The Good FugitiveYesterday, sitting in a tiny restaurant that serves kebabs and tea on a small side-street in Amman's city center, I was suddenly reminded of children playing "Migra!" in a Chicago Hispanic neighborhood. "Migra!" screams one child, and the others squeal and scatter. These children grew up watching "illegal" adults hide from U.S. immigration authorities.
Saad, who serves tea at the restaurant, had spotted a Jordanian police van passing the nearby intersection. The police vans frequently raid shops, restaurants and factories, in search of Iraqis who haven't been granted temporary residence or who violate the labor laws by working for wages. In no time, my companion and I were alone in the restaurant. Across the way, a barber shop emptied. For about five minutes, the street was deserted, and then, just as suddenly, it came back to life. Observers on another street reported that the police van was already packed. Iraqi men returning to the restaurant chuckled; but the well-practiced routine is no laughing matter. If detained, Jordanian police might deport them to the Iraq side of the Iraq/Jordan border.
A few days ago, Saad, age 43, agreed to talk with us, but he said it would take several hours to tell his story. Like many others Iraqi refugees, he doesn't want to call attention to himself and risk what little security he has found here in Amman. And yet, he yearns for some benevolent group, somewhere, to recognize the plight of Iraqis, like him, who suffered torture and imprisonment under the old Iraqi regime, lived as fugitives for more than two decades, lost homes and family members in Iraq, and yet cannot qualify for asylum or refugee status anywhere in the world. He didn't want us to hear only from Iraqis who have recently arrived. (During the first two days in Amman, without even leaving the hotel lobby, I met four Iraqis who had just fled Iraq because of death threats.)
Saad is a stocky man whose face is creased with deep lines and bears a few scars. His eyebrows nearly cross his entire forehead, adding to his serious expression. When he smiles, his large, hazel eyes light up. Often, Saad stands on the top step of a stoop in front of the restaurant, scanning the intersection. For the past four years, he has been a familiar figure on this street where he spends twelve hours each day, serving tea and keeping watch. He's a seasoned "lookout" who knows how to sound a quiet alarm.
In 1980, Iraq's army conscripted Saad, but he took the risk of becoming a deserter that same year, one month after the September outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. Saad lived as a fugitive for the next 10 years, until the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. He returned to Najaf during the doomed uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War. U.S. conquerors allowed Iraq's Republican Guard to keep their attack helicopters. The Iraqi forces assaulted Najaf. During a fifteen-day battle, four missiles were fired at Saad's home, killing his parents and his wife. Saad's four children survived. They went to live with his wife's parents. Saad went to prison.
Republican Guard forces arrested Saad and many others, taking them by bus to Baghdad and then to the Al Radwaniyah prison. "They put me in a big hall with many people and they kept us there for 10 days," Saad recalled. "They checked people who participated in the uprising, women and men. They could recognize twenty people. They put them aside, kept the others, about 100 persons who were not yet recognized. They kept us for more than three months. We were beaten severely as punishment and discipline. The purpose was to humiliate us and break our morale."
Saad was released three months later. "I heard that released people were questioned or searched by Baath party members in Najaf," said Saad. "I went to the marshes –500 km. from the city. There I worked as a laborer, along with many other people coming from the south, hunting bears in the winter and fish in the summer."
Again, Saad was a fugitive for ten years. Lacking any identity papers, it was too risky for him to see his children.
In July of 2001, he paid a 1,350,000 Iraqi Dinar bribe, (approximately $700 U.S. dollars), to obtain a passport in Najaf. With this passport, he could leave Iraq and seek asylum in Jordan. In August, 2001, Saad submitted his application but learned, with dismay, that he needed death certificates to verify that the Iraqi government had killed his family members. "It's not possible to obtain those papers," said Saad. "The old Iraqi regime denied the assassinations of those people in Najaf and of the prisoners in Al Radwaniyah, in spite of all the confirmations that this tragedy happened."
Still suffering from trauma, Saad struggles with insomnia, depression, and homesickness. But, in Amman he has at least saved some money, every month, to help support his children in Iraq.
Cathy Breen and I accompanied Saad to the UNHCR office in Amman because he wanted to inquire about the possibility of reopening his case. He wants protection from the Jordanian police, should he be detained, and he wants to try again for asylum. We looked at his papers and it seemed he'd already gotten a final answer: "We regret to inform you that further to your second interview your claim does not meet the refugee criteria. This is a final decision."
The UNHCR officials admitted us inside their building. We were fairly sure that he never would have been allowed inside had we not been gently but firmly insistent. A UNHCR official informed him that his file is closed and the UNHCR is technically not able to issue him a new card. He only qualifies for Temporary Protection Status which will not allow him to work in Jordan or acquire temporary residency status. However, if the police detain him, he can call the UNHCR hotline, open twenty-four hours a day, and the UNHCR will intervene with the authorities for his release.
