AMMAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)–Nine years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in April 2004, the refugee population here offers a rebuke to that moment of celebration.
That day, some Iraqis tossed flowers at U.S. Marines, treating them as liberators. Then came the U.S. occupation, during which coalition forces attempted to crush the ensuing resistance. That set off sectarian violence that turned Iraq into a lost homeland for people off all religions.
Jordan’s open hosting policy has made it a magnet for thousands of refugees. They have poured over the borders, hoping to someday return. Their numbers surged in 2006 when the bombing of the Sammara Mosque set off the worst sectarian violence.
Many among the thousands of urban refugees are women who have lost their husbands and now find themselves in the role of breadwinners, struggling to fend for themselves and their families.
In the past year, meanwhile, about 6,529 more refugees–a large number from Syria–have come to Jordan to seek refuge from the violence of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.
Any new influx, however, should not further marginalize world attention to the plight of homeless Iraqis suffering through this dire humanitarian crisis.
I started my work with Iraqi refugees six years ago, researching their lives and conditions to spread the facts of their daily challenges in the host society. I also run activity classes for children, as a volunteer.
Doing What We Can
I do this work as a member of the Collateral Repair Project, formed in 2004 and funded by private donations. The mission is to do what we can to help Iraqi families. Often our projects draw Iraqis into support groups where they can share love and friendship and regain a sense of the normal lives they left behind when they fled Iraq.
Many are embarrassed by their need for help. In Iraq almost all of the people I have come across remember once having stable lives. Some hold advanced degrees. They had jobs. Their children attended school. Here they have lost all that.
“Tears would run down my face when I look back at the life we used to have and what has become of us; poor, depressed, stateless, abandoned, helpless and hopeless.”
These are the sorts of words you hear when groups of women come together for weekly gatherings in eastern Amman. These sessions run for one or two months, funded by the Collateral Repair Project with private donations, much raised online from people in the United States.
During these couple of hours the women might practice a handicraft or come to the English-language training center. Some learn computer skills so they contact relatives back in Iraq or those who were resettled in Europe or the United States.
But the women are not only taking. They are also constantly giving to me. In them I see an astonishing and inspiring display of resilience.
Every day you can find them thankful and praising God (Nushkor Allah). Every day you can also see their sectarian differences dissolve into nothing. At any weekly gathering they will tell stories and crack jokes and giggle over cups of strong tea. Peals of laughter will often ring out.
Literacy classes started a year ago and one refugee is teaching some others how to read and write. Other women sit in a nursery area and read books in Arabic to children who have been cut off from regular school.
The women have created a “hope workshop” where they make handicrafts and sew dazzling designs and embroidery on cloth. Some say it is helping them heal and restoring a sense of self-reliance.
Yet, after nine years of displacement the predicament of many of these women is nonetheless dire. They require protection and urgent assistance so they can have the most basic means of survival. They are caught in the grip of “silent emergency.”
More than 500,000 Iraqis still live in limbo in Jordan. Many have access to national public services, but since the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention they have no hope of permanent settlement here.
And while refugees are allowed to come to Jordan they are not legally allowed to work. Many are stuck, waiting for years and not allowed to earn enough to afford adequate housing, education and healthcare.
Refugees stream into the Amman offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to register for resettlement programs. And then they wait. In 2011, an estimated 30,800 were receiving U.N. assistance.
Among those receiving U.N. cash assistance, 40 percent live below the poverty line. The Amman budget of the U.N. refugee agency has declined to $43.4 million in 2011, from $63.4 million in 2010.
Charities are trying to fill in the gaps but the refugees’ needs stretch further than that. They keep borrowing money to pay off their rent here and there; their situation is unsustainable. “It’s really difficult to survive here.” That’s the message you hear, in one form or another. What is to be done? The answer isn’t apparent to me alone. I just wish I could hear more people around the world raising the question.
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Samia Qumri works as a freelance researcher on the concerns of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.