Monday, December 01, 2008

An Imperative Security Threat and the Declaration of Human Rights

Today, recognizing the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, is a day to share a story i was able to document in Syria this past month. It is a difficult story, one many Americans would like to deny, and unable to do that, many will simply chose to turn their backs. There is ample opportunity for this. One could point at the outgoing administration, brand them as criminals, say their actions are a thing of the past, and leave it at that. Others could point to the new administration only weeks away, thinking our problems are solved, that change is on the way. But this also would be a mistake. Our complicity in these matters runs deeper then these simplistic deflections of responsibility. If we are to address the fundamental, systemic issues facing our nation and the world, reflection followed by action is necessary. As you read the story of Aswad and his family, recognize his story is one of thousands and his perception of America as purveyors of terrorism is based solely on his personal experience.

Aswad was fast asleep in the early morning hours of November 6th, 2003 when a commotion in the house woke him up. He looked up to see a room full of American soldiers pointing automatic weapons at his head.

He had arrived in the village of Al-Yarmouk on the outskirts of Mosul just the evening before, breaking the Ramadan fast with his friends and going to bed early. He had been following the same routine since early 2000, every couple of months purchasing about $300 worth of galibayas and other articles of clothing to sell on the streets of Mosul. This was to supplement his meager income as a farmer. Farming was backbreaking work and at 48 years old, he was hoping to find another way to support his wife and 9 children.

Now, people were shouting at him in a language he didn’t understand, binding his hands behind his back and blindfolding his eyes. Someone speaking Arabic asked him his name, and demanded, “From where?” He told them he was from Syria. They emptied his pockets, taking his passport and $400 in cash. Then they dragged him to his feet and took him out into the night. He knew that at least two of his friends were taken with him; he could feel one in front and one behind him as they were dragged across the courtyard.

The prisoners were taken by helicopter to an unknown destination and isolated. When he arrived he was placed between an idling steamroller and a barrier. As the ground shook from the heavy equipment he was certain he was going to die. He was told he would never see his family again. He recalls, “I thought they were just going to make me a part of the road.” At times over the next 8 days, Aswad thought that would have been a preferable outcome. His clothes were taken and he was forced to stand naked, except for the blindfold covering his eyes. His arms were shackled behind his back and legs shackled at the ankles. He was beaten with a club. He was hit so hard across the abdomen that he fell unconscious 3 times. Each time he was doused with freezing water until he regained consciousness, he was stood up, and beaten again. They shackled his wrists in front of him and made him hold two heavy cartons. Each time he dropped a carton, the beatings resumed. He was not permitted to sleep. Aswad recalled the only warmth he felt was the hot blood flowing from his forehead and broken nose down over his face and chest.

Near the end of his beatings he was confronted by a man dressed in civilian clothes who claimed to be Egyptian officer, but Aswad is certain he was not who he pretended to be. His Arabic accent was not Egyptian, nor was he American. Aswad thinks he may have been an Israeli, but he is not certain. He was questioned at length about attacks on Americans, each time he denied any knowledge about the attacks. Prior to his arrest he had been sleeping. He didn’t hear any shooting. No weapons were kept in his friends house. After each denial he was tasered. His body had been so severely battered by the beatings he endured that he didn’t feel the pain as he fell to the floor.

Throughout his ordeal, Aswad thought about death and hoped it would come quickly. He recognized his captors were merciless. When he asked for water, his tormentors poured it over his head while they laughed. At one point, he felt two naked bodies pressed up against him. His captors shouted at him, but he didn’t understand their taunts as they were shouting in English. He tells me that he was blindfolded and couldn’t see anything. Looking away, embarrassed and ashamed, Aswad repeats this to me four times.

On the eighth day of his detention, Aswad was transferred to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Once the site of some of Saddam’s most heinous interrogations, it was now run by the Americans and they followed suit with their own brand of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses of detainees. It was November 14th, 2003, months before any hint of wrongdoing would seep from under the cages of Abu Ghraib. Aswad arrived at the prison disfigured from his beatings. Doctors examined him, asking him where he felt pain, but never questioning what had happened to him. As he was recuperating from his beatings he was a witness to some of the abuses that would later be reported by mainstream news media in the United States. In the hallway outside his cell he saw a naked prisoner terrorized by an attack dog. He witnessed the “naked pyramid” later to become an infamous photograph American guards gloating in the background. And he witnessed 4 soldiers strip an Iraqi woman in the cellblock, but he turned his back to her because he felt ashamed. Eventually, the commotion died down. He does not know what became of her.

When he was sufficiently healed from his wounds, he was transferred to the Abu Ghraib camp. He remained there for a month before he was transferred to Camp Bucca, a “Coalition Theater Internment Facility” or TIF. Located in the desert southwest of Basra, within a few miles of the Kuwati border, Bucca is a desolate place housing up to 10,000 prisoners many of whom are held as “security detainees”. The ability of US forces to continue these detentions has been left vague in the new Status of Forces Agreement. The definition of an “imperative security threat” is someone who may not have committed a crime, but is imprisoned anyway because he may commit a crime in the future. Even the US military estimates that 70% of those incarcerated are not insurgents. Aswad remained in Bucca for 9 months- through the remaining winter months and the following grueling summer. The conditions were calamitous. Thirty men shared a 12 meter by 6 meter canvas tent. They slept on thin mattresses on the ground and were given only two thin blankets to ward of the cold. In the summer, temperatures reached 140 degrees, and there was no escape from the heat. In the spring, flies and ants inundated the camp. The toilet consisted of a barrel cut in half. When it was full, the prisoners were required to dump it. The food rations were inconsistent and often inedible. Throughout this period, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited Aswad regularly. It was through the efforts of the ICRC that Aswad’s family learned of his incarceration many months after his disappearance.

After one year in prison, Aswad was transferred back to Abu Ghraib. He traded his orange jumpsuit for a blue one and was paraded in front of TV cameras along with several other detainees. The announcers said they were Arab terrorists just captured in battle at Al Fallujah. Years later, Aswad’s neighbors would comment on this news piece- asking the obvious question- “How could you be an Arab terrorist in Al-Fallujah when you were imprisoned?” Apparently moved just for the TV charade, after fifty days in Abu Ghraib, Aswad was returned to Camp Bucca.

During this time period Camp Bucca was growing and prefab huts were replacing the canvas tents. The prison was beginning to take on the look of a permanent structure. The prison population was exploding as well due to the increase in military operations. The prison's two-mile perimeter contains 12 compounds, six on each side of a dirt and gravel road. At the corner of each compound, guards with automatic rifles stand watch from three-story wooden towers. The quality of the food was also beginning to improve, three meals a day are served -- bread, cheese, jam and tea for breakfast and dinner, rice and stew for lunch.

Shortly after his return, in January 2005 a riot broke out at the prison. The riot began during a search for contraband when soldiers desecrated a Koran. The riot quickly spread to three additional compounds, with detainees throwing rocks, chunks of concrete and dirt clods at the soldiers who retreated to outside the wire. From there they fired tear gas and shotgun rounds at the prisoners. The riot ended when 2 soldiers opened fire with M-16’s on the prisoners in Compound 5. Four prisoners were killed and six were wounded.

Another riot broke out in April when guards ordered the transfer of prisoners including 4 Shiite clerics to a new unit. Again, prisoners threw stones, chunks of concrete and dirt clods. . Some prisoners fashioned slingshots to hurl pieces of cinderblock at the heavily armed soldiers outside the prison wire. The soldiers responded with pepper spray, tear gas, and shotgun volleys. A video taken by a soldier captures soldiers calling for more shotgun ammo and laughing after particularly accurate shots of tear gas into the crowd. Twelve prisoners and four guards were injured in the melee.

After two years of incarceration, Aswad was again transferred to Abu Ghraib. On January 7, 2006 he went before an Iraqi court. The judge asked the American officer why he was being held. The officer replied that Aswad had entered Iraq illegally. This was the first time since his arrest that Aswad had heard any charges against him. He denied the charges, telling the judge his passport was in the possession of the Americans. The American officer was asked about the passport and admitted it was in his possession. He claimed that in fact Aswad has crossed the Syrian border legally but failed to get an Iraqi stamp. This was easily determined to be a fabrication when the judge reviewed the passport and saw the Iraqi stamp right next to the Syrian stamp. Everything was legal. The judge ordered Aswad freed. As he was returned to Abu Ghraib the military lawyer told him he would be released soon. The interpreter asked him if he would agree to a release from Camp Cropper another detention facility at Baghdad Airport. Aswad said, “i don’t mind where you release me, just let me go!” He was returned to Camp Bucca. Two days later, he was loaded onto the “Happy Bus” (the designation for the bus that transferred prisoners due to be released) and he was transferred back north to Camp Cropper. Eleven days later, without explanation, he was again returned to Camp Bucca. This happened 2 or 3 times over the next several months. Each time he boarded the bus, his spirits soared. Each time he returned he felt as if his spirit had been murdered, again. He was never told that military commanders could overrule the Iraqi court and continue holding “security threats”, nor was he told why he was transferred back and forth so many times.

