The Meaning of Personalization

June 20, 2009

People have been asking for details about my own personal experience here.  So I will talk about that.

Everything you have read is personal to me.  When I describe refugees’ sense of futurelessness, it’s personal.  When I describe disorientation, restless sleeping, increased mistrust, frustration with the UNHCR, it’s all personal.

How is it here? It sucks.  If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this right.

My goal in coming here was to bare witness to the suffering of Iraqi people, and to bear what I witnessed as part of the reconciliation process between Americans and Iraqis.  Part of the baring and the bearing is sharing the burden of refugeeness.  And it sucks.  It really does.

Sharing in Time Distortion:

Some hours last days, some days last 2 hours.  Time is not linear, and my own disorientation in the space-time continuum is complete.

I forget things.  I walk into the grocery store and forget what I came to buy.  I look up and realize it is 2 am and I can’t remember what I have been doing for the past six hours.  My mind is muddled.

I am always late to meetings with NGO officials, in part because they chronically underestimate the travel time, and in part because I have no personal sense of time.  There are three clocks in our flat; 2 are broken.  I don’t trust the other one, because no matter what time it says, it doesn’t feel like the right time.

(Timelessness can make a person very passive, which certainly benefits agencies and NGOs who need to keep track of the movements and activities of refugees— their institutional success relies on the passiveness of their clients.  It is hard to overcome the urge to sit and watch TV nonstop.)

Sharing in Mis-sleep:

When I close my eyes to sleep, I see faces, and I am constantly bothered by what I can’t do.  The faces always ask for something, or worse, they don’t, but I see what they need anyway. 

There is Mohammed with his spine curved up the wrong way because of the Depleted Uranium that also poisoned the Tigris river Jamila loves so much.  His spine is bent grotesquely, and there are his big eyes smiling smartly.
Oh, and then there is the Jordanian hag who finds food in the trash—I leave things for her behind the dumpster.  No NGO is serving her—she’s not Iraqi.

The General who I tried to bake a cake for?  He’s gone.  When I brought my cake to his house, he had left, probably couldn’t afford it, or he got sick or returned to Iraq.  You never know.

I haven’t had a “normal” dream in months.  Instead I toss around like a fish in the sheets, between dreaming and thinking, that restlessness you have when you had an unpleasant conversation or did badly on a test for no good reason; you should have done something differently…

Sharing the -isms:

The most painful experience we’ve had here is a repeated one.  We meet a family.  They have the wrong cash assistance or their file has the wrong last name… something simple.  They’ve been calling UNHCR for the past 2 years to fix the error.  They have written letters, dropped by, scheduled appointments…  all to no avail.

My mom accompanies them on day to a visit with UNHCR.  The family is asked to wait in line.  My mom is offered a comfortable air-conditioned room for waiting.  The family she came with is offered a hot, sweaty tent just outside the white building.  (Of course my mom chooses to wait with the family).  My mom never sees the UNHCR officer who finally meets with the family, but the family mentions that their American friend, Debra, is waiting downstairs.

The next day their file is fixed and they are visited by two NGOs who promise to meet their medical needs.  Instant gratification.

Two years they waited, and it took my mom’s general American aura (no one even saw her) and a few hours of sitting in a tent to get things fixed for this family.

When you become family with people, when they call themselves your brother or mother, and you have to leave them on the other side of a wall because someone you’ve never met sees some apparent difference between you…  it is the most alarming feeling in the world.

This is not a one-time thing.  It is institutionalized racism and institutionalized classism:

You’re a refugee?  Go wait in the tent.

You’re an American?  Please come in.

You’re black?  You drink out of this fountain…

I am reminded that my own mother was in the 9th grade (1974) when her high school was finally integrated.  Even then, her black friends sat in the back of the room.  (A different kind of time distortion…) 

What’s this nonsense about “restoring human dignity” that sits at the top of UNHCR’s statement of purpose?

I’m so angry.

