“There Are No Fish Here”: Among Iraqi Refugees in Jordan
Cathy Breen

Iraqi refugees in Jordan find themselves in the impossible situation of needing to work for money, yet lacking the papers to do so legally. Ongoing violence prevents any significant number from returning home. Above:15 year-old who just quit his job because the employer refused to pay him.

Cathy spent most of 2003 in Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness, becoming close to many Iraqis. Each year since then Cathy returns to the Middle East for several months to advocate for Iraqi refugees in the region. She's currently back with her Catholic Worker community in New York City. The following is a letter to US supporters helping to underwrite her work. Amman, Jordan
April 29, 2010

Dear Friends,
I am feeling quite at home here in Amman, surrounded by Iraqi friends in the neighborhood where I am staying. It’s been just short of two weeks since I arrived, and I find myself settling into a comfortable rhythm. A good friend of Voices has graciously put me up in a neighborhood populated with Iraqis struggling to survive. The small apartment is a hubbub of activity from early morning until late at night. An open house for Iraqis, we cook and eat simple meals of rice and potatoes together, sharing not only nourishment but a lot of laughs and, at times, some tears. Without exception, each has been separated not only from their beloved homeland, but from loved ones as well.

After almost two weeks, I am pretty much able to find my way around the city again using public transportation. Arabic, which has laid fallow these last months, doesn’t seem as foreign to my ear. This morning however I realize sadly that I will be moving on in a couple of days to Damascus, an area not as familiar to me. The nine-month absence from the region allows for a certain objectivity which I like to think is valuable and positive.


Above: young girl whose family lacks the money for the treatments she needs to reduce a hematoma on one eye. Photos: Cathy Breen

The decision to spend just the initial two weeks in Jordan has definitely made my trip more focused and intense. The time has been filled with many visits to Iraqi households, official meetings and the opportunity to renew old contacts and establish new ones. The only thing lacking perhaps has been the time and space to process the many stories and impressions.

A week or so ago I visited a friend who together with his wife has lived alongside poor Iraqis for over ten years. I asked him what he thought has changed over the last nine months with respect to Iraqi refugees? He replied with a familiar adage. “If you give someone a fish, they will eat for one day. If you teach someone to fish, they will eat for a lifetime. The problem is,” he said, "there are no fish here.” Jordan’s border restrictions for Iraqis have eased somewhat over the last months, most likely the result of an arrangement between Jordan and Iraq for exporting crude oil products [from Iraq] at a cheaper price. The “tap,” or border, which has been tightly closed since 2006, has been opened to about 20%. But our friend sees a new class of Iraqis coming, one that is more desperately poor.

I have been able to visit many Iraqi families and individuals. Some of those I met are themselves victims of suicide bombs and shootings. They have shown me their external wounds. Others have lost multiple family members through violent attacks. Their internal wounds are more hidden. In one household, two families (five adults and four small children) were doubled up in a single room. The five year-old of one family has a shunt in his head due to a fall; the 2 ½ year-old of the other family needs laser treatment to reduce a hematoma affecting one of her eyes. The father works at a gas station in Baghdad. They came to Jordan only because the treatment is unavailable in Iraq. I could see from an old picture of the child, that the hematoma has been considerably reduced by the first six treatments. But their money has run out. At night the women and children sleep in the one room, the men on the roof. There is no kitchen, not even a refrigerator. In a visit with another family, we learned that the father is in jail. The 15 year-old son just left his job at a market as his employer refused to pay him. He has only completed two years of primary school. His 12 year-old sister began to cry silently during the visit. We discover that she had recently been hit by a car which then raced off. She was suffering from severe head pain and needs X-rays and treatment.

Some of these needs are straightforward: the purchase of a used refrigerator, perhaps getting a tutor for the 15 year-old. Some of the medical needs can be met by collaborating with organizations with whom we have connections. Another need we hope to address is the possibility of getting on going monthly support for one family or another.

In more official visits with the UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], representatives voiced their own concern of finding funds for their Cash Assistance program. While this program is not open to all Iraqi refugees for lack of resources, it does help many toward meeting their most basic needs of rent, electricity, water, etc. Not allowed to work and yet having to support themselves, countless Iraqis have been languishing here for years now. I repeat: unable to work legally, and yet having to work. The fear of being caught, detained and deported remains a grim reality. Yesterday a young Iraqi man close to us was arrested. As I write you, concerned colleagues are trying to secure his release through their contacts at UNHCR. Tomorrow is Friday and the hot line number will not be in service!

Assisting Iraqi Refugees Here in Syracuse

More and more families from Iraq are relocating to Syracuse each year. They carry with them the trauma of war, medical needs, unemployment and poverty.

The Center for New Americans is currently working to alleviate some of the pains of displacement. The Center is always in need of sheets, towels, blankets, as well as pots and pans and other household items.

If you wish to help in any way, please call the Center for New Americans at 474-1261. SPC volunteers have been helping a local Iraqi family. Contact Donna, 633-2496.

The UNHCR carries out periodic “intention surveys” among Iraqis here in Jordan about their attitude toward returning to Iraq. These surveys reveal that people don’t want to go back. The UNHCR position has not changed since my visit with them almost a year ago. They are not encouraging return, moreover the number of Iraqis they see going back is almost insignificant. The news Iraqis are getting from family inside of Iraq is distressing. The recent outbreaks of violence and suicide bombs have everyone on edge and worried. More than 263 civilians have been killed so far this month. Another alarming development is the increase of cancer among Iraqis both inside and outside of Iraq.

When I visit families for the first time, I sometimes have photos of family, my neighborhood and my community in my bag. When I pull these out and pass them around, they always evoke interest and sweet emotions. I find I am no longer an outsider, rather just part of the human family. I take you all with me and assure our friends that you have not forgotten them.