“Get a job!”
These three words are very familiar to activists bearing signs calling for an end to war, whether standing on street corners, walking along highways, holding vigils, or nonviolently occupying the offices of elected representatives. Listen to the activists, and you’ll often hear, “We’re doing our job. We’re trying.”
I’m convinced that our work must always have one foot placed in nonviolent resistance to the forces that design and wage wars, with the other foot standing among people who bear the physical and mental affliction caused by these forces. Today, I’m thinking especially about two young women who found themselves in nightmare circumstances because, in their view, they simply wanted to have a job.
When American troops invaded Iraq in 2003, Noor (not her name), was living with her aunt in a small town near Baghdad. The aunt received a minimal “retirement” salary from the former Iraqi government. As a young teenager, Noor had left her family to assist the aunt and to enter college there. She felt deep and strong attachments to people in her town, and she loved her aunt intensely. After graduating, still living with her aunt, Noor didn’t want to become a burden to her parents who were already being supported by her brothers. She wanted to earn money and a measure of independence. When a neighbor suggested she come with him to the place where he worked, she was surprised by how easily she had become employed, working to inspect the handbags and purses of people entering the workplace of a large American contractor. Initially, when troops began occupying her town, residents could walk the streets without much anxiety. Working for an American company didn’t seem to carry grave danger.
Two months later, that had already ended. The company told her and her neighbor to take at least three weeks off due to increasing violence, at the end of which, Noor returned to work while the neighbor who got her the job declined to. She had a fifteen-minute taxi ride to work. One morning, after waking at 6, preparing breakfast for her aunt, saying her morning prayers, and going out to the spot where she would catch her morning taxi, she was approached on the street and shot twice in the face with a gun. It was the last thing she will ever see: she awoke in a hospital with no left eye and no vision in her right.
Even after she left her aunt’s home to avert more revenge attacks, her aunt would be threatened by men who came to ask where Noor was, was she still alive. The aunt had had to pack up all her belongings and flee the neighborhood where she’d lived so many years. Noor feels great sadness, remembering this suffering, on her account, of her aunt, who has since died. Now, in Amman, Noor is herself a displaced person, a refugee, still determined to find as much independence as possible. But in the many hours that she spends alone, she struggles with her memories.
Nadra (not her name) had graduated from college like Noor, in the years before the U.S. invasion, and had intended, like Noor, to use her skills to better herself and her family. When the war came, her fluency in English got her work as a translator for the U.S. military. She was aware of the dangers, but took her chances and continued on the job through a year of worsening circumstances. One day after work, her customary driver called her with the message that his car was broken. So, instead, she flagged a cab and headed towards home. Suddenly, the car stopped and two men entered the back seat. It became a nightmare of torture. They kidnapped her, beat, burned and raped her. Later that night, the men released her, shoving her out of a car onto a deserted road. Nadra quickly left Baghdad for the home of relatives, but the nightmare continued there: their son, perhaps on her account, was kidnapped and killed. Sent to yet another family of relatives, the same awful thing occurred: the abduction and killing of their son. After that, Nadra’s extended family worked together to send her into exile, here in Amman.
She has been here eight months. She would like to find work, but lacking permanent residency status here, she would risk arrest and deportation if caught working. It’s very difficult for her to meet monthly expenses. What’s more, she spends too much time alone and often feels severe anxiety. “I’m exhausted by my memories,” says Nadra, eyes downcast. “But, I can’t forget.”
Already completely dependent on charity in a foreign country, these young Iraqi women refugees wonder if there can be a future for them in the United States, on whose account they have suffered so badly.
At least 750,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan, but many thousands still have not been officially registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The August 9th issue of Jordan’s weekly newspaper, The Star, reports that among the 57,000 Iraqis who have been registered since the beginning of the year, “12,000 have been victims of torture and need psychological and medical care.”
Will Noor and Nadra be lost in the crowd? Some think that, as former U.S.-paid translators and security workers, they may have a chance for rescue if Congress, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies deem them harmless enough to become naturalized Americans. But having paid such a dreadful price for those jobs, it is cruel to suggest that they enjoy some sort of advantage over the hundreds of thousands of others who also fled Iraq since the war began.
At one point the Danish government sent a rescue team to Iraq to bring all Iraqis they could find who’d worked for them to safety and resettlement in Denmark. Noor and Nadra can’t help but wonder whether and when the United States will come for them, waiting, day after day, for some word from the U.S. Embassy here in Amman.
But now is not the time for resettlement of Iraqis in America. The watchword here is Arab terrorism, and Noor and Nadra, once hired so quickly by Americans in need of Iraqi workers, are subject to long background and security checks in a process that could last for months or years.
We Americans already enjoy the tremendous advantage Noor and Nadra seek – we can speak freely, with no real threat to our personal safety. It is now time for us to speak for displaced Iraqis and admit to our responsibility for their plight. We caused this war. Simply by paying our taxes, by not resisting, by not using our tremendous resources to make our democratic country behave democratically, we caused it. We can blame Noor’s and Nadra’s attackers – but can anyone think of a war that didn’t create spiraling revenge and retaliation? Some argue we’re not 100% responsible for this aftermath. Is it 90%? Are we 80%? 70%? What percent of Noor’s blindness, of Nadra’s status as the mark of death on any family who houses her – what percent of that can we be comfortable with?
We must end this war. We can’t just blame it on Bush, as though he will somehow turn around and suddenly become a responsible leader. We must hold accountable those who bear responsibility in the Senate and the House of Representatives and insist that they stop funding the war and instead fund and facilitate relocation and a decent life and livelihood for those displaced by our war.
In the last account, Noor and Nadra were punished for trying to get to work.
“GET A JOB?!” If ever you hear this taunt, signal agreement. Yes, it’s time we got to work. And we have to get to work every day.
For more information about support for Iraqis who have fled to Jordan, see http://www.electroniciraq.net/news/