August 4th, 2009
01:44 PM ET

Domestic Violence: A disturbing symptom of the Iraqi refugee crisis

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/04/art.charity.saba.2.jpg caption="Three-year-old Saba Fahed, an Iraqi refugee, plays with Legos on the floor of her family's apartment."]

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/04/art.charity.neba.4.jpg caption="Neba Fahed, 4, laughs when company comes to visit her family in Jordan."]

Charity Tooze
AC360° Contributor

Mohammad Fahed is an Iraqi refugee living in Jordan. He and his family fled Iraq in 2004 after their house was bombed. His mother was paralyzed during the attack.

Fahed is a tall, thin man with piercing blue eyes and an angular face. He speaks quietly, with measure, and stares across the room with intense frustration. He sits upright in his chair and his striped button-down short-sleeve shirt is tucked neatly into his navy-blue trousers. His two youngest daughters Saba, 3 and Neba, 4, stand next to him as he talks about his life in Jordan.

Fahed first arrived in Jordan in 2002, before the war, to find work. He said the economic situation in Iraq made it impossible for him to earn a living and provide for his family. He found work in Jordan in commercial trade, doing odd jobs as a blacksmith and plumber.

Immediately following the outbreak of the war in 2003, he returned to Iraq to gather his family. “Since the war everything has changed,” Fahed said. Like most of Iraq’s neighbors, Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention on refugees and therefore they do not recognize Iraqis as refugees. Arafat Jamal, deputy representative of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), said, “despite the fact that it’s not a signatory on the main international instrument on refugees its [Jordan’s] practice has been very generous.” Jordan classifies Iraqis as “guests.” Iraqis can apply for residency and work permits but, still, many reside in Jordan illegally. Only those with “specialized skills,” that Jordan’s labor market lacks - such as physicans - receive work permits. Hundreds of thousands are not allowed to work.

According to a Fafo research foundation report funded by the Jordanian government, there are 450,000 to 500,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. Yet many people working in aid organizations believe the number is closer to 750,000. Since the increase in refugees, the UNHCR has increased its operating capacity from 32 staff members to 160.

The Faheds live in squalor conditions waiting for the political terrain in Iraq to cool. Like thousands of Iraqi families in Jordan, they depend on the UNHCR for monthly cash assistance. The small donations they receive are not enough to cover the most basic needs of a family of nine. Fahed’s frustration stems from his desire to work and his fear that if he does he will be caught and deported.

“I am afraid to go out of my house here because of the security. Maybe they will make me return to Baghdad . Sometimes I want to see my friends but I am afraid, so I am stuck at the house,” Fahed said.

He has been arrested three times for not having a visa. Until 2007, Iraqis were not required to have visas to enter Jordan. The escalation in militia attacks, torture and murder caused thousands of Iraqis to flee their country in late 2005. In response to the influx of refugees, Jordan changed its visa policy to mandate that all Iraqis have visas before entering the country. In 2007, the UNHCR classified all Iraqis outside the country as refugees. This official status granted by the UNHCR is meant to protect displaced people from deportation. Fahed said the police laughed when he showed them his UN documents. He said he was sent to a Jordanian jail for two days.

The massive influx of Iraqis has strained Jordan’s already limited resources. To deflect some of the burden, the UNHCR sponsors projects in health, education and water sectors. In 2008 the Jordanian government opened up the education system to Iraqis, but before that they were not allowed to enroll in Jordanian schools. According to a UNHCR report there are approximately 540,000 Iraqi children who are either out of school or have severe gaps in their educational development.

As time passes, the financial situation of many of these Iraqis in Jordan worsens. Fahed is just one of thousands of people awaiting resettlement. He cannot work legally in Jordan and refuses to return to Iraq. Being trapped in this limbo has put an enormous strain on family dynamics and domestic violence has become a major problem in the community.

Fahed’s face betrays no emotion when he admits he beats his children to release his frustration.

His youngest daughter, Saba, sits on the floor at his feet, trying to open a bag of Legos. She giggles and turns her face, making the small bruise on her tiny cheek all the more visible. Fahed’s wife sits next to Saba, her head tilted down and her features tucked behind a dark hejab.

The UNHCR and community-based organizations in Jordan are trying to address domestic violence among the Iraqis. Hiba Azaizeha, a field worker with the UNHCR, said men are targets for questioning by police. Because of stereotypes about Iraqi men – such as the assumption they might be terrorists and the threat they pose to the Jordanian labor market - Iraqi men say they are consistently targeted by Jordanian police forces.

Many Iraqis have said that while in Iraq, both women and men worked outside of the home. In Jordan, many women have an easier time finding under-the-table jobs. “Women are less likely to be questioned by police, so women go out to bring bread and work as domestic labor (under the table) and the man sits at home,” Azaizeha said. “Imagine you are just sitting at home and you have your children all over you and children have this way of forgetting, so they giggle and laugh and crawl everywhere and the father is very stressed so he starts hitting those children, ” she added.

