Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Youth Trapped in Jordan

Of all the refugees in Jordan, perhaps the most forgotten are the young men aged 18-35 who are here without family. As teenagers and young men they left home to escape the madness that had overtaken their neighborhoods. Many have had family members attacked, many have been threatened. There entire lives have been of conflict and war. They lived in Iraq as children growing up during sanctions and young adults through the invasion and occupation of their country. They watched as the social fabric of their communities collapsed and militias took over their neighborhoods. Many entered Jordan illegally and have no passport, no papers, no documents whatsoever. Since they arrived they have been targeted by police and taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers.

They are last in consideration for resettlement as they are not considered an “at risk” population like single women or families with children. They are not the face of “refugees” that we in the West feel personal gratification for helping. Rather, in the eye of many westerners they are associated with those we call “terrorist”. They are trapped between a rock and a very hard place.

Many had been here for several years before the UNHCR would grant them the paper declaring they are asylum seekers. This gives them some protections against being deported back to Iraq. When I asked them what they did while waiting, they said they have been hiding. When I asked how they survived, they said they can occasionally find part time work, but being in the country illegally they were paid minimally when they were paid at all. Several recounted scenes where after working, the manager merely told them to leave. If they wanted payment they could report him to the authorities. Having worked with immigrant populations in the US, this was a familiar story to me.

Now work is very hard to find and many of these young men haven't worked in weeks. It is illegal for Iraqis to work in Jordan without residency papaers. People in Jordan tend to look at young single men as dangerous, perhaps even more so if they are from Iraq. This poses a huge problem for Jordan, yet it is a problem that no one is willing to look at. A self fulfilling prophecy is being created. There is a breaking point for any human being, when self respect has been destroyed, when one is not allowed to work in order to feed oneself and no aid or support is forthcoming from the community. What possibility remains?

I had an opportunity to sit with 9 of these young men and listen to their stories. Several requested that we not record their personal circumstances. The situation has become so hopeless that one young man said they have been considering turning themselves in to the police so that they would be deported back to Iraq (they can’t afford the return trip on their own), where, invariably, they have been targeted for death. Another young man who did not want his story told said that they all held many things inside that they could not or would not share, that life was very difficult. As with young men the world over, no one said they were afraid.

Hitham, 26 yrs old
Entered Jordan illegally in May 2004 when he was 22 yrs old without any family. His mother and brother tried to enter Jordan at a later date but were denied. His family is in a very difficult situation in Iraq. Grandfather and father were arrested under Saddam’s regime, both have since passed away. His uncle and brother joined the Baath party under duress. When the regime fell militias targeted his family. His home was destroyed, his mother was shot, and his brother was beaten so severely that he can no longer walk. His mother and brother are now with family friends in a different village. The people responsible for bombing his house are now part of the government and if he returns he will be targeted for death. Applied in 2007 to the UNHCR, no specific interview was scheduled to date. Not receiving any allowance. Lives with 5 other single men in very difficult situation. Refugee status still pending.

Atheer, 22 yrs old
Entered Jordan in May 2004 when he was 18 years old without any family. His family remains in Iraq. Father was working in Baath party and once the regime fell his family was targeted by militias. He arrived without passport but with ID from American forces. He received the UNHCR paper seeking refugee status in Sep 2007. He has not received an interview and cannot get through on the phone to speak with anyone. He is receiving an allowance of 40 JDs (about $53) per month as of September. He lives with 5 other young men in very difficult circumstances.

Sabah, 28 yrs old
Entered Jordan in April 2004 when he was 24 years old without any family. His father, mother, 1 brother and 2 sisters remain in Iraq. He received the UNHCR paper seeking refugee status in May 2007. He has not received an interview. Protection unit promised resettlement at that time but they have not contacted him since. He came to escape the violence that had overtaken his neighborhood. He saw many people who had participated in the Baath party killed by militias. He is not receiving an allowance at this time. He lives in a house with 5 others in difficult circumstances.

Saad, 21 years old
Entered Jordan in July 2004 when he was 17 without any family. His mother and 2 sisters remain in Iraq. His father was a member of the army and was shot by the militia. Saad was targeted and threatened as well. His father was refused entry into Jordan and is now in Syria. The family has lost contact with him. Saad received the UNHCR paper seeking refugee status in Oct 2008. He has not received an interview. He can not return to Jordan as his life is threatened. He is not receiving an allowance at this time. He lives in a house with 5 others in difficult circumstances.

As we prepared to leave, one of the young men said with a smile, “Please tell the UNHCR that if they do not help us, we will kill ourselves.” Several of the other young men laughed. I grimaced and hoped against hope that the last laugh was not on them. It seems these young men are only seeking an opportunity to support themselves and their families. They are searching for an opportunity to live with dignity and respect in a world that seen through young Iraqi eyes has a huge deficit in both.