Dispatch from Jordan

December 11, 2007

Dispatch from Jordan

Winter 2007

Dispatch from Jordan

Reeling from violence, loss and economic hardship, Iraqi refugees are struggling to piece their lives back together. Amnesty International USA's Sarnata Reynolds traveled to Jordan to investigate conditions on the ground.

By Sarnata Reynolds

Iraqi woman
An Iraqi refugee sells cigarettes in downtown Amman
© UNHCR/P. Sands

I. I am here in Amman, Jordan, on a research mission with Said Boumedouha, a veteran researcher at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. We came here to document the situation of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, most of whom have fled Iraq since April 2003. There are now about 2.5 million Iraqi refugees throughout the Middle East region and another 2.2 million displaced within Iraq.

When we arrived on Friday evening it was already dark. It was warm out, and some families were parked on the side of the road, eating dinner together on the grass. The buildings were all some shade of white or cream. Before entering the hotel, we had to give our bags to security guards and walk through a metal detector, a routine we would repeat each day.

We spent today meeting Iraqi refugees. Their collective experience is staggering. Every single person we met had lost at least one family member through murder or "disappearance." Many had received death threats themselves; several had learned that family members who stayed behind have been killed. Some had fled from Iraq as long as two years ago, while others came as recently as last week. Although every person had a different family, home and history, they all expressed two sentiments: fear and hope.

II. Today I spoke with "Mohammed" and his wife "Noor" who had been doctors in Baghdad. Before leaving for work on a Wednesday morning in March 2006, they agreed that their four boys, all between 8 and 16 years of age, could play outside before school. Bombings and assassinations were common in the neighborhood, but it had been a "quiet week." Mohammed and Noor thought it would be safe.

As the boys were playing with neighborhood children, a bomb fell from the sky and landed several feet from them. One of the neighborhood children died instantly. Mohammed's children were not killed, but three were injured. His youngest child, eight-year-old Anah, was hit in the neck by shrapnel.

Mohammed was at work when he recognized a young boy placed in front of him for emergency operation as his neighbor's child. Quickly he learned that three of his own children had arrived at the hospital. Anah had been picked up and thrown in the trunk of a vehicle because he was presumed dead; he had been paralyzed from the neck down and was unconscious.

Doctors performed several lifesaving interventions on Anah, but Mohammed knew that his son needed emergency surgery within three weeks to avoid irreparable harm to his spine--a surgery that could not be done in Baghdad as the surgeons who could have performed the operation had long since left. Yet hospital personnel refused to transport Anah with the equipment he needed to survive because the road to Jordan was so treacherous. It took Mohammed nearly two months to secure the equipment and bring Anah to Amman, where they remain today.

Anah is now 9-years-old and a quadriplegic. He has big brown eyes and a small thin body, and he maneuvers his wheelchair by tilting his head. His family is registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and has applied for resettlement. They hope to resettle in Philadelphia, where a hospital has agreed to treat Anah.

III. Today I met a woman named "Zahara" who had been the manager of a radio station and the host of a talk show in southern Iraq for almost three years. During that period, the station became a target of insurgent militias because it provided a space for Iraqis to voice a range of opinions. Zahara and her colleagues received death threats for their commitment to their programming.

In the spring of 2006, Zahara was asked to travel to the United States as a delegate on behalf of the Iraqi people, to talk about her experiences with interested U.S. citizens. Zahara packed a bag for what she thought would be a three-week trip and left Iraq.

The day before she planned to return home, her family phoned her with the news that her cousin had just been assassinated. Armed men took him from his home, tortured him and killed him. They wrote the word "traitor" on his corpse and dumped it on the road, Zahara's family told her, something his wife and two children, who remain in Iraq, will never forget. Later that day, armed men went looking for Zahara and were told she was in Jordan. The next day, more than ten of her former colleagues were assassinated.

Zahara refused her family's pleas to remain in the United States, but her flight home included a layover in Amman, so she agreed to stay here until things got better in Iraq. That was one and a half years ago.

Many of Zahara's friends have been murdered since then, including several women who had management positions and good jobs, were leaders, and were women's activists. She can recount an astounding number of assassinations even though her family stopped informing her of murders months ago.

Iraqi woman
Most Iraqi refugees in Amman live in very basic and crowded conditions
© UNHCR/P. Sands

IV. Today we continued to document refugee testimonies, which reveal a shocking level of violence. One Sunni man I spoke with fled Iraq after several members of his family were killed. Because his life was in great danger, he was forced to leave his pregnant wife, who is Shi'a, and his young child with her family. Marriage between Sunni and Shi'a was not at all uncommon in the past, but these days entire neighborhoods are cleared for members of a single religious sect. It's a dangerous environment for mixed families.

This man's situation is particularly complicated. His wife and child have tried to leave Iraq, but they have been denied entry into Jordan. Yet if this man leaves Jordan to try to reunite with his family, he may be trapped in Iraq. These are the impossible decisions Iraqi refugees face every day.

V. Said and I met with representatives of the UNHCR, as well as with Jordanian and international nongovernmental organizations, to discuss the complicated question of the refugees' future.

Most of the refugees do not know what they will do next, how they can repair their lives, or how long they will be permitted to remain in Jordan. Not one refugee we have interviewed feels it will be safe to return to Iraq anytime in the near future. They don't know what is in store for family members who remain trapped in Iraq. They are worried because most do not have the legal right to remain in Jordan and could be arrested, detained and deported by the authorities at any time. This lack of legal status leaves them in an agonizing limbo. It could be partly remedied through a robust refugee resettlement program, but more must be done.

One positive development is that the Jordanian government has decided to allow Iraqi children to enroll in public schools. In fact, enrollment in school will be considered a form of "regularization"--although not legalization--for an entire family. However, large numbers of Iraqi children in Jordan have missed at least one year of school already, and others are working to support their families. In addition, both children and their parents are almost certainly experiencing post traumatic stress disorder.

Refugees have expressed a narrowing of their hopes and dreams, especially for their children. Despite credentials as doctors, engineers, journalists and teachers, none of the refugees we've met are working in their respective fields. Instead, they are scraping by with what little money they have left, stretching it to meet the demands of rent, food and medicine. Iraqi refugees do not have the right to work in Jordan, so they make do with what resources they do have. This can entail some excruciating choices. Today I met one family with two chronically ill children. The parents are unable to afford the medicine they need, so they dispense as much medicine as they can, balancing the children's pain with the need to feed the entire family.

The U.S. government has made commitments to assist and resettle refugees, but it can and should do more. First, it should commit to sustained support for years to come, even after the suffering of Iraqi refugees fades from public consciousness. More importantly, the United States must provide ongoing support to host countries so that they have the capacity to uphold the full range of rights for refugees, including civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

While the situation is extremely difficult, the refugees we met have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and drive. They get up each morning and explore every possible avenue to better the situation of their families. Many register with the UNHCR, a step that offers some protection from deportation, and in the cases of the most vulnerable refugees, help with resettlement.

All of them worry constantly about those they left behind in Iraq. ai

Sarnata Reynolds is the director of the refugee program at Amnesty International USA.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of refugees

AIUSA's Refugee Program

Amnesty International USA has been discussing the dire situation facing Iraqi refugees with the U.S. government, universities and community groups around the country. On October 10, 2007, Sarnata Reynolds testified in a joint briefing before the House and the Senate to share AI's research, and legislation to protect Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people is pending before Congress. AIUSA has also launched the Iraqi Refugee Pilot Project, and members are preparing for the arrival of Iraqi refugee families from Jordan. Learn more about AIUSA's Refugee Program and its advocacy on behalf of Iraqi refugees here