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The Iraq Refugee Crisis

Scattered Families

by JOHANNA BERRIGAN

“Without the human stories that bring people and their suffering so vividly to life…there is little chance of public opinion reengaging with the biggest political calamity of our time.”

–Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

"Grandma,” as she is lovingly called by all of us at House of Grace, is a refugee from Iraq. The House of Grace provided hospitality for her and her daughter when they arrived from Amman, Jordan this past summer. Grandma is seventy-two years old and spunky. She has a great sense of humor. She is self possessed, soulful, and seems to carry the wisdom of the ages within her being. One can sense a certain dignified strength and gentleness of spirit at the same time.  Dressed all in black with her hijab draped loosely about her, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a wise old sage. Whenever I see her, I am greeted effusively, “habibi,” (my dear) , a warm embrace,  kisses on both sides of my face  –  more than once.  Prayers of blessing and gratitude in Arabic generally follow this show of affection. Ibraham, smiling, translates the prayers and tells me quietly that Grandma says that I remind her of her daughter; the one who died in the war along with her only son in a roadside bombing. Only then do I realize how much she is really carrying.

Our guests from Chad, Ibrahim and Hawa, who sought asylum due to terrible violence in Chad,  are also receiving hospitality at House of Grace. Because they speak Arabic, they have become essential to our ability to offer hospitality for Iraqi refugees. They have experienced what the Iraqis are experiencing.  We don’t know what we would do without them. The evening that Grandma and her daughter arrived, I mentioned to Ibrahim that I felt so badly for them because some Iraqis have family in this country, but they do not. They have no support.  They are all alone. Ibrahim spoke softly and said, “don’t worry, Johanna, we will be the family now.”   

Among the many horrors of the tragedy of this war, destroyed, displaced, scattered families are a sad reality. There are an estimated 2.7 million people displaced within Iraq, and more than 2 million more living in neighboring countries, primarily Jordan and Syria. Most, if not all, refugees left Iraq because of the violence; some have received direct threats, others have had family members, friends, and neighbors kidnapped or killed. Whether the Iraqi people have “resettled” in this country, are waiting in Jordan or Syria for resettlement in another country, or are displaced inside Iraq, all of them have experienced terrible trauma, loss, and continue to face many difficulties.

In late Oct., 2007 I traveled to Jordan and Syria with Bishop Tom Gumbleton and Lily Yeh, a Philadelphia artist, to learn more about the Iraqi refugee crisis.  Throughout the trip, the works of war came vividly to life in the stories and sorrowful eyes as each person spoke. They eagerly and openly shared with us their experiences of the war in Iraq, the circumstances under which they were forced to flee, the indignities, uncertainty, and suffering that they continue to endure. We spent time with individuals and families whose lives have been utterly devastated by the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The Iraqi people are barely eking out an existence in these countries where they cannot claim residence and don’t know when or if they will be resettled to a third country. One man expressed it rather poetically, yet tragically, “we cannot touch the sky, we cannot touch the earth, we are nowhere, we are in limbo without hope, all we want is peace.” Neither Jordan nor Syria is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees which guarantees certain minimal rights. Neither government refers to the Iraqis in their countries as “refugees,” but rather as “guests.” Both countries are concerned that the Iraqi refugees will become a long term presence. Neither Jordan nor Syria issues work permits. For refugees in these countries, working is illegal. Every family that we spoke with expressed a sense of desperation because the resources they once had are dwindling.  Concern and fear for the future permeated our conversations. 

The husband of one of the families was described by his wife as, "like the mayor of the town, all the people loved him." She spoke of how they were a wealthy family, they had a good life but now, she shared," everything is gone and we are living in the ashes." With an anxious urgency in her voice and demeanor, she spoke of the struggles of her family. Her husband had been kidnapped and a ransom was demanded.

The family sold everything, the ranch and the animals to pay the ransom. His life was spared, but they continued to receive threats. Terrified, the family fled to Syria. Her husband has cancer of the colon and suffered a stroke. Mild mannered and mostly silent, he shook his head in sorrow and resignation as his wife told us the details of their ordeal. All alone in Syria and unable to work, their resources are all but gone. He needs chemotherapy that costs $1600.00 per month.

Their children, two daughters and one son, are with them but "their futures are destroyed." Everything is gone and they cannot get an education. Catholic Relief Services has provided some supplies but not the help that they really need: visa and assistance with resettlement. She broke down completely as she explained that she could bear anything but the screams of her husband at night when he is in pain and there is no medication. She asked for our prayers as she reasoned that they are on part of the journey of the suffering of Christ. "We live with nothing now, we look at the face of Jesus, he hears our voices."

