Iraqi Refugee Women's Project

Caught in the Crossfire

Conversations with Iraqi Refugee Women in Jordan

As a world citizen, I often find myself alone and feeling isolated, railing against the notion that peace is a black and white achievement. The simple slogans, and the public’s need for sound-bite solutions tend to reduce our understanding of complex issues into the binary thinking of us/them, right/wrong, and war/peace. In April of 2007, I traveled to Jordan to meet with Iraqi refugee women to see what I could find.

I met Naghia at a wedding. In spite of her college degree, she was working as one of the servers at the bride’s reception. Now, in her well-lit apartment, her faded jeans match the blue sofa. Going back and forth between Arabic and broken English, she told me that she was 11 when the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) started. Bombs, missing their oilfield targets, regularly fell on her nearby neighborhood. During the most intense air raids, her family lived and slept in one room so that if a bomb struck, they would all live or die at the same time.

Photographing and gathering the stories of Iraqi refugee women is actually my second project of this type. The first, in 2003, was to interview women in Afghanistan. My purpose was to give my audience a more well-rounded view of women who had survived war and the difficulties of life under the Taliban. I wanted to know how they got through it all. I wondered if there were lessons for us in the West, or similarities in how we cope that lie beneath the veneer of culture and allegiances.

Naghia received her Bachelor’s degree in warehouse management and worked for the Department of Education as head manager of the supply warehouse. She liked the work, but inflation and salary cuts during the sanctions (1991-2003) eventually combined to decrease her income to the equivalent of $2.00 per month. So she quit and spent her time volunteering at her Chaldean Catholic church helping even poorer families. (Chaldeans are one of the most ancient Christian communities, one which still speaks Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.) Naghia was pleased to see that as their situation improved, many of these recipients would defer her help to others even less fortunate.

Nizar was abandoned to Naghia’s care at the age of two when his mother, Naghia’s older sister, was offered a visa to Germany. Early in 2007, Naghia’s father received a visa to America. The condition, however, was that he leave behind his daughter and grandson, now aged 13. Naghia was later offered a Canadian visa, but didn’t have the heart to abandon her nephew. This is another of the tragedies of war; families scattered to the winds.

Whether it was Afghans enduring the Taliban or Iraqis waiting for their war to end, I heard variations of Naghia’s statement: “God gave me this life, so I have to keep continuing.”

Finding or creating meaning in one’s life is vital to survival of the spirit. Meaning and purpose compel us to keep going when the vision of hope is lost. Ridding one’s country of invaders and occupiers provides a strong purpose that is easy to underestimate.

Isra’s father worked for Saddam in the oil fields of Southern Iraq. During the Iran/Iraq war her family’s wealth shielded her from many of the effects of the deteriorating economy, but not from the loss of friends and family members in that war. Now a widow in Jordan, she’s living with her two children in her father’s house and pinning her hopes on receiving a visa to the US.

I found myself wondering what I could say to her. The odds of her receiving a visa and being able to bring her children to the US are practically nil. Hope based on waiting for something outside of your control can lead to devastating depression should the source of that hope disappear as a possibility. Hope that heals and sustains is the hope that arises out of taking action, but action is very difficult to initiate when one is depressed and isolated from one’s support group.

Faisa is especially torn. Married to a Jordanian businessman, she also has Jordanian citizenship and so is freer to come and go and to speak out. The couple had businesses and residences in both Baghdad and Amman, but after a visit to Baghdad during the sanctions, she elected to stay and rejoin her compatriots in their difficulties. Although life was harder, she felt camaraderie with her neighbors and freedom from the guilt that plagues many exiles. She left Iraq again after her son was kidnapped. Her husband refuses to tell her how much he paid for the release, but the going rate at that time was about $15,000. They left for Jordan within hours of his return.
Now she finds meaning by supporting several poor families and being a conduit and local contact for people and groups wanting to help the refugees. This work helps her to combat the loneliness and alienation that she feels as her old Jordanian friends and neighbors try to draw her into conversations about fashion and make-up.

In the West, Islam is seen in many quarters as a restrictive, terrorist religion. When I asked the Muslim women I met how they view Islam, I saw a completely different picture. As with any religion, prayer provides them with the personal connection to God that helps get people through their difficulties. In addition to the formal prayers Muslims perform 5 times a day, they also offer their own personal prayers of petition and gratitude.

They also told me other things that contradict common misinformation that many of us non-Muslims hold, especially in the areas of education of girls, rights of women and forced marriage.

“…Women are equal to men in that the Koran demands that both boys and girls be educated. Praying is the best part of Islam for me.” …Um Mohammad

“Everything in Islam is good for women. It gives the woman many rights, especially the rights between husband and wife. The Koran talks many times about the husband, and how he should treat his wife, and how he should give her her rights. And that’s why we believe in our religion, that we should follow these rules. Otherwise, we will lose our rights.” …Jamila

“In Islam you can choose your husband. If you agree with him, you can say yes, but if you don’t agree you can refuse to marry him and no one can force you.“ …Um Muber

Well, under Islam no one can force you. A lot of the confusion about Islam (and any religion) is that it’s intertwined with the culture it resides in and the religious texts are interpreted through the bias of the lens of one’s tradition.