At the UNHCR headquarters in Amman, the Iraqi case-load has been on hold for two years, since the onset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ideally, legal, medical and financial help for Iraqi refugees in Amman should be available through other Non Governmental Organizations, called implementing partners, but Saad and his friends assure us that there are no international groups advocating on behalf of human rights for Iraqi refugees. Saad has very little confidence that access to the UNHCR hotline number would protect him from deportation. The UNHCR official acknowledged that if a large number of people are swept up for detention it is difficult for UNHCR to intervene.
In the early evening, yesterday, we sat across from Saad in his apartment in the Mahata district of Amman, a simple neighborhood where he lives in one room, furnished with a television, a refrigerator, a table, a lamp, and stacks of mats. On the walls are portraits of Ali, the leader revered by Shi'a people, and photos of Saad and his friends in the tea shop. There are no pictures of his family.
I asked Saad why he has so many mats stacked in his room. "In the cold months, there are Iraqi drivers who have no place to stay," he explained. "I will invite a driver to sleep here if it is too cold to sleep in his car."
"We don't want to live like rats," he said, after a long pause. "Always, we are scattering when we see a police van." He asks for so little, it seems. The right to work, the right to walk down the street without fearing deportation, a chance to stop living as a fugitive. What is his crime?
He and his companions at the tea shop try to help one another. If someone becomes ill, medical treatment is exorbitantly expensive. Iraqis living in Jordan illegally aren't eligible for health care. If an employer or landlord takes advantage of them, they can't bring their grievance to a Jordanian court. They help one another manage in the face of unexpected troubles.
Who can blame Jordan's government for asserting that it can't cope with a new influx of Iraqi refugees? Compared to many wealthy countries, Jordan has stretched itself to the breaking point in trying to share scant resources with impoverished refugees. Already there are 500,000 refugees from Gaza living under wretched conditions in the Jerash camp. An estimated 450,000 Iraqi refugees have come to Jordan and of that number there are only 14,000 who can afford to pay the required deposit of $75,000, for each adult, which must be left untouched in a bank for at least one year before consideration of an application for permanent residency.
Many countries, including the U.S., take advantage of refugee laborers whose readiness to work for low wages drives down the minimum wage. All over the world, authorities cope with unwanted refugees by routinely scooping them up and deporting them. Jordan's government uses familiar means to deter more Iraqis from coming here. Anyone who overstays their three month temporary visa faces a daily fine of 1 ½ Jordanian dinar.
The UN, international NGOs and foreign Embassies offer Iraqis very little hope for asylum, resettlement, or advocacy on behalf of basic human rights. Yet even the anticipated miseries of living as an unprotected refugee in Jordan are better, for some, than the insecurity and penury many have experienced in Iraq.
Professor Juan Cole, an expert analyst of Iraqi social and political developments, noted last week that Iraq is slipping out of the news. The plight of Iraqi refugees in Jordan never made it into mainstream media news. "Nobody cares about us," said a Christian Iraqi who fears return, has run out of money, cannot work, and is not allowed to apply for asylum. "We are lost."
I feel like a silly Pollyanna wondering why the U.S. doesn't try, peacefully and compassionately, to help the millions of people devastated and displaced by our successive wars. We could be reversing feelings of antagonism and hostility, causing people to admire and love U.S. people. Instead, U.S. efforts to foster security continually rely on overwhelming other people with threats, force, and economic insecurity, forcing people to compete for dwindling access to basic human rights. Every day, the numbers of people who resent the U.S. multiply.
Consider this. I know women in a U.S. federal prison who earn a pittance, working in the prison factory, to manufacture small cages which the prison sells to U.S. immigration authorities. The U.S. "Migra" uses the cages to transport children of "illegal" migrant workers, bringing them to detention centers for eventual deportation. Other prison factory workers manufactured armored plates which the U.S.military uses to fortify humvee vehicles. Over 1/4 of the world's prisoners are incarcerated in U.S. prisons. The women I met befriended me while I was imprisoned for nonviolent protest at a U.S. military base that trains soldiers from other countries to police their own people.
I don't harbor much hope that U.S. people will agitate to reform U.S. foreign policy and change our overconsumptive, wasteful way of life. But could we at least stop pretending that we are the champions of human rights and the defenders of democracy? Our past support for dictatorships and our attacks against other countries have caused incalculable death, destruction, and displacement. In the U.S., we have abysmally failed millions of our own children by directing needed resources toward weapons and war and eventually shipping our own youngsters off to fight unprovoked wars against innocent people.
Saad is a good man. His case is all too ordinary. He and his companions can't watch their children run and play. Instead, they and thousands of other Iraqi refugees are forced to play the "Migra" game. Run. Hide. And hope that someday adults in powerful places will understand a terrible truth about war games. Ultimately, nobody wins.
Kathy Kelly, Electronic Iraq 28 February 2005Kathy Kelly is a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end U.S. economic and military warfare abroad and in our own locales. She has just returned from Amman, Jordan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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