Sharing in Diaspora:

First, I am Diaspora, the very meaning of it.  I am the single spore that was blown off the pod—dia-spor-a.  The American with Iraqi blood, the loophole in identity.  One who is, but really isn’t.  And so I am accepted and not accepted, I am the future and the past of Iraq in the eyes of my neighbors. 

Am I proof that you can raise a well-mannered girl even in the Wild West?  Or proof that blood is meaningless and that ‘place’ takes over? 

Whatever people think of me here, we share Diaspora together.  I am the end of it and they are the beginning.  If they see the second and third generation in me, I hope they see a Future.

“Flats change faster than the season,” my mom says.  People move.  The General left, who knows where.  Two families have switched flats in the city in just 2 months.  People get resettled, addresses change, phones expire, there are rarely email addresses.  I am anxious about how I will keep track of the families I know.  They can’t tell me their plans, since they can’t make any:

Ahmed was packing up and ready to fly on the 15th of this month.  But he learned two weeks before leaving that his sponsor is on vacation.  He’ll have to wait until September now.  Cancelled his lease and everything.  Said goodbye to friends.  Had all his last suppers.  And then, like always, things change.

“Inshalla” takes on a new meaning here.  I never use the future tense without qualifying it with an emphatic “Inshalla” —God willing. 

I love the people I love.  Inshalla I will sustain some form of communication with them, whether they are stuck here for 10 more years or are resettled tomorrow morning. 

Where will you be in relation to me?  Far away or close?  Inshalla I will see you again before I die.

Goodbye, goodbye.  Maybe…

The unknown is killing me.  It drives me crazy.

So, there is something about personalizing a refugee crisis.


The Meaning of Corruption

June 13, 2009


Hanna (name changed) sent 100 dollars to Dana (name changed) for her hourly services as a delivery person.  Hanna sent the money to Dana through Abu Ali (name changes), but somehow the money went missing.

Did Hanna never send it?  Did Dana receive it and lie?  Or did Abu Ali steal it in the transition?  Regardless, the missing funds are clearly evidence of corruption.

But corruption lies on a sliding scale, and its meaning is hard to capture.

A group of volunteers are sorting through used clothes to give away to some families.  They find a dress they like very much.  One friend says to another, “You should keep it!  It looks good on you.”  The volunteer tries the dress on and decides to keep it for herself.

None of the families would ever know about it anyway.  The clothes were donated by someone who probably just wanted to be rid of them.  And the dress was so pretty!

But the clothes were allocated for Iraqi refugees, and some young woman probably needed it more than the volunteer did because of her bleak environment.  The argument that she wouldn’t miss it having never seen it is also faulty— without even seeing the pretty dress, she already misses and wants it, because she never had it or anything like it.

Was the volunteer’s choice an act of corruption?

How about this: you are working for a small nonprofit.  People work hard and donate a little money to this nonprofit online.  Some of the money goes to your travel expenses, most to Iraqi refugees.  When you are in the store, you have to choose a brand of body soap, paid for by the nonprofit funds.

If you choose the most expensive soap, something you’d never buy at home, that’s corruption.

What if you choose the second most expensive brand, which you do use at home?
What if you choose the second cheapest brand?

Is anything but the cheapest brand really a moral option, given the slipperiness of the Corruption Slope?

I bring these individual quandaries to your attention because in all three cases, the missing money, the dress, and the soap, the answer is based on individual decision-making.

But what happens when an entire system functions on a norm of one-way gain?

“The workers at Caritas were normal people, even poor.  It’s been two years, and now the same people are driving nice cars and wearing gold watches.  And still, we are hardly receiving services from them.  Why does Caritas exist—for their salaries?”  Um Khalid (name changed) asks a legitimate question.

If a nonprofit has an overhead of say, 95 percent, one might say it merely exists to pay salaries to its employees.
Is that corruption?

