Amman, JORDAN, 15 June 2007-Amman is a peaceful and calm city. Pale stone buildings rise up along sloping hills, colorful fruits and vegetables line the market stalls, and the endless hospitality and humor of the Jordanian people make this an enticing place to visit. But the charm and allure of Amman is lost on thousands of people who have come here to save the lives of themselves and their families.
The Women's Commission is here to talk to some of the estimated 750,000 refugees who have fled the war in Iraq about their experiences in both their home country and now in Jordan. We have been here for about one week and have been meeting with Iraqi women, men and youth who are eager, if not desperate, to share their stories.
Last night we took a short cab ride into East Amman-the luxury shops and wide, clean roads slowly transformed into narrow, winding streets crammed with outdoor vendors selling everything from plastic shoes to live animals. We entered a crumbling apartment building and walked up five flights of dark stairs with only the light from our cell phone to guide us, to a small two-room apartment that is home to an Iraqi family.
We were welcomed by Farah and her husband Jassim, as well as their five children. Jassim eagerly plied us with coffee, sweets and a full meal of lamb and chicken-an incredibly generous gesture as we soon found out that they could not even afford to take a taxi to see a doctor.
They had been living in the tiny, dark, mosquito-riddled apartment for eight months since fleeing Iraq last year after Jassim was kidnapped and tortured by a local faction. A group of men had come to their house in the middle of the night and threatened to take their eldest son, who is 19. Jassim pleaded with the men to take him instead-which they did. He lost hearing in one ear and suffers from night terrors.
Life before the U.S. occupation had been good for Farah and her family. They had a comfortable house and car in a suburb of Baghdad. Both are educated and Jassim had a job delivering goods. Their kids went to school and the eldest son had started college to pursue a degree in computer science. After the U.S. invasion, life slowly grew worse. Violence began to erupt throughout the city and inflation skyrocketed. People started to blindfold their children when walking them to school because the streets were littered with bodies. In 2005, Farah and Jassim took their kids out of school entirely, fearing for their lives.
After Jassim was kidnapped and released, the family fled to Jordan. Here they cannot legally work, their children cannot go to school and health care is expensive and inaccessible. They have slowly depleted their resources and have now reached a breaking point. Their younger children are borderline illiterate. One daughter, a shy and graceful 9-year-old, is suffering from appendicitis. Her tiny belly is swollen to the size of a large melon with the raging infection. But the only place they can get free health services has a three-month waiting list; she will likely die before her appointment if she is not treated.
Farah also said that Jassim had started yelling and hitting her at times. Crammed into the small apartment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, compounded by the trauma everyone has gone through, the situation is ripe for abuse. But Farah says this is far more preferable to living in Iraq. In fact, she tells us, she just received a phone call that her neighbor, a close friend, was raped and murdered four days ago.
Farah's story is all too common here in Jordan. Amman is brimming with educated, middle-class Iraqis who have experienced horrific violence, including mass rape, in their homeland and are now slowly wasting away in Jordan as they cannot access health care, go to work or attend school or even leave their small dank apartments for fear of deportation. Women are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from their husbands and employers (if they work illegally). They are forced to turn to sex work to support their families, which is happening more and more.
We are trying to get Farah's little girl into the clinic for treatment. But there are thousands of other Iraqis here with similar, if not more, heartrending stories. Much more needs to be done to help these families. When we come back to the United States, we will use these stories to push the U.S. government to help these and other Iraqis affected by the war-so that stories like that of Farah and her family have happy endings.