We were able to talk with a woman who had worked at the U. S. embassy in Baghdad for many years. She is a striking woman with long silver hair who, though clearly fatigued and sad, possessed an unmistakable inner strength and dignity. It was obvious that she was out of place amid the squalor in which she was forced to reside. She smiled shyly and spoke softly as she told us, “I quite liked the Americans that I worked for.” She cleaned the offices of the U. S. embassy. Her journey to Syria was most degrading and unjust for such a hard working, dignified, woman. Her application for resettlement had received no attention in Jordan. One evening on the way home from work, she was picked up by the police. Because her visa was expired, she was put in jail. She spent one week in jail. The conditions were awful: many women crowded into one cell, no respect, and bad food. Upon her release she was taken to the border of Jordan and Iraq and dropped off. She had nothing left in Iraq so she fled to Syria. She is in Syria now with her husband and 13 year old son. Her husband is disabled from two strokes, diabetes and hypertension.   Unable to work, she stays at home to care for him. With shame and sorrow she spoke of how they must depend on their son to provide for the family. He is unable to attend school.  She lives with the fear that he will one day be picked up. He doesn’t have a passport or any valid ID. They cannot obtain one for him because it costs $800, money they simply don’t have.  She shared about how corrupt things are, " you can get a visa easily if you have money."  After a long visit, her husband finally spoke, "We used to ask our families for help and they did help, but they are growing tired of it. We don’t want to keep asking. We don’t want to call now.

The humiliation is so deep, we are desperate. We start to hate everyone. We have family all over the world, Egypt, Australia, Sweden, and we can’t get to them.”

The situation for Iraqis who are internally displaced is even more tragic. They too, in most instances cannot work; they have to pay rent to live in a different part of the country. There are limited services from government departments and NGO’s. Internally displaced persons are also subjected to threats and random bombings.  One woman shared this story: Her sister who lives in Basra with three children is now a widow. Her husband was pulled from his car and shot in front of their 12 year old son. The mother was too frightened to stay in their home because her son witnessed the shooting. She lived in fear that the militia would return and kill him.  She now has no means to provide for her family. She has no ability to even get to Syria or Jordan.

Recently, the U.S. government announced that it had reached its goal of 12,000 Iraqi refugees for this fiscal year. The United States plans to take in a minimum of 17,000 Iraqis over the next 12 months and an additional 5,000 under a special visa program for Iraqis who formerly worked for the U. S. military. This new goal is inadequate, and unjust. The U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that there are 90,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan and other neighboring countries seeking resettlement. Kristele Younes of Refugees International said, “ The U. S. certainly met its goal for this year, but next year’s targeting of resettling 17,000 Iraqi refugees falls far short of what is needed.” In addition, from what I have heard and observed, there is a preference being given to doctors, journalists, professionals, and those that have worked with the U. S. Military. All Iraqis who are in danger and fear for their lives should have equal opportunity to resettle safely to the U. S.  There are untold numbers who are vulnerable and need assistance.

And then there are the problems that the Iraqi people face upon arrival to the U. S. Our first Iraqi guest could speak English, many Iraqis cannot. Even though she could speak English and was quite capable, the transition to this new country was traumatic. The culture shock alone is stressful.  She couldn’t use the phone without help, knew nothing about public transportation, she had health problems that needed attention and initially had no insurance. She feared for her children’s lives here in Kensington. She couldn’t sleep thinking about how she was ever going to provide for her children in this country.  

The Nationalities Service Center, an organization in Philadelphia serving immigrants and refugees, reports that the agency is given only $425 per refugee from the State Department for resettlement. This does not begin to cover the cost of rent, security deposit, furniture, household goods, clothing, transportation, and food. Each refugee is only given enough rent for four months. At the end of four months, they are expected to be adjusted and self sufficient. This is inadequate and unrealistic.  

Grandma and her daughter left the House of Grace and moved into their own apt. in August. The other day as I was leaving a local hospital, I saw Grandma’s daughter in the lobby. Her calm manner was impressive as I listened to her ordeal: Grandma was sick, they had come to the hospital early that morning on a public transit van for the disabled. They had been waiting for five hours to be picked up. The van had not come back to pick them up as scheduled. She was trying to remedy the situation but couldn’t.  She was confused by the numbers on the card, she is not confident with the English that she has learned, and wasn’t sure how to explain the problem. Call it what you will, but as luck, happenstance or grace would have it, I came by at just the right moment. Only after reaching the manager of the company, was I able to learn that the van driver had gone to the wrong hospital. Mercifully, I was able to make other arrangements for them. I don’t how she could possibly have been her own advocate in this situation. Grandma was sitting quietly on a bench outside the hospital. She looked tired, and has lost some weight.  I think now, considering all of her losses, grief, and illness she should have been weeping – maybe even screaming in frustration.  As it was, in typical fashion, she looked up in surprise and smiled, “habibi.”

Providing hospitality for this family and other families and individuals from Iraq has been an intense, yet moving experience. It has been healing for all of us. Despite the many difficulties that they experience during this transition time, our meager resources, personal inadequacies, and language barriers, we have come together as family and found refuge in each other.

For more information on The Iraqi Refugee Crisis and what you can do, see: www.afsc.org, www.nationalitiesservice.org, www.Iraqistudentproject.org.

JOHANNA BERRIGAN works at the House of Grace in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: jberrigancw@yahoo.com