In the summer of 2007 the Multi-National Force Review Committee (MNFRC) was created. Every detainee is able to speak to a panel regarding their detention once every six months, and the board reviews their files to determine not whether they are guilty or innocent, but whether they are still a security threat to coalition forces, the Iraqi government or Iraqi citizens.

On September 2007 Aswad was brought before the Multinational Force Review Committee Board, a board he characterized as the “Lying Committee”. He was asked about his illegal entry into Iraq and a new accusation was presented- he was asked why he participated in an attack against Americans. Aswad explained that he entered Iraq legally, his passport proved it, and that an Iraqi court ordered him freed. He was arrested while he slept and no weapons were present. He asked the panel, “When a death sentence comes down from an Iraqi court, it seems you can’t hang the prisoner quick enough; yet it was determined in January of 2006 that I am innocent and I remain imprisoned. Why is that?” He was returned to prison.

Six months later, in February of 2008 he was again brought before the review board. The actors were different but the questions and Aswad’s answers remained the same. On March 17th 2008 Aswad received his release papers. On July 18th, 2008 Aswad boarded the Happy Bus for the last time. Only after confirming his release was immanent with the International Committee of the Red Cross did Aswad allow himself to believe his ordeal was coming to an end. On July 26th Aswad boarded a Red Cross flight to Damascus. Finally, he was free.

As we sit sipping coffee in Damascus, Aswad, reflecting on his interment, says, “It is an inhuman prison system run by criminals.” When I ask him what he believes finally caused the review board to release him, Aswad doesn’t know. “They do as they like. There is no reason to it. Their life is OK, their children are well, and they don’t care. We have a saying, ‘Who is full doesn’t know hunger’. You are full.”

For five years Aswad’s only contact with his family was through messages relayed by the Red Cross. On his release, he didn’t know his family. His oldest daughter sat him down and told him about his children, whom he could barely recognize. His family had suffered throughout his imprisonment. When I asked him what his children said about the time he was gone, Aswad said, “On my first phone call, my youngest son, now eight years old, said, ‘My dad, my dad, come here! Come here! We don’t have anyone!” His oldest son, who left school when he was 15 to provide for the family, confessed that he cried for the first two years because he couldn’t provide enough bread for the family. His boy carries cotton, barley and wheat from the fields- 88 lbs. of cotton translates to about $1 US dollar. “You see this situation has destroyed my family. This is what American democracy did for me!” he says with a smile and a tear in his eye.The United States played a major role if formulating the Declaration of Human Rights document in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt, in endorsing the Declaration said, “This declaration is based upon the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity. We have much to do to fully achieve and to assure the rights set forth in this declaration. But having them put before us with the moral backing of 58 nations will be a great step forward."

Discussing the abstention of the USSR during the vote at the UN, Roosevelt went on to say, “We must not be confused about what freedom is. Basic human rights are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment.

We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle. Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” It would be wise for us to reflect on these words and the policies of our own government, especially the ill-conceived “War on Terror” over these many years.

Sixty years on, we must reflect on our failure as a nation to uphold the principles set forth in this document. It is our individual responsibility to safeguard the principles that we take for granted so that others may share in them. It is our collective failure that fuels the terrorism so rampant in the world today.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

One Visa for Iraq

Outside the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, several dozen Iraqi refugees are milling around. Some stand patiently on the sidewalk across the street, some look anxiously at the posted notices on a sign by the door. Others crowd around the door attempting to gain entrance past the Syrian policeman acting as a security guard. Most of the people waiting are attempting to upgrade their passports to the new “G” passport, the only passport now considered “valid” by many Western countries. As i move through the crowd to the door, the security man asks a question i don’t understand, but also gestures with his up turned hands- a gesture i know and recognize- roughly translated as “What? What do you want?’ or “What? What do you think you’re doing?” I tell him i would like to speak with someone regarding a visa to enter Iraq. Clearly he doesn’t know what i am asking anymore than i understand him- but after repeating myself several times he manages to understand one word- “visa”, and signals to someone inside, who joins him in the doorway. I repeat my request and i am gestured inside. The hall is crowded with many Iraqis sitting and talking among themselves, most holding papers, documents and passports in their hands. There are 2 long lines at the windows. The man who waved me inside points to a door behind the windows and says, “Go in”. I enter the little room where 2 men are responding to the people lined up at the windows.

One turns from the person he is speaking with and asks me, “What do you want?” I tell him i would like to get a visa to enter Iraq. His eyebrows arch in surprise.
“A visa to enter Iraq?” he repeats.
“Yes”, i say, “i would like to visit Baghdad.”
“But it is not possible”
“Why not?” i ask.
“Do you have an invitation?” Now it is my turn to be surprised.
“An invitation? From who? Do i need an invitation to receive a visa?”
“Yes, you need an invitation.”
“I’m not going to a party, i want to go to Baghdad”, i reply.
“It is very dangerous” he answers.
“But i just saw an Iraqi general on TV last night speaking about how safe it is to return. I would like to see for myself.”
“You can not get a visa. What you need to do is go to the American embassy and ask them to provide us with a letter saying it is OK for you to go to Iraq.”
“i need a letter from the Americans to enter your country?
“Yes”. He turns back to the window, where a very patient Iraqi man waits.

I walk outside into the brilliant noon day sun. A near perfect day. I walk about 30 yards down the street to where i can see the US embassy. I stop and stand in front of a grade school where kindergartners run around the concrete yard screaming at each other, having a grand old time. Across the street, the embassy looks like a fortress, an outpost in some Mad max future world. Walls 16 feet high, topped with pikes and razor wire. Concrete pillars line the sidewalk to deter cars and trucks. Fortified steel gates block the driveway. The building itself is a tan stucco building with razor wire curled around every balcony. The roof of the building also has razor wire all around it. Above it flies the American flag. “So this is what democracy looks like”, i say out loud to no one in particular.

A man with an instrument that looks like a metal detector is passing it under all the parked cars on my side of the street. I realize he is not looking for lost jewelry, but is scanning the undersides of the vehicles for bombs. For a moment i allow myself the image of a car bomb detonating outside the grade school, but my thoughts are interrupted by two men, one in plainclothes and the other with a flak jacket and Kalashnikov. The plainclothes man asks, “Hello, may I help you?”
I reply, “No, thanks.”
“Are you looking for something?”
“No, no, i am just looking at the embassy.” (Wrong answer.)
“Are you American?”
“Yes.” (Wrong answer again, but the truth.)
“Do you need something?”
“I need to go to the embassy, but i am not certain i’ll go today.”
“Ok, but you can’t stand here.”
I look up and down the street where several groups of men are standing. For all i know, they are all cops. I don’t argue, but ask, “Where can i stand?”
“Not here.”
“I don’t suppose i could get a picture of my embassy? You know, to share with the folks back home?” I look him in the eye, “America spreading freedom through the Middle East and all, you know?”
He shows no emotion, he simply says “No pictures are allowed.”
I decide to skip the trip inside the embassy, and turn to walk down the street. I hear the plainclothes cop laughing with his friend- i get the feeling they are not laughing with me.

One week later i find myself walking past the school as i cross the street and approach the American embassy. As I step on the sidewalk a guard stops me. He asks me what i want. I tell him i need to get a visa to enter Iraq. He points me at a speaker system by the door. A man looks out of a glass panel as i press the button and a buzzer sounds.
“I would like a visa to enter Iraq.” He responds but i can’t hear a thing, as the traffic on the street is heavy, and loud.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” He repeats himself as a large truck barrels past.
“Sorry, I can’t hear you, the traffic.”
“You need to go to the Iraqi embassy for a visa to enter Iraq”, he shouts.
“They told me to come here.” I hear a radio call come in to the man next to me- they guy at the window tells him something. He apparently can't hear him either. I watch as the man behind the window shouts into his radio angrily. The man beside me calmly directs me around to the back of the building. I walk up and around the block to a narrow tree lined street. There is a line of about 6 people in front of a closed door. The girl at the front of the line is crying softly and arguing with the security man. I walk up to the security man and ask to go in. I am directed to the back of the line.

