For Iraqi refugees in Amman, kindness, support and an application to Australia

Alice Rothchild – May 8, 2019
In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, Sonia Dettman and S. Komarovsky, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health. 

This is my fourth report from the trip. Here is my 1st dispatch, the 2nd, and the 3rd

Tuesday March 26, 2019
We wait 45 minutes for an Uber to arrive and drive us to the Collateral Repair Projectwhich is located across Amman in the poor neighborhood of Hashemi. There we meet with Jessica Miller, a dedicated, fast talking woman who tells us that the Collateral Repair Project was started in 2006 by two American women for Iraqi refugees who fled the U.S. invasion. At that time most Iraqi refugees were well off, living on the west side of Amman, but a significant number were poor, living on the east side in Hashemi.
Clearly I need to get a quick education on the topic of Iraqi refugees and with a bit of googling, I find that by 2008 more than 4.2 million Iraqis (one in seven) had been displaced from their country, with an estimated 800,000 in Jordan (which has a total population of six million, just for perspective). (JAMA. 2008) These numbers are consistent with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which gives estimates of 750,000 to one million Iraqi refugees in Jordan. This is all complicated by the fact that the Jordanian government insists that Iraqis are “guests” rather than refugees (therefore the state has no responsibility for their welfare), and that many of the refugees were middle class urbanites who fled to Jordan’s cities and may have gotten lost in the counting. Those who did register with UNHCR received asylum-seeking cards and were thus able to receive (an inadequate amount of) humanitarian assistance from the UN and NGOs. A large percentage (possibly a majority) of Iraqi refugees have no legal status at all.
Because of the concentration of Iraqi residents in Amman, many citizens blame them for rising prices for real estate, food, rent, and overcrowded schools and health care institutions, shortages of electricity and water. While there are other important contributors and the refugees are not a net drain on the country’s resources, they have seriously stretched some resources and services. Additionally, there has been an inadequate response from the international community. By 2007 the Jordanian government closed its borders to further refugees.
To put this into context, in 2007, a study by the NGO Coordinating Committee and Oxfam International of the population in Iraq found that 40% of refugees were living in absolute poverty, half were unemployed, and significant numbers lacked water, sanitation, electricity, education and health care. The middle class was broken and many of the professionals and technocrats either left or joined the ranks of the disadvantaged or those intimidated by political violence.
When people did leave, they quickly found out that employment can lead to longer term residency permits, but a job does not change their legal status as guests or tourists with temporary permits. This is compounded by the fact that children maintain the citizenship of their parents’ country of origin. A November 2006 Human Rights Watch report stated that Iraqis throughout the Middle East remain unregistered, uncounted, unassisted and unprotected.
Those Iraqis who do not have the financial means to invest in Jordan must demonstrate that they are able to support themselves if they are to obtain and renew residency permits. They are required to deposit close to $150,000 in a Jordanian bank and must maintain a significant balance. Needless to say, many families that began with those kinds of resources are now impoverished.
The Jordanian government has affirmed its commitment to non-refoulement, ie., not forcing refugees to return to their place of origin if they will be in danger of persecution (they signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UNHCR in 1998). The actual practice, however, has been a mixture of generosity and flexibility (understanding that Iraqis are politically endangered in their home country) along with frequent abuses and egregious restrictions. For instance, unregistered children were not allowed to attend public school until 2007. UNHCR has been the primary source of support along with the Jordanian government Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, the Jordanian Red Crescent, the Jordan Women’s Union, Mizan, the Jordanian Alliance against Hunger and a host of (mostly international) NGOs.
In the world of health care there are also painful contradictions. Iraqi refugees have high medical and psychological needs and theoretically regardless of their legal status, they can use public services. In reality, many are fearful of publicly identifying themselves and the facilities are already stretched and often unresponsive.
Which brings us back to Jessica and the Collateral Repair Project. In 2006 the two founding women started feeding 15 families and this attracted more low-income refugees to the neighborhood and soon the project was growing by 50% annually. Initially they fundraised in Jordan, but then became an international NGO.
