Amman: Iraqi refugees and hangin' with Fulbrighters

Before coming to Najaf, I had 3 brief days in Amman, Jordan. I spent the days with 1) the Fulbright scholars and American school teachers I stayed with, and 2) Iraqi refugees and aid workers.

On Thursday, June 16, I met with an international organization called the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT). CVT’s mission is to “heal the wounds of torture on individuals, their families and their communities and to stop torture worldwide.” A recent New York Times article about CVT’s center in Amman talked about the continuing effects of torture on Iraqi refugees:

“Interviews last fall… provided a grim look at widespread abuses occurring in Iraq as recently as 2010, and their crushing effects on individuals and families. High rates of torture and other forms of trauma have left many Iraqi refugees struggling with emotional wounds, some so severe that people are afraid to leave their homes. About 21 percent of Iraqis in Jordan were ‘severely traumatized’ by attacks on them or their families.”

On my last night in Amman, Saturday, June 18th, I met with another great organization working with Iraqi refugees, the Collateral Repair Project. CRP’s American and Iraqi directors invited me to spend the evening with a group of Iraqi men who get together on Saturday nights to play Dominoes. One man had been an official in the previous government under Saddam Hussein. Although he had no ideological ties to that government and is now working in a non-governmental agency to support Iraqis living in Jordan, he has been denied resettlement to a third country because of his former association. His 5-year old twins and 3-year old daughter were born in Amman and have lived their entire lives there. Like many Iraqi refugees, he is living in limbo, unsure when, if ever, he will be able to leave.

The Iraqis that CVT and CRP work with present a grim picture of what faces the Iraqi refugee community. Many have been traumatized by torture or the torture or murder of loved ones. Many struggle to make ends meet every month. The Jordanian government does not allow Iraqis living in Jordan to work, and the amount of aid given to a single Iraqi per month is paltry–70 Jordanian Dinars, or about $98 USD. While the ex-official and the other Iraqis I met in Amman were extremely warm, welcoming, and even optimistic, there was also an undercurrent of sadness at our meetings. Many were doctors, engineers, or other middle-class professionals in Iraq before 2003, highly skilled but now unable to work. Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and start of one of the largest refugee crises in history, it is impossible for them not to know that their “situation” is not a priority for any of the governments involved (Jordanian, Iraqi, American, etc.).

While I met with the Iraqis, CVT, and the Collateral Repair Project in the poorer district of Hashimi al-Shamali, I stayed with American friends in two of the more posh districts of Amman: Swaifiyeh and Abdoun. On the first night, the 15th, I stayed with Rik and Laurie, American teachers at a private school in Amman. On the second and third nights, I stayed with a friend from Minneapolis who has a Fulbright fellowship and lives in Abdoun, a quiet, wealthy district where many Saudis have summer homes to escape the heat of the Gulf. (Rik describes Swaifiyeh and Abdoun as “la-la land.”)

My friend from Minneapolis lives with two other Fulbright scholars, and on Thursday night the 16th we met up with other Fulbrighters for Mexican food and Tequila at one of their apartments. The Fulbrighters are doing interesting things in Amman: working with CVT on organizational strategic development (my friend from Minneapolis), teaching yoga at a gym in a Palestinian refugee camp, identifying mental health needs and treatment options among Iraqi refugees, interning with the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies, and exploring “lunch” in Syria and Jordan. This last Fulbrighter was not present but was referenced with awe for his proposal-writing ability (convincing Fulbright to give him money to eat at a lot of different restaurants in a lot of different towns).

The Fulbrighters, like the Iraqi refugees, are transient. Both are temporary residents in Amman. However, they are very different, in ways reflected by the places they live in. The Fulbrighters know when they are going to leave. They are fully funded by an international organization and are here as researchers examining the problems of others. They enjoy a high level of security. This is a well-defined step in their careers–they will go on to positions at a PhD program in Middle Eastern studies, a non-profit organization in New York, or perhaps a financial consulting firm in Dubai.

The Fulbrighters are doing beneficial and important work. I am not discrediting the value of their work, only comparing them to Iraqi refugees, who are also well-trained and hard-working but who are “in transit” indefinitely. The Iraqi refugees are in limbo through no choice of their own. They do not know when they will be able to leave. Many have run out of the money they brought with them and are dependent on relatives or on a low-paying, illegally-held job. Many deal with trauma and war-related health issues. Their futures are generally very insecure. Many wait years for a decision on resettlement to a third country, without any estimate or idea of when or why the decision will be reached. Many would like to return to Iraq, but it is still not safe for them. Since 2003, estimates of the number of Iraqi refugees who have come to Jordan range from 500,000 to 1 million.

The Iraqi refugee crisis is a forgotten crisis–absent from both the American media and the American conscience.  It is a crisis that has enormous consequences for the future of Iraq, Jordan, and the region, not to mention that of the millions of individuals living as refugees. The Iraqis I met in Amman seemed more optimistic about their future than the foreigners working with them, but both seemed to realize that international attention has shifted elsewhere. Beginning with Obama’s election in 2008, the U.S. has tried very hard to forget Iraq, the disaster of our actions there perhaps weighing too heavily on the hope for “change.”

The main reason I stopped in Amman was to meet with these organizations and meet a few Iraqi refugees in preparation for a campaign that colleagues of mine are leading. This campaign will combine various art forms–a documentary film called The Unreturned, a play called No Place Called Home, Iraqi and American art, and other art activities–to raise awareness of the ongoing Iraqi refugee crisis and advocate for changes in policies that negatively affect Iraqi refugees. These policies include the extreme difficulty of getting resettled, the lack of sufficient aid, and the lack of transparency in international aid organizations working with Iraqi refugees.

My three days in Amman were a good preparation for coming to Najaf–I began to adjust to the language (slowly regaining some Arabic), the culture, and the heat. I’ve been in Najaf for two days now–another post will be coming soon about these first two days and the wonderful people I’ve met!

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Luke Wilcox

Luke Wilcox is the communications director for the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project.