Although Zahra is a devout Muslim, she refuses to veil except when she prays. This has been no small issue for her. Her oldest brother, who was a “fast living” pilot, was arrested by Saddam’s police and tortured off and on for two years. When they realized that he didn’t have the information they wanted, they held him for another ten. During that time, he became a fundamentalist, even to the point of refusing to see female members of his family if they would come to visit him in the prison without their veils. Zahra held her ground and two years after he was released, he finally consented to be in her unveiled presence.

She’s strong in other ways as well. She met her husband when she discovered him sitting in her living room upon returning home one day after her university graduation. Her mother introduced them to each other and informed Zahra that she had just sealed the agreement for Zahra’s marriage. It was a disastrous affair, but she stuck it out for five years in the hopes of making it work before divorcing him, which took another 5 years.

Now Zahra lives in Amman with her two teenaged daughters cobbling together an income working illegally (and underpaid) as a stringer wedding photographer for a local studio, and as a translator for various Western do-gooders and journalists seeking access to Iraqi refugees. Her life has been difficult, but not as hard as the half-dozen families she helps out by passing on donations that her Western friends send. As she took me on my rounds of interviews, I could see the pain she revisited each time she heard, yet again, the horrible stories and their updates.

We talked about the pain my work was causing these women as they had to relive painful experiences while they answered my questions. Zahra told me that is was good for the women to tell their stories, to be heard. Bearing witness to their traumas was hard and it was disconcerting to notice my own resistance to actually experiencing their pain. Out of that experiencing, however, can come a compelling drive to take action.

My first experience in the Middle East came when I was an exchange student in Iran back in the early 70’s. It was eye-opening to see other ways of doing and seeing things that I’d taken for granted could only be done or seen one way—the way I was raised with. My most profound experience occurred while walking in a village with a professor. We came upon a shop so tiny that the owner could reach all of the shelves as he stood in the middle. The shelves held a half-dozen or so items. My professor asked him how could he survive with such a meager stock. The villager looked up and raised his hand to the sky saying “I survive by the grace of God”. In my church growing up, people worshiped God, but no one I knew actually depended upon Him for their day-to-day survival. Although I was taught that Jesus is the ONLY way to salvation, I saw a new meaning in “My Father’s house has many mansions”.

Maxim Mall is three stories tall and located at a busy intersection on Jebel Hussein*. The food court sits on the top floor and it was there that I met Safaa, a chain smoking middle-aged Iraqi, sitting with a tiny cup of Arabic coffee. He lives nearby and comes here daily to escape the loneliness of his suffocating apartment. His wife and children had gone to the police with their recently expired visas to ask for an extension. The authorities replied with deportation, saying that they needed to get updated passports, which can only be obtained in Baghdad. She and Safaa talk every few days on their cell phones. Even the poorest families I met had a cell phone. Safaa, a self-styled “professor and business man”, is actually supported by his wife and her various entrepreneurial projects. I learned later that with the help of several Western friends, her documents came through and she’s now back in Amman with plans to set up a school for Iraqi children.

A guard in green army fatigues saunters by our table and Safaa greets him warmly and introduces us. Safaa is one of a number of Iraqi professionals who use this and other malls as their “home away from home”, relatively safe places to hang out while they’re waiting for visas, waiting for the war to end, waiting….

After our meeting, I walked around the mall past manikins sporting the latest in hijab fashion. There is nothing in Islam that says that “proper Islamic covering” must look like a tent. For the middle and upper classes who can afford them, these exquisite over-dresses can be stunningly beautiful with embroidery or sometimes bejeweled designs. What was shocking to me was seeing these hijab shops next to ones showcasing manikins draped in scanty lingerie. Even more surprisingly, whole store windows were sometimes filled with cardboard cutouts of pelvises with women’s panties stretched around them. Though not always obvious when one walks down the street, Jordan is a mixed society consisting of western oriented, socially liberal citizens as well as more conservative individuals.

Um Ibrahim’s family is one of those that Zahra helps. Currently she’s living in three rooms with her five children. Her husband, who was her best friend, had left abruptly three weeks before we met after receiving a phone call from relatives in Iraq informing him of a cousin’s death. Upon hearing the news, he had raged about for a few days, then suddenly taken his passport and left. They had heard nothing since.

To top it off, her oldest son, Ibrahim, had come home from the market a few days before with a story about how he was stopped by a policeman and asked for his identity papers. Luckily, he is documented by his first name in addition to his father’s and grandfather’s names, the traditional naming system in many parts of the Middle East. (Now, more and more, official documents are using family names, which are much more readily sect or religion identifiable.) Since his names are neutral, he was able to convince the policeman that he is a Sunni and not the Shia that he really is. Finally, he was let go with the parting words that if he knew of any Shia families, that he could earn a reward by turning them in.

