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August 13th, 2009
03:02 PM ET

Iraqi refugees trade mobility for security

Marium Al Wata, 32, used to own a pharmacy in Iraq.

Marium Al Wata, 32, used to own a pharmacy in Iraq.

Charity Tooze
AC360° Contributor

Marium and Hassan Al Wata* are stalked by their shared past. They are haunted by memories of death threats and murder. In 2006 they fled the violence in Baghdad in search of a safe haven. They settled in Amman, Jordan but their security quickly turned to imprisonment.

They say their modest apartment in the city’s Heshami Shamali neighborhood feels like a cage. Their days and nights are spent within the confines of sheet rock, sweat and anxiety. “We never leave the house during the day,” Marium said, “At night we’ll go on the balcony and talk about how we’re feeling.”

During the escalation of sectarian violence between 2005 and 2007, thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan and other neighboring countries. According to a Fafo Research Foundation report, commissioned by the Jordanian government, there are between 450,000 and 500,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. But many of these people find themselves isolated in their new homes, fearful of deportation and waiting in limbo. The United Nations now recognizes the situation as the largest urban refugee crisis in history.

After their arrival three years ago, the Al Watas discovered layers of bureaucracy that made their life in Jordan difficult. Jordan did not sign the 1951 Convention on refugees and while it has been historically welcoming to displaced people, Iraqis are not officially recognized as refugees and therefore cannot work legally. The large influx of Iraqis was a shock to Jordan’s infrastructure and the country quickly changed its immigration policies and began requiring visas for Iraqis. The visa requirement - and the inability to work legally - has made it nearly impossible for an Iraqi to live some semblance of a normal life in Jordan.

Because of their traumatic past and the threat of deportation the Al Watas spend nearly all of their time in the confines of their apartment.

“We don’t have any friends that come over,” Marium said. The Al Wata’s windows are covered and their 3-year-old son, Hamsa, has hardly left the house since birth. “He’s never been to a playground. He’s not socialized very well. He doesn’t know how to play with children his own age,” she added.

Hassan, 32, holds a masters degree in mechanical engineering and worked with the General Motors distributor in Iraq’s Green Zone. Marium, 32, is Iraqi but spent her childhood in Iowa. She owned a pharmacy in Iraq. Their lives resembled that of a middle class American family. “We would go to work, the children went to school, and we had a nice life.”

After 2003, Marium began receiving death threats at the pharmacy. The Al Watas are Sunni Muslims and they lived and worked in a predominantly Shiah neighborhood. Hassan also received death threats, like this one: “If you want to go back to your family leave your work with the American dogs or we will bring your head to your wife.” Marium recounted her reaction, “I only have one man, so I begged him to quit.”

Hasam Al Wata was born shortly after his family arrived in Jordan.

Hasam Al Wata was born shortly after his family arrived in Jordan.

The Al Watas, like many Iraqi refugees, said prior to the war there was no difference between Shiah and Sunni in their neighborhood. This problem, they claim, came from outside Iraq. “I didn’t know I was Sunni until I was 20-years-old,” Marium said. “But now it’s different, the children are growing up with this concept. It will be very difficult to heal.”
Iraq was a secular state prior to the war, and although more governmental positions were held by Sunnis, the Al Watas claim there weren’t many conflicts between Shiah and Sunni.

The Al Watas thought the violence in Iraq was just a phase but it continued to escalate. Marium’s brother was killed by a bomb when he was on his way to a job interview. He had just finished his bachelor’s degree. Marium said his death left a huge scar on her mother, who was terrified the same fate would find Marium’s two young sons. She begged them to leave Baghdad.

It took them 19 terrifying hours to drive to Jordan. In addition to traveling with their two sons, Marium was nine months pregnant and didn’t know when she would give birth. “It was a very difficult journey for us. We had never left our families,” she said. They were given a two-week visa. They cannot afford to pay the $1.50 Dinar - roughly $2 U.S. dollars - per day to legally extend their visa. They attempt, like thousands of families, to live outside the gaze of the government.

After several years in exile most families have exhausted the resources with which they fled. “As time goes on the situation continues to get worse,” said Fusayo Irikura director of the Women’s Federation of World Peace.

Sarah Al Wata is the youngest of Marium and Hassan's children.

Sarah Al Wata is the youngest of Marium and Hassan's children.

Marium puts her newborn baby, Sarah, to sleep on a converted coffee table next to the foam cushions that constitute their bed. “I wake up every hour to check on her. Now that she is getting older she can roll over and I am scared she will roll off.” They worry about their two oldest children who continue to show psychological symptoms from the violence they witnessed in Iraq.

“Our children faced a lot of terror in Baghdad. They saw killings in front of them, they saw bodies – dead bodies in the streets and once when they were in school, armed people came inside the school and killed the gym teacher because she was wearing pants and training clothes.” Annes, 11, continues to suffer. He can’t sleep without the lights on and sleepwalks. Marium holds her tears back when she talks about how the boy’s only uncle, her brother, was killed. She said his death aggravated her son’s fears.

The Al Watas wait. They don’t know when or if they will ever be free from the confines of their apartment’s drab walls. They are registered with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement. Resettlement to a foreign country seems to be their only glimmer of hope.

“Our children refuse to return to Iraq,” Hassan said. They hope to be resettled in the U.S. where they will be free to work and rebuild their lives.

*The names of the subjects in the story have been changed for their protection.

Hana Al Badree, a translator, contributed to this story.

Editor’s Note: Charity Tooze is a freelance journalist currently working in Jordan. She was the executive producer of Rites of Passage, www.ritesofpassage.tv, a weekly television program by and for young women in the Bay Area. She is currently in the Middle East developing a body of work on Iraqi Refugees as part of her master’s thesis.

soundoff (One Response)
  1. Annie Kate

    How are these poor people paying their rent and buying food since they don't seem to have jobs? I'm amazed that they have lasted this long in Jordan in that sort of condition. I hope that soon they will be able to leave for whatever country they want to live in and get back to a normal life.

    August 13, 2009 at 7:34 pm |