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.