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?