It is very disturbing to interview NGO workers and discover that they not only make a very fine salary, but that they also never speak with, visit, or even know much about the Iraqi refugees they supposedly serve.

While some of the smaller NGOs are doing excellent work, I often leave meetings still repeating the same question: “I’m sorry, but what do you actually do?”

And I am not alone in asking this question.  In speaking with my Iraqi neighbors, I am forced to understand corruption as a collective rather than individual act, as a systematic process that has in fact become the acceptable “standard operating procedures”:

“Theses NGOs are all corrupt.  You can just look at Iraq from a helicopter—you’ll see a war zone, and then up at the top where it’s pretty safe, you’ll see NGO fortresses coming in to sweep up the mess for pay.  The longer the mess lasts, the more money they make.  Why would they really solve the problem?  The problem is their livelihood.”  Dr. Heba (name changed) articulated what Naomi Klein would call Disaster Capitalism.

This doesn’t mean that NGO vultures are swarming over the carcass of Iraq…

In my interfaces with NGO workers, they are well intended and as frustrated by the system as are Iraqis.

But this may be the crux of the issue: is it corruption to be paid for having good intentions alone?

Without effect, what weight do one’s good intentions have, and are they worth a yearly salary?

Intent doesn’t really matter to Iraqi refugees (in part because NGO workers rarely spend any time or space with the refugees in order to communicate their personal intentions, in the first place.)

Iraqi refugees whom I have talked to don’t hesitate for a second when asked about the meaning of corruption:
When your good intentions offer no effect, that is corruption.

…In which case the “business of doing good,” is as morally hazardous as any other sector.  The only difference is that in this business, people’s entire lives hang in the balance between one’s good intentions and the salary that comes with them.

The Meaning of Diaspora

June 5, 2009

Jamila is gone.  She left for Australia a few weeks ago.

We talk online sometimes, and she graciously translated a survey for me via email.  But things are irreversibly different.  I will probably never see her again.

Before she left, Jamila told me, tears welling up, “When I was in school in Iraq, I would read on the bus, always.  But when we crossed the Tigris, I would put my books down and say, ‘Good Morning, Tigris!’”  I’ll never forget Jamila’s face, two tears running down like Iraq’s two rivers.

As a Mandeaen, and follower of John the Baptist, Jamila’s relationship with water is vital.  Her baptism, marriage, and all life transitions should be blessed by immersion in river water.  Jamila’s daily greetings to the Tigris are as much as part of her religion as they are part of her childlike personality, and Iraq is the final bedrock of her people.  I’ve read articles titled “Will the Mandeaens survive Diaspora?” or “Mandeaens at Risk of ‘Exstinction.’”  But the Grand Scheme is hardly on Jamila’s mind.

She is preoccupied with something more immediate.  She whispered about the Tigris, “I never got to say goodbye.”

Remember in Beauty and the Beast when Belle gives herself to the Beast in place of her father?  Belle is angry, upset, crying, not because she is doomed to be a prisoner to the Beast forever, or because she might never see her father again, but because the Beast “never let [her] say goodbye.”

As a little girl I always hated that part of the movie– I could barely relate to the idea of permanently losing my mommy and daddy, but the lack of closure for poor Belle was still agonizing.

“We left our house the way it was when we fled.  The door is unlocked, the dishes are still in the sink, and our dear dog was left in the yard…  we had to leave him behind without even kissing him goodbye.” said Dr. Zina, an Iraqi refugee now running an NGO here in Amman.

Watching a woman in a suit sitting behind an executive-style desk crumple into tears is disheartening.  “I love that silly dog so much!”

What survives in Diaspora?

Our English class ends late every week, and tonight after class we talked with Um Ali (name changed) and she cried and cried.

Iraqis here have described many things to me:

—the doctor that was machine gunned down in his living room, blood spraying all over the ceiling and dripping down on people heads for hours afterwards–

—the daughter whose attempted kidnap left her completely regressed and distraught–

— the two sons who were killed in simultaneous car bombs and the father who found out when ones body appeared on the news (he immediately had a stroke and has never walked since)—

–the children who are beaten at school because they are either ostracized or psychologically disturbed–

But what seems to cut deepest is “Diaspora.”