After a half hour wait, i am at the front of the line where the young woman is still crying, her voice getting louder as the security man ignores her. I am signaled to open my backpack and the security man checks it quickly. He has me empty my pockets and hold may hands out to the sides, then he scans me with a wand. I gather my belongings and i’m ushered inside. I place my backpack, belt, cell phone, change etc… into the x-ray machine and walk through the metal detector. After collecting my things, i step up to the first empty window and tell the man i need a piece of paper from the embassy to give me permission to enter Iraq. He tells me he doesn’t have a piece of paper to give me permission, that no such paper exists. I merely need to apply at the Iraqi embassy for a visa and they either accept it or reject it. I tell him what i was told by the Iraqi embassy. He excuses himself, then returns shortly and repeats himself. No such paper exists. I ask if he would please check again as i really don’t want to have to return again. He confirms it- and gives me a policy printout that says in part that the US embassy does not interfere in visa matters.

I return to the Iraqi embassy that has a repeat of the week before- crowds of Iraqi refugees trying to update their papers and passports. I walk up to the policeman at the door and ask to fill out a visa application. “No visas here”, he says.
“No visas here.”
“I’d really like to confirm that with some one who actually works at the embassy”, i respond. He raise his hands in the gesture that’s says “What?” “Are you kidding me?” And “Tough luck, buddy!” all at once. I don’t move and repeat my request to speak to someone with the embassy. The line behind me is getting longer. A man who speaks English asks me what i want. I tell him i want to get a visa form from inside. He repeats my request to the security guard. “No visas here”, the guard replies as a man in a tie approaches him from inside the embassy. They speak and the man in the tie ushers me inside, past all the waiting Iraqis and through the door behind the windows. I enter and am ushered to chair by the same man i spoke with the prior week. “What do you like?” he asks.
“I would like a visa to go to Iraq. Last week you directed me to the American embassy to get a letter. There are no letters. I would like to get a visa.”
“It is very dangerous” he explains.
“I know it is very dangerous, i would like to be responsible for myself and get a visa.”
“Do you have an invitation?”
“Yes, i have been invited by a family to visit them in Baghdad.”
“You will need a written invitation. Then we will forward your request to Baghdad to get the proper approval. Then we will give you a visa.”
“How long will that take”?”
“Two months, maybe less.”
“Is there another way to do this? If i come back with an invitation are you going to tell me another procedure?”
“It might be quicker if you go to Washington D.C. and apply there, that usually doesn’t take 2 months.”
“So, i should fly to Washington D.C., go to the Iraqi embassy and apply for a visa and then return to the Middle East?”
“That would be the best”, he says, “That may only take 2 weeks.” I laugh and he smiles.
“All right, I understand. It’s not so easy for Iraqis to visit our country either.” He shakes my hand as i get up to go.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Amal's Journey

Outside the UNHCR compound a crowd is forming. Two hundred people gather in the dusty street, choking off the traffic lanes so that only one car can pass in each direction. Car horns are constantly blaring, dust is kicked up, taxi drivers are shouting out the routes they cover and each time a door to the walled-in compound opens, a scrum forms as people crowd around trying to get information. UNHCR workers, identified by their blue uniforms, ties, and badges shout out numbers or try to move people back off the road all the while slowed by people trying to ask questions. A few Syrian police men sit in broken plastic chairs drinking tea and smoking. On the street, businesses have sprung up in the form of snack carts, falafel stands, and the always present tea and coffee vendors. Several new service (shared taxi) routes have been established to shuttle Iraqi refugees from various Damascus neighborhoods to this out of the way registration center. And there is a stream of people arriving and departing.

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. Currently about 3000 people per month are being processed here. Sixty percent of them are people renewing their papers (originally, refugees were required to come and renew their status on a yearly basis, this has been changed to two years as of April 2008). Forty percent or 1200 people are registering for the first time. However this does not reflect the number of people currently leaving Iraq as many of the refugees do not go to the UNHCR for assistance until many months after their arrival.

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 even 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 3 months ago with her daughter. She hasn’t renewed her visa, so she is technically in the country illegally. She left Iraq because she received death by the Jaish Al-Mehdi. She was a Sunni woman married to a Shia man. It was her husband 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. Her husband told her she will be killed if she returns.

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. The UNHCR will also have lawyers work with her to divorce her husband as well as straighten out her visa issues so she is not at risk for deportation back to Iraq. 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. Her 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 to 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.” Hoping to be resettled to the United States, she just found out from friends that she would only receive three months support. Now she is confused. Unable to speak English and with small children, how can she begin work in three months time?

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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Native Without a Nation

My friend Firas has a project for Iraqi refugee kids here in Syria. It’s called “Native without a Nation”. It is a web blog that uses digital technology and web cams to connect Iraqi kids directly with kids from other countries. As part of the program he teaches kids how to use the computer and access the internet. He also photographs the kids and adds a brief biography of each student to his website. We revisited Ali’s family (see Ali and Sadha) yesterday to get the biographies of his two younger children, Haseen age 14 and his sister Asmaa age 11. Asmaa’s brief biography says it all!

Asmaa Ali
Age 11

"My idea of life is a very simple life. Not complicated.
First, I want to study.
Second, I want to draw.
Third, I like to make beaded jewelry.
Fourth, I want to be successful in my life for me and my family, exactly like a normal family.

We are without a nation. When will we not live in a strange country? When will we have a home? I am without safety. I am unable to study. My wish is to be successful despite the difficult situation now. We are refugees. If that is OK with you, don’t even ask me about it."

Please take a look at the work Firas is doing with the young people here in Damascus. It will inspire you. If you know of a local school that would like to arrange a digital interview, contact Firas, his website is

Salwan and Danny

Danny sits on the end of the couch on the opposite side of the room and looks on as his older brother Salwan revisits the day their father was killed. His father Husqail and other family members were going to visit relatives in Northern Iraq. I ask which family members were present . “My mother, my sister, and Danny were there.” Salwan says as he looks up at his young brother. I ask Danny if he can recount what happened next. “Three men were walking toward us near the barricades that the Americans had set up to keep terrorists out of the neighborhood. They signaled the car to stop. Two of the men approached the car from the front, one came from behind. One of the men was looking at a photograph in his hand. He tells my father to get out of the car and come get his picture”. Danny says this was the signal to the gunman that they had the right man. “The next thing I remember is my father on the ground.” Husqail was executed by a shot to the head. The gunmen fled in different directions, leaving the shocked family sitting in their car.

Danny's father was a mechanic for the municipal sewer department. The crime for which he was executed in cold blood was working in the Green zone in Baghdad. He left a wife and five children.

Salwan asked a friend who worked in the Al Dora police department if he should mention the fact that his father worked in the Green zone- the motive for his murder. The friend counseled against it. There were many Sunni and Shia factions in the department and it would not be wise to advertise where his father worked. That very day the family abandoned their home and went to stay with friends in the Zeiuna district. His neighbors called to tell him that someone had taken over his home. Salwan naively went back to the Al Dora police department and filled out forms stating that unknown persons had occupied his home. He was told to report back to the police station the next day and they would go to his house. His friend called him later that night and warned him if he returned he would be killed. Salwan never went back.

The Al Dora neighborhood is very close to the green zone and people are closely watched. In 2006 Shia and Sunni militia groups began to grow more prominent in the neighborhood. Many residents of Al Dora have been killed, either executed in the streets, or killed in crossfire between the militias and the US army. Salwan says that in the twenty three years his family lived in Al Dora they had never had a problem. The neighborhood was a mixed neighborhood with Sunni, Shia and Assyrian Christians all living together.