I heard stories from several different places about how Shia refugees are being targeted for deportation. At present, Shia refugees are being turned away at the borders.** (Jordan is a predominantly Sunni country) In some cases the father is caught and told to get his wife to bring some additional papers and then she is taken in as well. They are then “thrown on the border” where they must run the gauntlet of militias and bandits on their way back to Baghdad or beyond. Other stories relate that the police just question the refugees and then turn their backs on them for a few minutes to allow them to escape so that they will relate their experience and spread fear among their community. This fear and the resulting isolation imprison them even in their exile.

It was pointed out to me many times that before all the wars, Sunni and Shia got along well, even to the point of intermarrying, similar to the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in the U.S. It is war that has fomented the sectarian hatred and violence as each group demonizes the other in an attempt to consolidate its own power.

On my last visit, Um Ibrahim told me that she’d received a phone call from her husband saying that he’s now living with relatives in Southern Iraq. Unfortunately, he won’t be allowed to return for five years since when he left he had owed a large fine for overstaying his three-month visa.

At times throughout my life, I have heard people say: I could never live like that. I would rather die than go through that. I, too, have caught myself thinking that there are some experiences that I’d just rather not survive. One thing I have learned from talking with Afghan women and now Iraqi ones is that when it comes to it, you just hang on. Hour by hour, day by day, you just get through, letting time carry you forward, clinging to whatever ray of hope you can summon up. It’s comforting and maybe a little frightening to realize that I can probably live through much more than I imagine that I can, and that even in the face of unimaginable situations, I might choose to.

Whenever Um Ibrahim’s oldest daughter, Zanib, would see me, she’d ask me (and Zahra) to translate some words into English. Her thirst for education is palpable and she entreats her mother to give her lessons whenever she can.

This part was almost the saddest for me: seeing a whole generation of kids fall behind in their education. The consequences can be enormous for society. Um Ibrahim was one of the few I met who tried to teach her own kids, perhaps because she’d always wanted to be a teacher but was forbidden to by her father.

During this trip more than any other, I have learned to see different sides of an issue without having to make one good or the other bad; without having to create convoluted mental constructs to make them work together. I’ve come to a place of being able to hold both of them and acknowledge them for what they are. Then, from that place, I do whatever activism I’m called forth to do. In the case of Iraqi refugees, their situation is deplorable. Having run from violence, they are living in limbo, in daily danger of being returned to sometimes certain death or even worse. Their funds and resources dwindle day by day as frustrations and hopelessness rise. Their children, their hope for the future, fall farther and farther behind in their education with each passing year. And the war rages on with no end in sight….

One might ask why can’t Jordan do more; let the UNHCR help the refugees resettle, give them a legal status that would enable them to create their own schools and allow them to start businesses? Jordan could ease a lot of frustration and pain if it would facilitate the refugees in getting on with their lives and contributing to society, Jordanian society. Looking at Jordan’s history, one can see that it has been very hospitable to refugees through the years. Its population doubled with the arrival of Palestinian refugees displaced by the establishment of Israel in 1948 and its further expansion in 1967. Another influx of Palestinians took place in 1991 when they were displaced from Kuwait during and after the Iraqi occupation. They were welcomed as brothers and given full citizenship. Iraqi refugees from the Kuwait War, as Desert Storm was known there, also were treated more generously. Many were wealthy Iraqis coming to invest. More Iraqis continued to immigrate during the ten years of sanctions as their economy deteriorated.

Since 2003 the refugees have been poorer and solely motivated by the need to escape both generalized and targeted violence. Now comprising 15% of the population, their presence has contributed to the tripled housing prices, has fueled inflation and has caused mounting resentment. Jordan’s current policy is to avoid institutionalizing any aid in the hopes that the refugees will return home as soon as the violence subsides. Jordan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and its leaders don’t have an ironclad grip on power. I heard hints from taxi drivers that there is a significant amount of dissatisfaction with the monarchy and a friend told me that King Abdullah is “riding a tiger”. It’s probably true that if Jordan were to be as welcoming as I’d like it to be, there would be millions more refugees streaming across the border. If this country were to succumb to the fires of Islamism and internecine conflict, the Middle East would be a much more dangerous place and the refugees would have an even worse situation.

This realization hit me hard: that courses of action that appear to be helpful in relieving suffering could in themselves be the cause of more suffering. Implementing simplistic solutions to complex problems can set the stage for unimaginable unintended consequences. This trip illuminated for me some of the complexities of the situation in the Middle East and the anguish of those caught in the crossfire.

*The name of one of the hills that comprise the city of Amman. Jebbel means hill in Arabic.

**After a conference in June, 2007, Jordan has closed its border with Iraq to all but business people and the transport of goods. It has also allowed Iraqi children to go to school, although the Jordanian school system is already overcrowded and it may take awhile to construct new buildings and find enough teachers.