And, now, weeping like a neglected little girl, here is Um Ali, pouring her loneliness into words.  “All I want, in the whole world, is to be in the same place as my son and daughter.  My daughter is in Germany, my son is in Baghdad, and I’m alone here.  I can’t see my own children!  We are spread apart.  I want to see my babies…”

And then it struck me.  I’ve never seen an Iraqi cry unless they were describing Diaspora.  That one, cutting word, the final knife of many knives that hits a nerve.

Diaspora is not the spreading of a culture or ethnic group across the globe as articulated in its technical definition; rather it is the father who cannot see his child’s elementary school graduation because of a little paper called a visa.  It is Um Ali who has never met her grandchildren.  It is Jamila who cannot marry in her Tigris River.

Or it is Dr. Mehdi, who came to Jordan from the US for a conference on stem cell research, and was not allowed to return home.  His wife and children were alone in the US and had to sell their belongings and join him here in Amman to be together…  because of what was later deemed “a human error.”

Diaspora might have a sweeping historical significance, but here and now, its meaning lies in those moments, those days or years of anxiety within which the unknown takes place without you…

Your children become adults in your absence, or they are killed in your absence, or your parents die alone without your ability to bury them, or you are 2 days from graduating and your school is bombed and you have to start all over again earning a diploma you already earned, because your original diploma is meaningless across the border.

Stop.  You can never go home again.

You will know your parents through Skype calls at 3 am.

Your children will start calling your sister “Mom.”

Your hard work and grades—erased from the record.

You are an infant today, a dead one.  You lost yourself somewhere between the abandoned house and the Tigris river.

So, we move on, crying rivers, strangers to our own family.

Um Ali is closer to this American girl who can hug her as she cries when what she really wants is to hug her son, because he is still in Baghdad and God will never forgive her if he is killed, because then, like Jamila, she’ll say, “I never got to say goodbye.”

Or “hello” for that matter.

The Meaning of Gathering

May 31, 2009

Today was long.

We spent the morning, afternoon, and evening with a ______ of people.  I say ________ because it wasn’t a crowd, wasn’t a family, and not a group…

What do you call this kind of gathering?

Dr. Muna, a little overweight, very kind and warmhearted; her 50’s-ish husband who is wild, talks with his mouth full, and wears a gold chain on his gangly arms; Mahmud, a stout, chain smoker gentleman who pays for everything and loves his mother; Muna’s two beautiful daughters, quiet, well-preened, and gentle; Mahmud’s mother, very old, religious, insistent, perplexed by our habits and opinions; the youngest boy (age 8), socially awkward, his first boy-party running through the hall in masks…

It is not a family, but there is something like familial warmth.  It is more intimate than a crowd, but there are so many people in and out.  It is not a group, because it does not remain cohesive, but shifts from moment to moment—besides we hardly know each other.  One thing, though, is that all of these people, expect for my mom and me, are Iraqi refugees finding solace in their unity.

So, this ______ of people ate and talked and passed the whole day together.

Of all ages, classes, religions, genders, and political views, we talked over four kinds of meat, three salads, and three rounds of desert.  There was argilla (hooka) wafting across the women’s faces, and a big, winged bug that twilighted around us for awhile before one of the men stomped him out.

There was “Why do you eat with you left hand?” and “I hate the Iranian government” and “What is the rent in Oakland?” …and then the stories of Iraq.  Always the evenings are washed in Iraq.

The stories come out just when you think you will leave, but when they start, you know the evening has only begun.  We had lunch, you know, not dinner, but we didn’t leave until 10:30 pm, and only then because I was very sick and sleepy.  Pictures, cell phones, tea and after tea after tea.
Homesickness, cigarettes, homesickness… it laps at our ankles like the mosquitoes.