Jessica says that the population has become increasingly diverse and there is a huge pressure to focus on social cohesion. The international staff has to be very self-aware and it has to monitor those who are accepted into the program. The goal is to maintain as diverse a group as possible, with different nationalities well-represented in the program. Interestingly, no political conversations are allowed. She notes that in this setting, Iraq refugees may have been in Saddam’s military and other refugees may have been their targets, so it is important to be nonsectarian. This can be challenging because last names often give away a particular sect. The project works with minority refugees like Sabaeans, a small, reclusive, ancient community that was destroyed by Saddam Hussein and radical Muslim groups, as well as ethnic Assyrian Christian groups from Iraq who were targeted in the 2003 Iraq war. Their expulsion and mass flight culminated in 2008 when then were brutally attacked by ISIS and fled from Mosul, an historic center of Christian antiquity.
The refugees tend to be unregistered and when they work in the CRP, they are given family assistance in lieu of salaries. The availability of emergency assistance depends on the level of need in the population.
The emergency department focuses on food vouchers where money is used to purchase food in local grocery stores, food and cleaning supplies and hygiene products. CRP uses the US Department of Agriculture SNAP nutritional guidelines, adapted to be culturally sensitive. The vouchers are paid monthly, bimonthly, and or as extras depending on the need. Plus there are in-kind donations (like the two large suitcases of solar lanterns, knitted scarves, beanies, footsies, hygiene kits, and stuffed animals we schlepped from Seattle.) The emergency assistance group makes home visits monthly to assess what is in the refrigerator, what are people sleeping on, how many per bed; i.e., is the need assessment accurate and has it changed?
The Family Resource and Community Center runs coed childcare and youth programs, livelihood training, (craft, beauty, and barber), and psychosocial programs like mind-body medicine. They run groups for women’s empowerment and for men, groups on gender-based violence. They teach Capoeira, music, and English, and run a summer camp. CRP has 300 to 400 beneficiaries per day; 10,000 families per year get assistance from two different centers. The teen program is important because if children are out of school for more than three years, they cannot enroll in public school until they attend a catch up curriculum. At CRP this is called the Teen All Stars program.
As we start the tour, we see that several buildings have been converted from apartments, so there is a hodgepodge of rooms, a hall with books (the library), and an office with friendly folks working at computers. I detect a certain level of organized chaos as well as 21st century sophistication. In the midst of this jumble is a videographer waiting to interview a family…who is late.
We peek into the youth center, the English and livelihood programs. There is an empty room with a huge decorative elephant painted on the wall. This is where Super Girls meet in two different groups, six- to eight-year-olds and nine to thirteen. This youth program runs afterschool programs, reading, and educational games. The girls talk about their shared Arab heritage and their future development. They are asked to build small mud houses that represent their dream houses, to make murals that “draw your future.” We see rooms for yoga and rumba classes.
Jessica tells us that CRP is facing huge funding cuts and grants are running out. At the same time the numbers of people in need is not decreasing. Donors come from the US, EU, and Japan, with a budget of over $800,000, less than half from foundations and grants.
Problematically, there are no mental health counselors, although all staff and programs are “trauma sensitive.” These Iraqi refugees have had a host of horrific experiences including torture, witnessing killings and death, kidnappings, bombings, and rape. Many families have been ripped apart and relationships damaged. Countless people have lost everything including their hope. Refugees in need of support and counseling are referred to the Center for Victims of Torture in Amman.
Jessica explains that the staff philosophy is based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of need, the understanding that people must have basic needs met before they can focus on issues like safety, love, all the way to leadership and self-actualization. The ultimate goal for these refugees is resettlement.
UNHCR re-evaluates refugees regularly, but this can be quite re-traumatizing. Following a referral, UNHCR staff confirms the family’s refugee status and then begins several long resettlement interviews with each member. The family is then registered for resettlement, a suitable country is chosen (Trump pulled the US out of the mix), then there are more interviews and a lot of waiting. A family cannot apply for a second country until they are rejected from the first. This means that many people are living in limbo which only increases psychological stress. Once they are accepted, they are paired with an in-country organization and the flight is usually covered by the donor agency. The first choice these days is Australia.
Australia? I try to imagine living in, let’s say, Mosul, in a diverse, multicultural society, living through Saddam’s military efforts in the 1990s, the US invasion and bombings in 2003, the murderous growth of ISIS, maybe fleeing in 2008, then years of stress, poverty, and trauma in Jordan. What would it be like to arrive in Australia?