It took the family one year to raise the necessary money for passports and papers so they could escape Iraq. They arrived in Damascus in November of 2007. One brother remains in northern Iraq. Having recently fled the militia violence in Mosul targeting Christians, he is trying to raise the money to get passports for his family so he too, can flee. Seven family members currently live in a small furnished apartment in the Jeramana district. All the relevant papers were provided to the UNHCR regarding their father’s death- the family hoped they would be resettled quickly due to the circumstances of their father’s death. The family has had no interviews since the refugee application was completed. Danny is not attending school. He stopped attending in 2006 after his father was killed. Now 16 years old, he is too old to attend the 8th grade in public school and would need to pay for classes. Since their arrival in Damascus he has also been diagnosed with blood sugar issues and needs medication. The family needed to make a choice between his education, medicine, and the rent. No one is currently working in the family. The family receives food aid from the UNHCR but no monetary assistance. When the family registered, Salwan was told he would need to separate his case from his families in order for the family to receive monetary assistance, since he was an adult male who could work. But because Syria does not officially recognize the UNHCR designation of refugee status, all Iraqi refugees have tourist visas stamped in their passports and are not permitted to work. Those that do work are subject to arrest and deportation. Those who take the risk are rarely paid more than five dollars per day.

Salwan’s family rarely leaves the apartment, visiting the church in the afternoons, occasionally visiting friends or spending time at the internet cafĂ©. Mostly, they sit around the apartment with nothing to do but watch TV. “We need to work, to occupy our time, to help us forget.” Salwan says. As they spend their days idly, it is hard to forget. It is especially hard for Danny. He tells me he is angry and confused. Two years since he witnessed his father’ killing and he has not received help. Like many of the young people who have been exposed to horrific violence, he has no outlet, no way to come to terms with his situation. “What can I do?” he asks quietly. On Christmas day Danny will be 17 years old. He tells me, “One day I would like to continue my studies and work in a pharmacy. But right now, I’d work at anything.”

Salwan is confused about staying. Because their father worked in the Green zone and because the family is Assyrian, Salwan believes that the family can’t return to Baghdad. “We can’t return. All Iraq is partitioned and we don’t have a place in Iraq. We need a new life.” In the next moment Salwan says, “I haven’t seen anything in my life but war, sanctions and more war. I’m 30 years old and I don’t have anything, yet I am now responsible for my family. Everything in this apartment belongs to somebody else. I don’t know the future- if we will go back, stay or be resettled. I don’t know anything.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Optimist

Walking down a dirt road strewn with rubble and refuse, past new concrete block apartment buildings, we pass some kids playing soccer and kicking up mounds of dust, a work crew mixing cement, and a tall skinny man leaning back on a stoop reading a book. He looks so relaxed, he could be sitting in a park listening to the birds. We stop and say hello he gives us a quick glance, closes the book and invites us in. I ask what he was reading and he says a psychology book. He is a retired psychologist from Baghdad who came to Damascus two years ago.

He introduces himself as Hadi, and explains it means “quiet man”. “I love quietness” he says with a smile. As the cement mixer grinds and the kids shout, Hadi is an island of gentleness and calm amidst the turbulence. He left his wife and children and came to Damascus because the intense violence frightened him. His family has moved to his mother-in-laws house. His wife continues working and the children are in school. “My oldest is at the top of her class in all Iraq” Hadi says with pride. He doesn’t answer when i ask how he came to be the only family member who left Baghdad. When he first arrived he applied at the UNHCR for refugee status, but when it was time to renew, his friends told him it could take 6 months. “I disliked this idea, and I decided not to bother”. He says he speaks with his family often, and while they say the situation is better in Baghdad, it is not yet safe to return. Hadi says he may return in 3 or 4 months, as his life is lonely and it is expensive to live as a refugee.

I ask how he thinks Iraqi children will fare over time. He is optimistic. He believes Iraq will be very nice in 10 to 12 years. “We have the first culture in the world. I think we can renew everything” Hadi exclaims confidently. “Iraq just needs time.” Hadi doesn’t have an explanation for the cataclysmic violence that has shaken Iraq since 2003. “Iraqi people have a very nice culture and good abilities. It is a very wealthy country and we can use its wealth to renew us. I love my country as you love yours”, he says.

“Iraqis have no value in any other country in the world. It is a terrible fate. It leaves me very sad. But it will get better!” he exclaims. I ask him what it will take. “First people must change their souls. Then people need to understand life better. We need to dismiss violence in order to develop conditions for peace. There is nothing better than peace and love!” I wonder if all this can be accomplished within Hadi’s timeline, but he is the first person in a month to be optimistic about the fate of Iraq. He invites me back another time to enjoy a cup of tea.

Ali and Sadha

Ali and Sadha became friends when both worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baghdad. Strong ties remained over the years. When both families ended up in Damascus they renewed their friendship. “We have never considered religion before, why should we now? Before the war religion never mattered.” Sadha says emphatically.

During the Iraq-Iran war Ali was a soldier in Saddam’s army. He lost his left arm below the elbow and suffered many shrapnel wounds from an explosion, yet factions in his country now call him a traitor because of his work with the Red Cross. Ali worked as a security guard at the Red Cross for 11 years. “When Saddam was in power, working with foreigners was not a crime. I worked for a humanitarian organization. Now if you worked with foreigners you are persecuted.” After the war Ali’s family was living in Baghdad when Sunni militias became a threat in his neighborhood. He moved with his wife and 3 children to a Shia area in Diyala. When the Shia militias found out he worked for the ICRC, they threatened by them.
One night the entire family living next door was executed in their home. Ali fled with his family the next morning. They were so panicked they didn’t take anything with them, not even Ali’s prosthetic hand. They arrived in Syria with only the clothes on their backs.

Ali cannot find work. “Just yesterday I went to the Islamic Red Crescent to ask about work, I can do many things. When I told them I was Iraqi, they said, ‘Just go. Get out. We have nothing for you. Get out, go. Go!’" His 18 year old son Ahmed, who married his girlfriend from Iraq just last month, has left school in order to provide for the family. He earns $3 to $4 per day in a woodworking shop. The family receives $110 per month assistance from the UNHCR which just covers the rent. This month’s payment has been delayed and the rent hasn’t been paid. They are still waiting to hear from the UNHCR regarding their situation. They haven’t heard anything since they registered. “Nobody listens. You can’t even get past the door at the UNHCR or any embassy. Just say Iraqi and the answer is no.”

“It is difficult, but not just for me. It is difficult for all Iraqis. I can’t return back. I can’t even think about it. I don’t ever want to return back. I am only looking for a future for my children. Anywhere but Iraq.”
Sadha began work at the ICRC as a cook and housekeeper until a job in the accounting office was available. She and her husband had studied Tourism and Hotel Management at the university. In the 80’s she spent time in the United States as a student. “But I returned back to Iraq” she says with regret. Tourism was not a lucrative field in the 90’s in Iraq so Sadha concentrated on accounting.

During the war she stayed close to home. After the war, even home was not safe as Islamic groups became more prominent in the neighborhood. As Christians, the family tried to quietly go about their business. In 2005 the ICRC was bombed and in an effort to protect employees the staff was drastically reduced. Sadha left the ICRC and began work with an American contractor. Shortly thereafter her home was attacked. A neighbor called her and warned her not to return home. Her name appeared on a death list of one of the militias. Her family never returned to their home and the house was occupied by strangers. Shortly thereafter, her son Fadi narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt on his way to school, and the family fled to Syria in June of 2007.

“We left everything. We lost everything. After twenty six years of marriage we put our remaining belongings in four bags and fled Iraq”, Sadha says.

“We are barely surviving, we sold some gold”, her husband Faed interjects, pointing to his ring finger which is missing his wedding band. “We are waiting, but nobody cares.”

Sadha continues, “When we registered at the UNHCR the person was so rude. I told him he should care about everyone he is working for a humanitarian organization. He told me if I kept talking like that he would call security to push us out. I asked to see his boss, any boss, someone who cared about us. He said no.” After a moment, she adds, “We are just looking for a peaceful place to begin again. A shelter for us. We try to find anyone who may offer a little light to give us hope.”
“It is one of my dreams- of all Iraqi’s dreams, -they call us from the UN department of resettlement” says Faed. “No one calls”, Sadha interupts. “No one calls”, continues Faed,“And we are waiting. It is our last chance. We cannot stay here and we cannot return back. We need a little light.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Arrival

Saad came to Damascus with his family 6 days ago to escape threats on his family. For two years he moved around Iraq trying to escape the violence. When a threatening letter appeared on his doorstep along with a bullet he decided it was time to leave. At a time when Iraqi generals are on Syrian TV encouraging people to return to Iraq, Saad’s departure is a warning. In Iraq, fear still greets you when you open your door.
I met Saad at the UNHCR offices as they were closing late Sunday afternoon. We were speaking with a young Sabian man who was waiting for his cousin to renew his papers. He had been waiting since 7:00 am that morning.