A debate about the name of a thing, then tea and tea after tea.

“Dr. Muna, you should lose weight!”

“Oh yeah,” I say to Mahmud,” When is YOUR baby do, fatty?”

Everybody laughs and laughs.  Iraqis joke all the time, even about death.  How can they not?

“I am very much afraid that in the US they burn the bodies, they don’t bury!  I want to be buried on Arab soil, but I am up for resettlement,” says Mahmud’s mother.

“Don’t worry,” my mom responds, “We can put you on icepacks and fly you back here to be buried.”

Everybody laughs and laughs.  “It’s true though, I mean it!”

Okay, okay.  So you will freeze me not burn me?


Out comes another story.  The militias, the slaughter…  “my uncle was killed last year, you know,“ someone whispers before putting the argilla to his lips.

“They came in and cut him up—just like this fish!  He says, pointing with a carving knife.  (We are eating a big fish.)

Hahaha… we laugh, “Like a fish!”

“Here, take this.”  The old woman gestures to my mom…  “You are obviously Arab underneath, you are my daughter.  Take this Koran and learn to read it!  And here, I will show you this: prayer beads—you say, ‘One for Allah, one for Mohammed, one for Allah, one for Mohamed.’”

‘Thank you.  An honor.”

“No daughter…  you know, when I was in America—my husband was a very famous writer and we traveled the world—I saw all the sites on the East Coast!  The statue of Liberty has almost no clothes on!”

I say, “She is not the statue of chastity— she’s liberated…”

“Like Iraq!” says Dr. Muna.

Hahaha.  Laughter.

And so the evening goes, darkening, homesickness, a pause as we argue over the direction of Mecca while someone steps off the pray.  Space is essential.  North South East West.  Where are you now, do you know?  Mahmud knows.  He is praying.

Shall we go inside now?  Yes, lets go.

Okay, we say, but we sit and sit.  No one moves for three hours more.  That’s “going inside.”

“Oh Muna, not another desert!  You bring them out an hour apart so I can’t say no!”

“These are special Iraqi deserts.  We call them Lady’s arms, because they are shaped like the upper arm of a fat woman, and rolled in cheese!”

“There is another name I can’t say,” grins Mahmud.

“I can guess!”  Girls giggle.

Pause.  “Before 2003 we had no Sunni Shiite nonsense.  We were all the same, Iraqi, and I had many friends from all different religions, Mandean, Catholic, Sunni, Shia, even Jews!  Now though, Iran and Saudi are pulling in both directions, dividing people to take the resource, the oil and the social political power.  At least with the US, it’s a known enemy, I can say: What do you want?”  But with Iran, it’s ME they want…  I can’t negotiate my own self…”

“Oh this war this war—another war, and this time we are not rebuilding like before…”  mutters Dr. Muna.

Yah Allah!

Quiet, gargling argilla; warm, sweet smoke on my face.

“Wow, Kali, you are very thin!”   “I am sick… “

“Why are you sick?”    “I don’t know, germs.”

“No no, you are too thin!  It must be homesickness.”

“But she is close to home here, next to Iraq!”

“No, she is apart form her friends, her familiar country…”

“No, she is home here—she is thin because she is anxious.”

“Maybe the heat.  Hm.  I think it is ghareeb…  tisk, tisk— home-sick-ness!”

“…Well, we can send her back to Iraq and see— if she comes out fat, then we know she is home!”

Hahaha— laughing, laughing, laughing…

Home-sick-ness, we all sigh together.

And so the night rolls on, and even as we are truly leaving, it takes 30 minutes to kiss everyone three times goodbye …and then we took a taxi back with Mahmud and his mother, who paid the whole trip even though they got off before us …and then the taxi driver tried to teach us as much Arabic as he could …and then we were home trying to haggle a working refrigerator into our hotel flat with the Egyptian brothers downstairs.  And then we are borrowing their fridge, and then we were…

Alone, the two of us, as alone as we can ever be from that warm ________ of people, and only then did I feel at all homesick.

