In late November of 2008 I was in Damascus, Syria interviewing Iraqi refugees. My translator recommended we spend some time at the UNHCR to see how Iraqis were processed after their arrival in Syria.
After contacting the UNHCR we were invited to tour the facility on the outskirts of Damascus. During the tour I had an opportunity to sit in on an interview of an Iraqi who had turned to the U.N. for help. This is where I first met Amal and her children. I documented the interview in a story on my blog called Amal’s Journey. Here is an edited version from the Fall of 2008.
Outside the UNHCR compound a crowd is forming. There are three groups of people here, new and renewing registrants, people with an appointment, and people receiving their food allowance. Once you arrive, you get a number and wait. The only place to sit is on the curb. The only cover from the sun or the rain is a narrow covered sidewalk that runs the length of the wall.
Once inside the compound, things are better. Chairs are provided. It’s quieter. The staff seems less harried and kinder as they direct people and answer questions.
The people with an appointment for an interview are divided into groups for processing. The UNHCR tries to prioritize the refugees based on vulnerability, single woman with children being considered the most vulnerable population. When people’s numbers are called they are led down a long hallway to one of 30 curtained off enclosures where their information is recorded into the UNHCR database. Amal gets up and taking her 3 year old daughter Shams by the hand and cradling 15 day old Kamar in her arms she follows the representative down the hall to enclosure number 17. Noor, the UNHCR representative, has them take a seat and closes the curtain behind them. Amal produces passports and documents. Amal and her family look vulnerable. She is a small woman dressed in a black hijab and she sits at one end of the long bench, very quietly answering questions as Noor types them into the computer.
As they get to the special needs section, Amal begins to explain her situation in more detail. She arrived in Damascus in August 2008 with her daughter. She hasn’t renewed her visa, so she is technically in the country illegally. She left Iraq because she received death threats by the Jaish Al-Mehdi. She was a Sunni woman married to a Shia man. It was her husband, a member of the militia, who threatened her.
Amal was married four years ago at age 21 after a one-month courtship with a 27 year-old man. Her parents disowned her because she was marrying a Shia. Headstrong and in love, she married anyway. At the time, her husband told her he didn’t care about Sunni or Shia and Amal believed him. In 2005 after the birth of her daughter, things began to change. The militias were gaining strength in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad and consolidating their power bases. Her husband began demanding she convert to Shia. Amal refused. He became violent. As their problems grew it became apparent that he was abusing drugs. As his demands changed into threats, he told her he belonged to the Badr brigades as well as the Jaish Al-Mehdi. He became physically violent as well, trying to throw his young daughter out a window. He told her he would give her to the militia. Seven months pregnant, she packed a bag, took her daughter and fled to Damascus.
Alone, with no friends in Damascus, Amal lives in the Saida Zainab neighborhood. Amal has turned to the UNHCR because she seeking monetary support, food aid and resettlement. The UNHCR representative identifies her as a highly vulnerable individual and schedules her to meet with a protective services agent as well as a community services representative before she leaves for the day. When I leave the UNHCR, I see Amal cradling her tiny baby in the reception area waiting for her next appointment.
I catch up with Amal a few days later. She is not wearing a hijab, but is stylishly dressed in a matching tan corduroy skirt and top and a tiger print hat and a small purse. I smile as I come face to face with another one of my uninformed assumptions regarding Iraqi women. A neighbor is watching the kids, so she only has a short time to talk. We meet at a restaurant in the Jaramana neighborhood as Amal feels it would be too dangerous for her to meet a foreign man in Saida Zainab. We order coffee and I ask her why she is staying in Saida Zainab as there is a strong concentration of Shia refugees there, and there is even a Sadr political office. She replies that her rent is very cheap, about $85 per month for a small, unfurnished room. But she feels targeted in the neighborhood because she is a young woman alone with two small children. She explains that she is eligible for UNHCR food aid and assistance, but that she needs to wait until the next distribution at the beginning of January. She will be able to receive blankets at that time as well. The nights are getting very cold and Amal needs blankets tonight. She says she will manage. She also needs to arrange a trip to the main UNHCR building to meet with lawyers for her visa issues.
Sipping her coffee she seems very tentative, but there is more to this young woman. I tell her she must be strong or stubborn to go against her parent’s wishes, and then her husband’s. She laughs and says “Yes, but I’m paying the price for my mistakes.” I continue by saying she must be courageous to leave Baghdad and come to a strange city, pregnant and with a young daughter. She says, “Many Iraqis are facing similar circumstances, my case is not special.”
Finishing her coffee, Amal takes her leave. We’ve talked enough. Words won’t keep the baby fed or her daughter warm at night. My questions will wait for another day. Her baby waits for her now.
Fast forward to May 2010. A dear friend returned to Damascus. I asked her to inquire about Amal and her children. I couldn’t quite believe it when I received an email a few days later of Shams and her mom and the now 1 ½ year old Kamar. The children looked beautiful and happy. The last year and a half has been trying and Amal’s eyes do not hide the truth. Her worst fears were realized when her husband found her and forced her return to Baghdad where he continued his abuse. He claimed the youngest child was not his and became physically abusive with Amal. He got in serious trouble with several men he had borrowed large sums of money from. He rigged the home with explosives and locked his wife and children inside, planning on blaming the men for the explosion. Amal managed to escape with her children to a neighbor’s home. Her husband was arrested, but managed some payoffs to the police and is now free.
Amal is once again hiding in Damascus. My friend assures me Amal is in good spirits. Meanwhile, her efforts at the UNHCR continue. The UNHCR says the first cash assistance they can offer is four months away. Amal needs to file for divorce before any action can be taken on her relocation status. This will be a challenge from Damascus, but Amal has begun the costly process. Once again she is in Syria illegally because her visa has expired. She is working with the UNHCR to gain an extension.
Amal’s situation is not the “typical” refugee story, but it is not an uncommon one. The stress of war and occupation tears at the fabric of society. Culture is destroyed. Law and order is diminished. Families suffer under the extreme burden of trying to survive. Things fall apart.
Since I have returned home I have not forgotten her or any of the dozens of people I met during my brief time in Syria. In the intervening year and a half several families have been relocated to the United States where the struggle to survive in a strange land (amidst an economic downturn) continues. Many more are still waiting. Their story remains untold.
I am disheartened and angry that our country can continue funding death and destruction at the astronomical rate of 5.5 billion dollars a month ($5,500,000,000) for the occupation of Iraq and 6.7 billion dollars a month ($6,700,000,000) for the war in Afghanistan and leave the people that have suffered from our actions (which we claim are in their best interests) to fend for themselves.
In the coming months I am sending fifty dollars a month ($50), a pittance to be certain, to Syria to help Amal and her children. If you or someone you know can help in any way, please let me know.
JOHNNY BARBER has traveled to Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to bear witness and document the suffering of people who are affected by war. He can be contacted through his blog at www.oneBrightpearl-jb.blogspot.com