In response to the growth of domestic violence, the UN has developed empowerment courses for women. It also offers skill-building classes for men, such as computer electronics and mobile phone repair. Azaizeha said her primary goal is to keep the family members busy.

“Changing gender roles in exile is a common phenomena that we see in refugee situations particularly in exile. Suddenly you come to a refugee situation where the man who is used to being the bread winner, the head of household, finds himself in a situation of diminished status,” Jamal said. The upheaval of tradition is a major factor contributing to violence in Iraqi households.

Fahed said he doesn’t want to see a psychologist for his anger problems. Rula Dajani, program coordinator for The International Rescue Committee (IRC), said there is a cultural taboo about sharing problems with people outside the family. The IRC is opening a gender-based violence unit in Jordan to address the growing number of cases.

“The gender role divisions have changed in the homes. This contributes to increased tensions in the families,” Dajani said. The IRC is developing culturally sensitive interventions such as mediation that include the whole family. Those who have suffered severe trauma are the ones who are most susceptible to psychological problems. “I’ve seen cases especially those that have a well-founded fear of not returning to Iraq that remain in the trauma phase and they don’t leave the house,” Azaizeha said.

Fahed is one such case. He is trapped by his fear and sits waiting for his normal life to return.

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 (8 Responses)
  1. Valerie from Ontario, Canada

    Violence begets violence. If these men are allowed to abuse their children and wives their children will mimic that behaviour in adulthood. Could the UNHCR not insist on some type of program for these men, especially if they are helping to fund refugees.

    August 4, 2009 at 10:37 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    Such adorable little girls. I can't imagine any reason being acceptable for being abused. I hope life improves for them and the family. Young children should never be used to relieve stress.

    August 4, 2009 at 10:24 pm |
  3. Andre V.

    Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of what life is outside of "business as usual" environment. While living in the US, it's easy to loose the perspective of what the reality is like for millions of people. What's worse is that we have become death to the feeling of responsibility for the well being people, even if the message is as loud as someone's mom getting paralyzed due to a bombing...

    August 4, 2009 at 9:31 pm |
  4. Abubekir- Iraqi refugee in Syria

    This is simple example of how Iraqi refugees living. I'm Iraqi medical doctor living with my family as refugees in Syria. We are prohibited to do any work even physicians (like me).
    The UNHCR in Jordan working well and other humaniterian organizations. There not like here in Syria, I will give you simple example on this; UNHCR in Syria not satisfied that we are eligible to resettlement although we were displaced by militias from Iraq after they blown up our house, threats and direct killing of some of our family members and ongoing serious threats on our lives till this moment.
    There are others many cases like us, but nobody can hearing them. Because UNHCR here make like obstacles and not a tunnel to relief and resettlement.

    August 4, 2009 at 9:19 pm |
  5. Matt licklider

    Empathic coverage of a deeply troubling issue-one that likely gets overshadowed by the still larger issues facing refugees–deportation, incarceration, murder. Refreshing to read a western woman's take on the Joradanian a

    August 4, 2009 at 8:10 pm |
  6. helen - Australia

    In response to
    Teresa's (OH ) comment...
    Perhaps you are also a little niave about human nature...
    you may be 'perplexed" as no doubt you are viewing things from a rational middle-class mind that has never experienced trauma as refugees have.
    Step into this man shoes and you can see no way out..."logic" is a luxury in this situation...
    Not for one minute do a condone domestic violence...or ANY type of violence...(...however I know it is a reality that can not be erased simply
    by talking to somebody)...the situation is deplorable and the plight of all refugees is in direct relation to the horrific circumstances that led them to flee their home countries.

    August 4, 2009 at 6:21 pm |
  7. Teresa, OH

    re: "Imagine you are just sitting at home and you have your children all over you and children have this way of forgetting, so they giggle and laugh and crawl everywhere and the father is very stressed so he starts hitting those children, ” she added. and: "he admits he beats his children to release his frustration"

    While I feel for the men and the families, and I mean it: I really do feel for them, definitely a HUGE life / status change, I'm a little perplexed at the logic of any parent being VERY stressed and decided to beat the kids to relieve stress. And, did he put the bruise on the 3 yr. olds cheek? That should be a visual for the father that he needs help.
    Sometimes an admission is a cry for help.

    Great article. We often hear about the Iraqi refugees, we could never imagine these types of difficulties... so simple and yet so very complex and the children are hurting too. What a mess.

    August 4, 2009 at 4:34 pm |
  8. shakti kennedy

    This is an eye opening article by Charity Tooze~ I hope to hear and see more of her perspective through CNN!

    August 4, 2009 at 3:55 pm |