That, I think, is what Gathering means.

The Meaning of Moral Decay

May 24, 2009

This post was written by Kali Rubaii and co-author Debra Ellis.

“The US brought with it a kind of rot.  The rot is seeping into the fiber of Iraqi people, their culture.  We never had Iraqis stealing from Iraqis until now.  And they say they are building strip malls in Iraq.  We never had this either,” said Jamila (mentioned in previous blog).

“There was a rug holding the ground together.  And the US came in and ripped up the rug, because it was a Saddam Rug, heavy but steady.  And when the rug came up, all the worms came out” said Dr. Khan (name changed).

These women are describing the complete collapse of stability in their country, an instability that sent them both running from “worms” and finding refuge here in Amman, Jordan.

From instability is born a certain mistrust that nags and unravels the edges of social structure.  Without etiquette, without cultural norms and social standards, life is…  solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  There is killing in the streets, kidnapping, and corruption.

“Iraq had its share of problems, like a woman’s hair has many threads.  But the US came and pulled out that final hairpin, and all the threads came loose and wild.”  Mariam, like many others, relies on metaphor to explain the new complexities that have befallen Iraq.  The word moral decay is not quite enough to describe what has happened, but I’ll use it here.

Moral Decay has something do with uncertainty: people, unable to trust longstanding honor systems, begin to steal and lie to one another, or worse, become hired killers.  Neighbors fail to trust each other, and friends start calling in their loans and favors.

Moral Decay has something to do with opportunity: an unsteady Iraq makes space for all sorts of “merchants” and “warriors” to operate without consequence. There are now reports of child trafficking in Iraq, a market that has never before existed.  These children are sold both nationally and internationally for sex abuse, organ harvesting, and adoption.

Moral Decay has something do with money: the erection of strip malls while Iraqis still lack water and electricity, and the pulsing of Western capitalism in a world where consumerism is a sign of moral and spiritual collapse.  Even brand-name NGOs in Iraq have investigated the disappearance of some cash…

And last, Moral Decay has something to do with children– and this is where Iraqis start to get really upset–  and the dismantlement of their sacred social role.

If children are the ultimate measure of a society’s moral fortitude, I am forced to reflect on the moral decay of my own country, which Iraqis accurately view as incapable of its keeping its children safe the streets (see previous blog: the Meaning of Neighborhood).

Iraqi children are communally loved, adored, and protected. Their education and health are of paramount concern.  Most of the Iraqi refugee families are finding some way to continue their children’s educations.  Until the recent occupation, children were raised by their parents and extended family, all of whom lived in the same building.  Children played safely in the streets (and still do in Jordan, although we are learning that many Iraqi families keep their children inside at all times because of fear and trauma).

But Iraq wasn’t invaded by a child-loving country like Italy or Japan.  The US does not offer safe streets, well-funded schools, or universal healthcare for its own children: Iraqis hardly expect the US to restore a child-loving society within Iraq, given this reality.

How tragic it must be for Iraqis to witness the loss of safety for their children.

You can shield your children from violence, turn off the TV, if you want to.  I could not protect my children from the violence, and this new generation has seen so much of it.  What will become of our society, or culture, after this?”  Salwa almost yells this at my mother.

In her lap, her two-year-old plays with a plastic gun, the muzzle is in his drooling mouth.

She speaks the truth: 100 percent of the children I have met have seen a dead body and lost a relative.  More than half of them have watched someone die right in front of them.  Some of them have themselves been kidnapped and tortured, or had a parent kidnapped and tortured.

What moral and social code will this next generation know and live by in their new Iraq?

It is evident to me that cultural structure is vital in creating a space for human goodness to flourish.  The destruction of cultural norms and expectations also unravels a pattern of being, a certain woven “fiber” of moral consistency, which might be why so many Iraqis refer to cloth or woven fabric in their metaphors to explain morality and post-invasion moral decay.