As one can tell from these many dispatches, waiting is a theme. For the Iraqi in Damascus waiting is a many layered task. It would drive an American insane. If you are used to instant gratification, the life of a refugee would be intolerable. You must wait for the power to return. Damascus has been experiencing rolling blackouts since the huge influx of people here. You must wait for the water to return- our tap has been dry for 2 days. You must wait for an internet connection, then wait for the page to load (no DSL here). You must wait for cash to pay the bills, wait for phone calls, appointments, visa renewals, resettlement and most of all, answers. Answers require the most patience. “The patience of a saint” as my mother used to say. Many Iraqis have become saints before they received an answer. Waiting is often a denouement as well.

Forgive me, I digress. A friend who has read this blog says my entries are long winded- a failing i am slowly recognizing, but even slower to correct. Changes will come, but you must wait. I hope you have the patience of an Iraqi.

As Saad passed us he stopped and looked up. Perhaps he heard me speaking English. He asked if I worked for the UNHCR. I told him no. He asked if i could help him. I told him no. He said he had been in Damascus for 4 days. His second oldest daughter was enrolled in school, but his oldest daughter was denied- her class was full. He had managed to rent an apartment for his family but it only had 2 beds (and his family was 6, himself, his wife and 4 children) and he needed blankets and winter clothes for his kids as well. The UNHCR gave him an appointment. He needs to return in January.

You know the feeling when you’ve made a life altering decision affecting your whole family, and the very first instant you second guess yourself? The feeling you get on a roller coaster just before you plummet toward the earth? Saad had that look as he turned and walked slowly down the street. I was reminded of the comment another father had made to me, “The children know nothing, the parents carry everything.” And it is a heavy burden.

Saad used to work as a driver in Baghdad. He was afraid because it was known in his neighborhood that his brother was an American citizen. In Iraq, this is enough to get you klled. He was kidnapped and held for 5 days in 2006. He was beaten and abused. He gained his freedom when US forces entered the neighborhood to confront the militias. He moved his family to Al Fallujah, seeking anonymity and safety. One night someone chased him and shot at his car. He moved the family to Al Ramadi. He began receiving phone threats. Then came the threat and bullets on the doorstep. A long bus ride to Damascus was next. Two years of hiding from unknown assailants and moving from one unknown to another has left the family exhausted.

Now the waiting begins.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ibrahim's Story

Passing through an iron gate and up the stairs we leave the narrow, busy streets of Yarmouk behind.I follow Ibrahim into his apartment. We enter a living area that is sparsely furnished with a cabinet, a TV, a single plastic chair and a clock on the wall. Currently there are 5 adults and 4 children living here- Ibrahim’s mother, wife, two college aged sons, twin 3 year old daughters, and a 6 year old grandson. Several small cushions are brought for us to sit on. Water and soft drinks are brought in. Ibrahim’s mother sits in the chair and his wife and children sit to our side. They have no cushions to sit on. Ibrahim apologizes for the small offerings. Even when strangers visit, Iraqi hospitality calls for soft drinks, tea and cakes, coffee, fruit juice and fruit. “In Baghdad, it was different”, says Ibrahim.

As we get comfortable Ibrahim begins his story. His troubles began in April of 2003 just 3 days before the end of the invasion. An American airstrike hit his home and 3 of his children were killed, 20 year old Brah, 8 year old Haneen and 5 year old Mohammad, his 1 year old grandson was left without a mother.

Two months later, after the burial of his children, he received death certificates from the Iraqi Red Crescent saying his children’s deaths were the result of an American airstrike. He took the papers to the American Embassy, “it was then in Saddam’s castle”, Ibrahim says disdainfully. He made three trips to the “castle” before he was able to speak with an American general who told him it would be necessary to wait until an Iraqi government was formed. He would then be compensated through the government by the US forces. Once the Iraqi government was formed he still had no answers and no compensation. He hired a lawyer, but the lawyer was told by the fledgling Iraqi government that there was nothing for him; he needed to contact the American authorities. He returned to the embassy with his documents but was turned away.

In 2004, Ibrahim fled with his family to Jordan because he feared for his sons lives. He filed for refugee status with the UNHCR and again brought up the unresolved case of his children’s deaths. He was told that he needed papers from the American forces in Iraq to authorize compensation. Ibrahim didn’t have an order; he just had three death certificates. In Jordan, Ibrahim’s family struggled. The children could not attend school, he couldn’t work, and the lifestyle was different. It was difficult for his family to adjust. In April 2005 two daughters were born, one named Amal (Hope) and one named Haneen (Yearning or Longing). He returned to Baghdad later in 2005 out of desperation. He felt he simply had no options in Jordan.

In spite of a serious upturn in militia violence Ibrahim just tried to hang on in Baghdad. But conditions on the street were deteriorating on a daily basis. Then, his brother was kidnapped from the stationary store he owned. The kidnappers demanded and were paid a $20,000 ransom. His brother was found dead shortly afterward. After his brother was killed, Ibrahim received a written threat that said he and all his children would be killed. He fled again, this time to Al Nasiryah where the family hid for 3 months, then on to Damascus.

He registered at the UNHCR in 2007 for refugee status. He was told because he has 2 grown sons and they can work, he is not eligible for monetary assistance (even though it is illegal for refugees to work in Syria). Some people are currently working nonetheless, earning about $4.00 per 10 -12 hr day. Ibrahim has tried to work but is told he is too old. One son remains in school, the other has not been able to find work. He was told he could receive food aid, which he receives once every 4 months comprising rice, grits, pasta, tea, and sugar. In order to get by, Ibrahim sells part of his food rations each month. “In Iraq, with Saddam, we had a nice house, and work and food. Now we can’t even buy fuel for the heater and the children are hungry” says Awatif, Ibrahim’s wife.

“We cannot return to Iraq. Our home has been taken over by thieves. My business is lost. What are we to do? What will become of us?” Ibrahim asks. “We have no hope except the hope of our God.”

Ibrahim wrote a letter to the UNHCR outlining his case. Each week he goes to the UNHCR hoping that his persistence will get someone, anyone, to listen to the case of a man whose children were killed by Americans, who has received no compensation for his loss, has faced repeated death threats to his remaining children and now has no home. The security people do not allow him to enter, telling him he will be called when his appointment is set. He has visited the American embassy, trying to deliver the death certificates of his children, but they told him they cannot help him, that he needs to go to the UNHCR. At the UNHCR he was told he needed to go to the Red Cross. To date, the Red Cross has not been able to get any compensation from the United States for the family. They say the request has come to late and it is impossible to verify the details. Nonetheless, Ibrahim speaks highly of his encounter with the Red Cross. ”They are the only ones who cared” he says.

Ibrahim has visited over 20 embassies in Damascus trying to get someone to listen and help him resettle- anywhere. He has been turned away by the embassies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and many embassies in Europe and Canada. “We are not wanted anywhere, no one accepts us”, says Awatif. His mother says, “I’ve lost five of my family, one in the Iraq-Iran war and four now. It is very difficult. We are sad we are not wanted”.

Ibrahim’s friends who have been resettled to the United States call and ask him, “Why are you still there? Why is there no resettlement for you?” He has no answers.

Just yesterday Ibrahim returned to UNHCR undeterred. He tried to give the security people his letter, they told him, “Why do you bring your story? We won’t read it”. “That’s the problem, no one will read it” Ibrahim says. Six years of effort, six years of persistence, six years of desperation. What will it take for Ibrahim’s story to be heard?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

For Fatma

A child is born in a country flooded with tears
where rivers of blood have overflowed their banks.
A country that knows its share of shock
but little of the awe that was promised it.
A child is born amidst the rubble
delivered by nations a world away.
Where ignorant men smirk and say shit happens
as thugs and madmen crush beauty
and ancient mysteries are lost forever.
A child is born as an occupying army
watches hell take its place on earth
and drills and hammers and batteries
and water, glorious water, become the tools
of the devil among men.
A child is born amidst the screams of the tortured
and the sadistic glee of their torturers.
A child is born in a country flooded with the bodies of the dead
discarded in soccer fields, markets, on roadsides or trash heaps.
A child is born and half a world away
she cries out, "I am Iraqi!"
My people, my culture, live on in me.
A child is born in a country on fire,
her mother cradles her close to her breast
and hope is resurrected from the ashes.

