Yesterday, I visited with Jamila, the 61 year-old mother of Ali*, an ex-translator for the US military. Jamila is very unique, both in her creative personality as well as the fact that both of her parents and also her grandfather (born in 1900) were well educated.  She was at a clinic when she met the sister of her future husband. The sister reported back that she had found a suitable marriage candidate. His family further investigated her family and decided that they were suitable, so he paid her a visit to ask for her hand. Everyone agreed because he was also educated and seemed kindly. Over the course of the next 3 years, they got to know each other better when he would pay visits to them. They never did go out together until after they were married. Unlike in Afghanistan, it would have been fine for her to change her mind at this late date and back out of the marriage. She told me that in the Koran it says that the woman must also agree to the marriage.

Their engagement lasted so long because her parents wanted her to finish her education first. She taught for 7 years  until taking care of her 4 (at that time) kids got to be too much in addition to her school duties. After she quit, she kept herself busy developing her cooking skills, sewing, and gardening.

Life continued like that with her children growing, and marrying until Ali began to get death threats for being a “collaborator”. They tried every avenue to get him a visa for the US, but after a number of denials, (Very very few Iraqis, no matter how pro-American they are, no matter how loyally they have worked to help American soldiers, are allowed into the States.) they couldn’t wait any longer and so came to Jordan. Currently, they are living in a 5th floor walk-up that has a great view of the city, but is difficult for Jamila to navigate.

*not his real name


An Iraqi who works for an NGO coordinating agency filled us in on the big picture of the refugees. He talked in terms of the different waves of refugees as they came over a period from the early ‘90’s until now. Jordan has a history of welcoming refugees from as far back as the first wave of Palestinians in ’48 and then again in ‘67. At this point, Palestinians are estimated to comprise 50% of the population. The exact percentage is a sensitive political issue. They initially continued this generosity toward the Iraqis. At the beginning–after the first Gulf war–Iraqis were welcomed and given visas and work permits. In 2003, a large wave affiliated with Saddam came, and later investors and after that professionals. When the waves of sectarian people came, the host countries, including Syria, felt themselves overloaded, especially since with each wave, the people coming were poorer. The welcome mat was rolled up after the bombings of three international tourist hotels by Iraqi terrorists in 2005. As a result, the new refugees aren’t given anything beyond a 3-month tourist visa and of course no work permits. Jordan officially views them as “guests” rather than refugees, which means that the UNHCR can’t do their thing of providing shelter, education and other things that help people rebuild their lives. Anything that smacks of the aid being institutionalized is forbidden. (Handouts of food and medical care are welcome.)  From the point of view of the refugees themselves, this  lies at the heart of the deepening humanitarian crisis.  With  their dwindling  financial resources, lack of ability to support themselves, a real fear of deportation to face likely (and in some cases certain) death, and few countries being willing to offer them residency and no end to the war in sight, added to rampant PTSD, it is little wonder that they are discouraged and hopeless.  For me, the hardest part of listening to their stories is the hopelessness that I feel for them as well.

In addition to these refugees, there are also 2 million IDPs (internally displaced people) inside Iraq who are receiving neither help nor attention.


Neither Ali nor his mother, however,  are hopeless. They still have an idea that maybe someday they can come to the US. Soldiers he has worked with have written glowing recommendations.  Meanwhile, it has been arranged that a Canadian man will send some money so that Ali can set up a small school to teach Iraqi kids. This would be illegal of course, but perhaps if it’s small enough and discrete enough,  it can go undetected.

One Response to “Waves”

  1. Very insightful post. I am going to link to it in my new blog.

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