“It will take a lot of women weaving to pull this country, these people, back together again!” says Salwa. “We were always close-knit people.  Mandeans, Christians, Sunni, Shia, Jews… we were all close.  Now, someone wants to pull those threads apart and divide us.  It is up to us mothers to weave it back together…”

Entering the Axis of Evil, Host to Millions of Refugees

May 19, 2009
Entering the "Axis of Evil"

Entering the "Axis of Evil"

“Don’t wear anything bright. Put on sunglasses. Try to look as local as possible because the police will interrogate you and not let you into the refugee camps!”

Like Amman, Damascus is an enormous city. It hosts somewhere between 2 and 4 million Iraqi refugees and roughly 1 million Palestinian refugees, but you would never know by looking. One has to seek out the refugee crisis in order to see it.

We took the advice of our friends in Jordan and the US to be paranoid about our appearance, documentation, etc. We emptied our camera chip, hid passport copies in our bras, and alerted our friends in Jordan before we headed off the infamous refugee camp in Damascus city. As it turned out, we didn’t have much hassle entering the camp.

We didn’t have to bribe any officers, or hire a secret taxi. We boarded a crowded bus, paid 10 cents, lied about our destination, and got off at AlSayda Zenab Camp. Perhaps because of our careful appearance and our practice sauntering like local women, we strolled into AlSayda Zenab  with no police questioning.

It was clear that the fear and drama surrounding refugee camps in Syria had kept most people out, because as we strolled the streets of the Camp, curios people poked their heads out in surprise. A little boy naked from the waste down ran down the street to sound the alert: “Foreigners are here! Foreigners are here!”

AlSayda Zenab Camp was hastily constructed for the major influx of refugees that have fled Palestine and Iraq. Some houses have electricity and water, others do not. Walls are crooked and unsealed. Trash is everywhere. There is a dusty central market in which refugees peddle their old belongings to survive, mostly junk but also some old antiques, which indicated that the ragged the peddler selling them was once a very rich and important man back in Iraq or Palestine…

Familes Selling Their Belongings

Families Selling Their Belongings

But above any poverty or suffering, there is evidence of community, life, and emotional health. Recycled cans, from USAID food drops in Iraq, now serve as flowerpots brimming with geraniums. School children terrorize the streets with their noise and energy. A fat old lady laughed and laughed when we stopped to take a picture of the Palestinian and Syrian flags that adorned one street. There is suffering in this camp, there is poverty and anguish. But there is so much life and delight as well.

Recycled USAID Food Cans

Recycled USAID Food Cans

We did not enter refugee homes or hear their detailed stories (we will return to Syria in 4 weeks to do this), but it is evident from my short visit to AlSayda Zenab Camp that refugees in Syria are fairing better emotionally than those in Jordan, because they live in a dense  community with other members of their cultural and social community.

Conversely, in Amman refugees do not interact much with one another because they are physically isolated from other refugees, UNCHR has trouble reaching their homes, and informal networks are harder to form. Depression, agoraphobia, and distrust of fellow Iraqis are all high. In all my home visits, I never once saw planted flowers or other such signs of emotional liveliness.  AlSayda Zenab’s  emotional peace was apparent not only in subtleties like flower pots, but also in refugee chidlren’s extensive support network.

AlSayda Zenab Camp has schools within the camp specifically designed for refugee children. We stumbled on a UNRWA middle school, and were immediately swarmed by schoolboys. “What is your name!?” “Where are you from!?” We had come upon “The Exchange,” when the boys run home from morning school and the girls flood in for afternoon school.This school caters directly to the refugee community, and we noticed signs posted: “You have the right to return to your homeland.”

Boys in Front of their UNRWA School

Boys in Front of their UNRWA School

I am not sure how Syria created a refugee camp community within this crowded city, but it seems to be serving the emotional and social needs of refugees well.