Art as Life #2

Salem was first accosted in his home in 2003. One evening at 8 pm he heard a light knocking on the door. He answered thinking it was a friend. ِA large man in a white dishdasha and a red kaffieh said, “Assalamu Alaikum”. It was a curious greeting given the circumstances. He responded, “Alaikum Assalam", the courteous response. He was shocked to see his garden full of men. He tried to count them but was abruptly shoved aside by the man in a white dishdasha. He was grabbed by two others and they entered his house. He was immediately beaten to the ground as they shouted obscenities at him. Other men entered and grabbed his mother, who was reading in her bedroom, and his sister. He started to ask what they wanted, but he was shut up by a punch to the face. As they pulled his mother from the bedroom she was hit by the butt of a kalisnakov. Salem covered his mother to protect her. He whispered to her to keep quiet so she would stay alive, because he knew the men attacking them had lost their humanity and had no mercy. The kalisnakov found his shoulder, then his back. He was beaten for four hours, until he could not stand, until he could not see because he was bleeding so profusely from his face and head. He heard his sister pleading with the men, “We will give you everything, just leave my brother.”

At one am the beating stopped. “Perhaps they were tired, I don’t know”, says Salem with a sad smile and a look of agony in his eyes as he recounts the episode. “There is one thing you must understand about me; I never hurt an ant, a fly, a cat, a person. I am an artist perhaps that is why they attacked me.” As he lay on the floor in a pool of his own blood, the men loaded two trucks with the family’s possessions. The trucks left, then returned for a second load. When the house was stripped of everything of value, the men began to leave. They dragged him by the hair to his sister’s side pulling clumps out by the roots in the process. They grabbed his sister saying they would bring her back when he came up with some more money. He said to them, “We have no more money, you have everything we own, but you should leave my sister, we have a very big family and they will come after you.” Whether they believed his weak threat or they were just tired, the men left, leaving his sister behind.

The family abandoned their home and moved in with another sister and her family. Salem spent months in bed recovering from his injuries.

“By 2007 my sister and I had returned to my family home. My mother had died and I lost another sister as well, a lot happens over such a period of time.” The violence never stopped, I was kidnapped many times. One day my sister came home distraught. A neighbor had told her, “We like you a lot, we love your family. For your own good, you need to get outside. Just go.” She told my sister that my name had appeared on a death list of one of the militias." Salem had just directed a short play at his college about war and occupation. He thought that just the creation of a play was enough of a reason to be targeted by a militia. “I don’t know why, it is illogical to destroy a human life just for making something. They kill doctors, lawyers, teachers. For what I ask? It is illogical.” At first, Salem refused to go, but his sister arranged everything then spent an entire night convincing him he had to leave. He left but still regrets that he allowed the only person who cared for him behind.

Salem now lives in a squalid 2 room flat with a shared toilet down the hall in a very poor Palestinian neighborhood. Piece by piece he has sold his furniture to buy material. He has an idea for a fashion show and is busy sewing the outfits. He complains that there is no money to rent a proper hall, with the correct lighting and sound. He carries on, planning a new play, “About war of course”. As we leave, he escorts us out of the neighborhood. We draw the attention of some young men who follow us for a while. I am not sure if it is because a foreigner is in the group, or because Salem looks just a bit flamboyant with his dinner jacket with a hankie in the breast pocket, a black kaffieh wrapped around his neck, a French beret on his head and his orange tinted glasses. Later, my friend tells me that he heard the boys talking about Salem as they followed us. He encouraged him to leave the neighborhood, that he was not safe. Salem balked. He will stay. He has nowhere else to go.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

One Tent Please

My friend has been in Damascus for 4 years. Unable to work legally he makes ends meet, but just barely, working dead end jobs for very little pay - as little as $3 per day for a 12 hour day, and occasionally as a translator for foreigners like myself. He recently got fed up with his inability to pay rent, pay bills, and feed himself. He went to the UNHCR which is the main organization providing aid to Iraqi refugees. As a single man, he is not considered a highly vulnerable case, or even a vulnerable case...he is not even in a classification- basically he is at the bottom of a 1.5 million person heap.

So he went to the UNHCR office. His first two visits were to no avail. He couldn't get past the security desk. There were no available appointments. On his third visit the security guard must have felt sorry for him and let him pass. When he got to the reception desk, the receptionist looked up and asked how she could help him. He said, "Yes, thank you. I would like a tent." Taken aback the receptionist ask him to repeat himself, "Yes, thank you, I would like a tent. I have no money, I am an Iraqi refugee and I am homeless. If I have a tent, I will be ok." The receptionist had no idea how to respond to this well dressed, apparently sincere man. All she could stammer was, "I'm sorry but we don't have any tents." He pointed to a picture behind her of a refugee in front of a tent that very clearly said on it "UNHCR". "One of those", he said. She looked at him closely and said, "We can not give you a tent. If we gave you a tent we would have to give everybody a tent and Damascus would be a giant tent city. I'm sorry." My friend thanked her for her concern and turned and walked out the door.

Welcome Home to Iraq

The current Iraqi government is enticing people to return home with free bus tickets, airline flights and one time cash payments. Behind the scenes, they are pressuring other nations to not offer visas or resettlement options for Iraqi refugees. The UNHCR is trying to convince NGO's to return to Baghdad. In the American media the Iraq security situation is portrayed as "vastly improved" and as "life returning to normal".

What exactly is considered "normal" for a country occupied by a foreign army for five years (resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths), suffering from economic sanctions for 12 years prior to that (resulting in 500,000 deaths of children under 5 years old) while run by a dictator that suppressed his opposition with extreme violence (resulting in untold numbers of deaths), prior to sanctions attacked by the same army that now occupies the country (resulting in upwards of 200,000 deaths) and prior to that attack, a ten year war (supported and armed by the country that now occupies it) with its neighbor Iran (resulting in hundreds of thousands dead)?

There is no mention of the ghettoization of Baghdad, with blast walls slicing up neighborhoods based on religious beliefs or political leanings, only one way in and out. Even the Green Zone is a huge ghetto for the affluent and political elite, with government officials unable to travel outside its walls without armed convoys to escort them. As the media portrays Iraqi children dressed in school uniforms playing soccer, kidnapping for profit continues to be a growing sector of the Iraqi economy. As the media portrays families daring to venture outside after dark as a huge security victory, there is no mention that even the water supply has become a killer. Cholera has spread throughout the south and now reaches into Baghdad neighborhoods. It has been determined that 33% of the piped water in Baghdad is not fit for human consumption. The militias are still well armed and manned. They may be quiet now, but they are in the neighborhoods and still killing innocent citizens. You may be killed because you don't wear a headscarf or you belong to a different religion or you haoppen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the water in Baghdad, walking outside your immediate nighborhood is not fit for human consumption.

So why is the Iraqi government pushing for its citizens to return without a promise of safety and security? Perhaps in the run up to elections in the USA and in Iraq it is to prove that hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent on 5 years of death and destruction was somehow warranted. Perhaps it was so Americans can rest easy now that we have brought democracy to another country.

In fact we have reduced a first world country to a third world country and its citizens, at least those outside of politics, are all rapidly approaching destitution.

Iraqi refugees will have none of it. Very few are buying into the promises and returning home. Safety is the major concern, though they tend to put it more bluntly. One family member smiled and said, "They wish for us to return so they can kill us." Another said, "Return home? Our beautiful home was stolen by a militia, I have nothing to return to." Others are deadly serious, "If I return home, I will be killed." In Jordan and Syria even families of modest means have been driven into destitution.

They wait for many things, they wait to renew their visas, they wait for their assistance funds to pay the rent, the wait to eat because the food aid is not enough, they wait for blankets, winter is coming and will not wait. They wait for a phone call, just a phone call to tell them what is next. Some have been waiting for years, just for a phone call. A phone call to renew their hope, a phone call to leave open a possibility of tomorrow.

Only when the last option is extinguished and out of sheer desperation will they dare return to Iraq. Once "home" they find there is no exit.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

It is Bad Everywhere

Iman and her son are new to Damascus, having arrived in October of 2008. She begins by saying she wasn’t planning on coming to Syria as she understood it was a hard life, but she is determined to save her 14 year old son Barath, who she affectionately calls Tootie. Tootie is a bit shy but he is quick to laugh and teases his mom relentlessly. He sits with us, distractedly playing a game on his mom’s cell phone.

As we sit down and i am brought tea, Iman begins to tell her story. "I am the mother of 3 sons and 3 daughters. My oldest, Riadh, 33 years old, was kidnapped in January of 2007. My second, Hamad was kidnapped and killed 4 months later." she tells me, with a calm even voice.

