when next she gets a chance, as I hope she someday will, to be in school. “Science!” she said, her eyes dancing yet again. “This is because I will become a doctor. I will help people who are sick to get better,”
The she added, becoming quite serious, “And I won’t charge them any money.”