There are pitfalls to the camp setting as well: criminal economies, often involving child trafficking and prostitution, a long term failure of refugees to integrate into the host society, and the rise of gang-like power brokers who control internal-external interface on the camp’s borders. We plan to do more investigating on these issues and others when we return.

For now the only thing I can personally attest to is the superior social/emotional health of refugees living in a community of other refugees, rather than in isolation as they do in Amman, Jordan.

Mural by children in Refugee Camp

Mural by children in Refugee Camp

The Meaning of Safety: What Makes Us Safe?

May 4, 2009

The Inside of a Wall

The Inside of a Wall

If a grenade is ticking in a room full of people, the room is unsafe.
Once the grenade goes off, and everyone is dead, the room is finally “safe,” because suddenly the death rate drops from 100 percent to zero percent.

When we read in newspaper headlines about tourists’ safe travel to Iraq, we might believe that “safety” means something like zero-percent-death; safety as a number.

But Iraqi refugees here in Amman, Jordan describe safety as a direction, a partitioned area in social or physical space. In a physical sense, safety is one side of a wall, the inside.

For a lobster, the inside of his shell is safe, the outside is not (until he is thrown into boiling water…)

If a wall is built in Baghdad, the question of which side is safe depends on your religion.  If you are Sunni, the Sunni side is the inside.  If you are Shiit, the Shiit side is the inside.  If you are Christian, neither side is safe.

In other words, social spaces, like sectarian identity, determine the safety of physical spaces.  And social spaces are shaped by ever-changing micro-histories, politics, and fear.  So at one time and place, being a Sunni is safe.  At another, it is unsafe.  And while time and place change, one’s Sunni-ness cannot.

Thus it is by the flip of a coin that one lives on the inside of a wall, or the outside.

“Someone called us from an unknown number.  They said, ‘If we find you inside your house, we will kill you and rape your daughters.’  So, our house was no longer safe.  We left right away,” said my neighbor, Omar (name changed).  His experience reiterates the narratives of countless others.

But the thing about social spaces is that they aren’t real.  Like money, or words, they quickly lose their validity in a new physical space.  When refugees cross the border into Jordan, they seem to shed their social spaces, more or less, and mutually occupy the inside of a new country.  (Omar lives safely next to his Sunni and Shiit neighbors.)

This phenomena has come as a surprise to some experts, who feared a spillover of sectarian violence into countries surrounding Iraq.  How can people, who would be killing each other three hours away in Baghdad, be living peacefully together in Amman?  It has something to do with the fact that social space is also shaped by physical space…

But there is more to safety than physical and social space.  While refugees may have shed their physical and social dangers at the border, they have not shed their emotional terror.

Once hot water invades the lobster shell, the safety of inside is damaged for good.  Iraqis, traumatized by the death threats and destruction they experienced at home, are now unsafe inside their own minds.

“I am afraid to go out and buy groceries, or when I arrive I am disoriented and can’t remember what I came to buy.  I can’t concentrate on anything,” said Ghada (name changed), a 24-year-old Mandean now living in Amman.

Ghada was threatened in Iraq when she refused to wear hijab, her best friend was killed for the same reason, and her neighbor was murdered by the same militia that mistakenly murdered her uncle instead of her father…  So Ghada has every reason to be afraid of violence, even here in Amman where she is physically “safe.”

For Ghada, and many like her, safety is on the inside of a partition, and until she feels safe inside her own mind, the war isn’t really over.  I am seeing firsthand that the invasion of Iraq is still taking place: minds have been invaded by trauma, families invaded by violence, and the safety of inside invaded by the outside.

If a grenade is ticking in a room full of people, the room is unsafe.
Once the grenade goes off, and all the people are dead, the room is finally “safe.”

It is our failure to understand the real meaning of safety that has us counting dead bodies instead of damaged minds.

Children's Graffiti on the Inside Wall of a Courtyard

Children's Graffiti on the Inside Wall of a Courtyard