At the time he was taken, Riadh was working with a private American security contractor in the Oil Protection Services unit. Imam immediately began searching for him, visiting hospitals, morgues, jails and prisons throughout Baghdad and beyond- travelling as far as Camp Bucca to determine if he had been arrested by American forces. Hamad, her 2nd son, returned to the spot Riadh was last seen and overheard people talking about the kidnapping. He made a list of several names of perpetrators, all members of Jaish al Mehdi. They took the names to the American base hoping for help. The Americans required six witnesses to come forward, but they only had four and it was too dangerous for any of them to go to the American base. A friend from Riadh's work helped in the search for one day, otherwise the family was left on their own to find there son and brother. Hamad travelled to the Moqtada Sadr offices in Najaf because the local authorities did nothing to help. The only thing he could do was confront the group who took his brother. The police would find his body 4 hours later. Before they shot him, his killers had drilled holes throughout his body and beat him. Iman found his name on a list in the hospital morgue six days later. She offers me a packet that contains the ID badges of her son Riadh and photographs of Hamad’s body when she identified him at the morgue, as proof of her stories validity. The look in her eyes is validation enough. As i force myself to look through the photographs, i am numb, and i carefully put the photos back in the envelope, folding it quietly and placing it on the table. I have nothing to offer this woman in her pain. We sit silently looking at each other.

Iman took the list of names her son had gathered to the police department. She didn’t know that the police had been infiltrated by militia members. She escaped her own death only because another police officer helped her eluded the militia and get home safely. He warned her that she shouldn’t return to the Police department because it was not safe. Three days after recovering Hamad’s body she began receiving taunting phone calls, she turned her phone off. When she turned it back on she had received 50 messages.

The family fled their home and thought they were safe until Iman was spotted by one of her assailants in the new neighborhood. She began receiving messages again. One warned, “We took care of two, Barath is next.” Iman and Tootie left for Syria shortly afterwards. Her husband and daughters all remain in Iraq. They have moved back into their old home which now is in a neighborhood that is closed off by blast walls. The family feels a little more secure, but if the walls come down, the family will run.

Tootie is adjusting to his new life in Damascus. He misses his sisters and his friends back home but has already begun making new friends. He is currently in school but he must produce his school documents from Baghdad within thirty days to stay. There is a glitch. Baghdad authorities will not send his papers out of the country, refusing to acknowledge why the family has become refugees. Imam says she has no plan other than move. She says she only knows they must leave the Middle East, and she is willing to go anywhere that offers an opportunity for her youngest son. As i pack up my notebooks and tape recorder , Iman says, “I hope everyone outside comes inside and sees the crisis our life has become. Iraqi people feel besieged from all sides. It is bad everywhere.”

Abu Adnan and Abu Selmed

Abu Adnan recalls the trouble began getting worse in late 2004. As a Christian family in Baghdad they had taken care and kept a low profile during the aftermath of the invasion and continued with their lives. The first sign of real trouble came when their daughters were accosted outside of school and told to cover their hair when they were in public. The second episode was more threatening. Gunmen tried to grab one of the girls, as they ran away the assailants yelled after them that they would kill them if they saw them uncovered again.

Then in July of 2005 their son Adnan was working in a market. Three masked gunmen entered the store, blindfolded him and bound his hands. They robbed him of cash and his more valuable merchandise. They destroyed what remained. They warned him about the consequences of speaking to anyone about the incident and hit him over the head before leaving. When he returned home he told his father he had to get out. The young man left Baghdad for Damascus with his two sisters in September 2005.

Remaining behind, Adnan’s parents began staying inside only venturing out when necessary. A family friend reported to them that he had begun receiving threats because of his work with an American defense contractor. He ignored the threats because he needed the work to provide for his wife and three year old son, Selmed.

On December 14th 2005, while Abu Selmed was at work, there was a knock at the door. When Um Selmed answered she was gunned down in the doorway. The only witness was little Selmed. When they left the gunmen took the boy with them. At the memorial service the distraught father received a phone call. The son would be released when a $25,000 ransom was paid. Abu Selmed sold all his possessions, family and church members contributed money as well. Abu Selmed moved in with the family of Abu Adnan. The ransom was paid and later that evening Selmed was found wandering in the neighborhood unharmed. Abu Selmed left for the safety of Syria. Abu Adnan, his wife and his mother moved from their house but steadfastly remained in Baghdad. After 2 months they too fled to Syria.

After waiting seven months since they applied for resettlement to Australia , Abu Selmed was in rejected in October 2008 as a candidate for resettlement to that country. No reason was given. He is now waiting to hear about resettlement to the United States. Um Adnan cries quietly and says she doesn’t know what she’ll do if she is resettled to a different country than Selmed as she has helped raise him in the 3 years since his mother’s death. But their cases are separate and there is no consideration given to relationships outside of family. Abu Adnan says, “We cannot continue to live like this. We will move anywhere, just not back to Iraq. Adnan is afraid to work. Medicines for three family members are very expensive. It’s getting cold.” Um Adnan says quietly, “Everything we had is gone.”

A Regime Story

A woman I met was trained as a medical technician and was a top student in her class. She began working in a lab during the sanctions in the 90’s. She earned $1.00 per day for 7 years. She was obligated to work as a health professional she was not given an option. At the time, doctors were fleeing Iraq in droves. On their passports they all listed their occupation as “worker” so they would not be arrested at the border, as it was also illegal for health professionals to leave the country. One day on the bus to the border, someone had a heart attack. When the police arrived they looked around the bus and asked, “Can any of the workers help this man?”

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Kassem's Escape

In May of 2007 Kassem's life took an unexpected turn. While waiting on line at the UNHCR offices in Amman he met an Iraqi woman and her mom. She was single, having given up the opportunity to marry in order to care for her mother who was suffering from cancer. After several meetings it became apparent to Kassem that he was falling in love. At 42 and in exile in Amman for 12 years he had given up the hope of marriage. After all, he was working as a house painter, laborer, and occasionally as a tutor. How could he possibly marry when he couldn't provide a stable life for a family? But on meeting Lubna this all changed. Over time he told Lubna of his feelings and how he thought they could work together to see that her mother received all she needed. He called Lubna's brothers in Switzerland and England for permission to marry and they agreed.

Kassem takes out a file folder filled with photos, passports, documents, applications and paperwork. He shares the photos of his bride-to-be as well as photos of their wedding party, which consisted of Lubna, Kassem, her mother and a family friend. They look radiant. He smiles at me. Before they could officially marry, Lubna and her mother received the call that they were going to be resettled to the United States. Kassem insisted they go while the opportunity presented itself and he would follow as soon as possible. They departed for California on April 22, 2008. "Exactly 6 months and 10 days ago", says Kassem. Now, he eagerly looks to the future, marking off the days in his planner with poems and stories for his beloved. His mother, who remains in Baghdad, told him he must wait for this woman, because any woman who has given up her own happiness to care for her mother is a woman worth waiting for. Kassem says, "I will wait, and I will only accept relocation to California, it is the only place for me."

Kassem has learned to accept waiting. He has been waiting since he escaped from Iraq in the fall of 1996. As a graduate in Chemical Engineering in 1986 and in Nuclear Engineering in 1989, Kassem had hope of teaching at the university level, but the regime told him differently. He began his career working with nuclear waste treatment and disposal. Within a year he was told he was being transferred to the nuclear program and would be working uranium separation and enrichment. The first thing he learned was that the technicians handling the nuclear material were not protected in any way; they didn't even wear masks or gloves. Kassem began teaching the technicians of the dangers of what they were doing and he had his first run in with Saddam's regime. Seven months after beginning his career in nuclear energy he found himself in prison. He was placed in isolation and beaten for seven days. At the end of this time he signed papers specifying that he would only concern himself with his job and not interfere with other people's responsibilities. After the Gulf War in 1991, all the scientists were instructed to hide all papers regarding the program from the UNISCOM inspectors. If they failed to do so, their entire families would be at risk. By this time Kassem was disillusioned and afraid. He went to the ministry and told them he wanted to complete his masters in Chemistry and leave the nuclear program. His request was rejected.

Eventually he walked away from his job. In 1994 he was arrested again, but released. He told his managers that he was sick and simply couldn't continue in his work, and began teaching again. In May of 1995 he was jailed again, beaten for seven days and released. At this point he knew he had to get out. "I live with one thing. I insist on self respect. I can not harm anyone. I can not compromise on this issue." Kassem explains to me. He paid for a fake passport and identity papers and escaped across the border.

Even in Jordan he was not safe as Iraq's secret police were in Jordan at the time. He could tell no one of his past, or even that he was an engineer. He lived in fear. His family in Baghdad were regularly visited by the police and threatened. Kassem didn't dare call his family for the next 7 years. In order to survive he began working as a laborer painting houses earning 4 JD's a day (about $5 US dollars).

He kept quiet and hid. "I lost my degree", he says, "but I gained my humanity". It was not an easy loss. Kassem's father worked sixteen hours a day as a fisherman. He could neither read nor write, but he insisted that his son would become an engineer. His father died while Kassem was in Jordan. His family did not tell him until 2003, four years after he died, because they knew Kassem would return home and certainly be killed. Since the fall of the regime masked men carrying guns have visited the remaining family in Baghdad, asking of the whereabouts of Kassem. Two of his friends, fellow engineers, were killed in Baghdad in 2004. He has been unable to return home to see his mother. But now his heart is in America. Throughout his life he has looked for one thing, the love that would make him feel whole. Now he has found it but it is half a world away. Sitting in his humble home, Kassem tells me, "To reflect real feelings is the greatest thing we can do as human beings. I insisted that I find this feeling, this love in my life." So Kassem waits. He escapes from the daily grind of living in Jordan, alone and far from those he loves, by jotting another poem in his planner and crossing another day off the calendar.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Thought

i thought, just now,
i want to go home.
How lucky, i cried,
to have a choice.

Art as Life

I was first introduced to Mohamed Ghani's work when i was in Baghdad before the invasion. A new piece was being completed in the plaza on Abu Nuwas street by the Palestine Hotel. It was cast in bronze and was called "Magic Carpet". After years of sanctions and the threat of a new war looming on the horizon, the piece evoked different possibilities for the people of Iraq. Taking the theme from the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, it depicted Aladdin and Jasmine soaring skyward. The sculpture has survived the shock and awe campaign and the years of occupation. It remains a beacon of possibilities not yet realized for the children of Iraq.

As we wander through Mohamed Ghani's small studio he talks of the bronze pieces representing the losses felt since the invasion in 2003. He speaks of his son who was in Sweden for eleven months trying to secure passports for his wife and children, in the end to no avail. He speaks of the pain of Iraqi families who are now separated with family members in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and others resettled around the world. This alone is deeply traumatic for a culture that treasures family and where many extended families live in the same home.

As we talk he gently kneads a small ball of clay between his fingers. He stands next to a piece carved in stone and says he has a dream to create it one day in Baghdad. The piece depicts a column, cracked and falling and a man with five arms struggling to hold it upright. Mohamed explains that the column represents the culture of Iraq. The column is falling and if it does, all will be destroyed. The man with the five arms represents the Iraqi people who are protecting the culture. The five arms each represent one of the arts: theater, plastic arts (sculpture), poetry & literature, painting and film. The piece is a symbol for people to remember what happened during occupation.

As the occupation forces entered Baghdad after days of intense bombing, they permitted the looting of priceless pieces of Iraqi history and culture. Mohamed Ghani lost 150 pieces at the Museum of Modern Art. The sculptures that were too heavy to steal were smashed to bits on the museum floor. When he confronted an American soldier and asked how this was allowed to happen, he was told by the young soldier that "it isn't my job". Mohamed Ghani looks at me with disbelief in his eyes, and with deep sadness says, "This is what he said to me, it isn't my job."

"I have many dreams", he says, "I want to do a testimony of all that has happened in Iraq. I dream of doing many pieces. One will be a man with a kaffieh sprawled on the ground with a US soldier's foot holding his head to the ground. Offending him in front of his whole family, his wife, his children. I saw this with my own eyes. Another would be an Iraqi woman searched by a male US soldier. His hands were all over her. In our culture unfamiliar men do not touch women. It simply is not done. Couldn't a female soldier search her? Why humiliate her in front of her husband? She was crying, she couldn't do anything. I want to document this. Create symbols for people to remember. Yes I have many dreams." As with any great artist, Mohamed Ghani's art transcends the personal and speaks of an entire cultures suffering.

Sitting opposite us, Mohamed speaks animatedly, waving his arms to emphasize his points. "I don't like politics. I don't like to be a politic man. Never in my life have I been a politic man. You have to be a big, big liar. And what about your President? He says God told him to go to war. In this age? Is this possible? Which God? The God I worship loves, he does not hate. Can it be God told him this? How?"

Asked what he would say to an American audience, he said he would ask a simple question, "Why did you destroy our country? You could have had everything. You could take the petrol. You could have taken Saddam- you put him there, why couldn't you just take him away and put someone else there? Without all the killing, without all the bombs. Why the bombs, bombs, bombs? Why? I lost a daughter after the bombing. The doctors couldn't identify her illness, they said they had not seen it before."

"I am not a politic man. I am an Iraqi man and I feel what has happened and I say what I feel. An American general knows nothing about Iraq. We love to sing and dance and make music. This is true throughout our history. We have a culture. Iraq can not be destroyed. Like the grass, the more you cut it down, the stronger it grows. As he says this Mohamed Ghani looks tired. We have taken enough of his time- he has dreams to realize.


As i write this it is late afternoon at a small art foundation in Amman. I sit in the garden with a small fountain in the center and the last of the jasmine cascading down a wall. A butterfly stands immobile on a flower. I look closer to see if it is alive it opens its wings once, and then remains still. I sit at a small stone table directly outside a building that houses and art installation by Jane Frere called "Return of the Soul". Ms. Frere was moved to examine the Palestinian Nakba after visiting Nazi concentration camps. The "Return of the Soul" focuses on the act of remembering. As part of the installation Ms. Frere recorded interviews with Palestinians who were recalling their exodus from Palestine in 1948. Their voices echo throughout the room and escape out into the garden where i sit. As the sun sinks to the horizon a cool breeze stirs. Sitting in the peaceful garden i am slowly surrounded by ghosts of other peoples uprooted from their home and forced into exile.

I reflect for a moment on all the technological advances over the last two dozen years, the tracing of the human genome, computer technology, cell phones, satellite technology and the internet. The huge advances we have made in medicine and science and the backwards steps we have taken in warfare. Smart bombs, drones, depleted uranium munitions.

Then the Palestinian ghosts remind me, "I fled barefoot with my three year old sister on my shoulders." "We ran from the house with nothing, I thought we would return home in a matter of days." "They rounded up my brother and uncles, we never saw them again." "We walked for eighteen hours, until we dropped from exhaustion." They are joined by the ghosts of Vietnam. "My daughter was covered in napalm, she died an agonizing death." "The helicopters circled the village, killing anything that moved." "Our village was burned to the ground, nothing survived." "We fled barefoot, through the night." The ghosts of World War II chimed in. Talking of the cattle cars and suffocation, the round ups, woman pulled from their children, the mass graves, the hissing gas filling the chamber as woman cried out in anguish. Then the voices of millions of Africans joined in. Until today they are on the move, searching for food and security and an end to violence. Voices from "good" wars and "bad" wars all cried out, a chorus of pain and fear.

But their song was not empty or hopeless. Their song was a song of remembrance, dedicated to those who remain and strive to end war as a tool of governments. A song of remembrance dedicated to those who strive to end the production of more powerful weapons of destruction and dislocation. A song of remembrance sung to those who would shift their minds from living lives in fear of scarcity and selling this delusion to the world along with our bombs, bullets, and guns.

Then i thought i was dreaming because i imagined for a moment that we immediately and unconditionally ended our cold hearted occupation of Iraq and spent the 1.3 billion dollars (or whatever this weeks absurd tally amounts to) per week on peace- On clean water, food, electricity, education and rebuilding all we have destroyed. What then? Forgive me, for now i am delving into fantasy. But perhaps for a moment we could allow the ghosts of war a moment of peace. And what if this crazy idea took hold around the world and human beings could focus just for one moment on providing instead of destroying? The one thing life affords us free of charge and in abundance is love. All the sages speak of it, honor it, and develop a capacity to nurture it. It is not necessary to deprive one single sentient being in order to obtain it. Love's supply is limitless and not a single being needs to change in order for you to express it. It's benefits are immediately apparent to anyone who is willing to share it.

I hear a child laugh out loud. Startled, I look up. The voices are silenced. A breeze rustles through the jasmine as night falls. A man gestures to me that it is time to go. I step out into the busy street as a gentle rain begins to fall.