Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"You have made a big hole, and put our lives into it."

At left is a picture I took of the Jordanian Red Crescent medical facilities serving Iraqi refugees in East Amman, Jordan, where I visited with a small group of colleagues in late February.

What this picture doesn't show are the 50 or so refugees, mostly women and children, packed like sardines in the waiting room, or the dozens more lined up outside. It doesn't show them waiting hours and then more hours, hoping that maybe today they will see a doctor. It doesn't show the smell, the hopelessness, the kids looking up at their mothers expectantly, the mothers wondering where their next meal is coming from. The two doctors staffing this facility have seen up to 250 patients a day, 6,000 patients a month. For their safety, I couldn't take pictures of the refugees in and around the clinic.

This picture doesn't show the equipment the doctors need, but don't have. This room, this is it. Iraqi refugees are believed to have extremely high rates of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, owing to their increasing levels of stress and inability to afford decent food. Yet this clinic has no X-rays, no blood-glucose meters, no equipment for radiation or chemotherapy, and very little medication. Just a crude heart monitor, a small oxygen tank and one of those arm bands for taking blood pressure. The doctors find they can do very little for many of the patients who come in.

The picture doesn't show the thousands of refugees who are sick, but too scared to come in for treatment because they might be seen -- "if someone is looking for me, they will look in the places where Iraqis are." And despite the Jordanian government's claim that it only deports refugees if they pose an immediate threat to national security, many Iraqis in Jordan live in fear that identifying themselves even to the Red Crescent could result in deportation. And deportation could mean death in Iraq. Many would rather be sick.

Yet many recognize the symbol of the Red Crescent as one they can trust. The first refugee clinic in Jordan had a slow start in 2003, when no one was sure just how many refugees there would be or whether they would come in. But after about six weeks, the Red Crescent had to open up three more clinics in East Amman, and even then it couldn't meet the demand.

The Jordanian Red Crescent provides other services to the refugee community. They distribute blankets, food, children's supplies and hygiene packs, to help the Iraqis maintain their dignity. One of the clinics offers dentistry, for which there has been huge demand. And they have two teams of volunteers going door-to-door to collect health data and spread the word about the clinics.

They also offer vocational training for women, including patchwork, beading, hairdressing and computers. To the left are some pictures of the training facilities at the clinic I visited. Although Iraqis can't legally work in Jordan, as many as 30% work informally, and many women take the classes because they hope to apply new skills towards rebuilding Iraq once it is stable enough to return. Many are just bored with the passive role of hiding into which they've been forced, and the classes offer a constructive use of time and opportunity to network with other women in safe space.

But this well-meaning organization faces many constraints. They lack solid data, since studies to date have been unable to coax many Iraqis out of hiding and those who do answer are suffering from "survey fatigue." Without data, the Red Crescent has a hard time soliciting funding. Meanwhile, the numbers and needs of the refugee population are increasing, especially in terms of pre- and post-natal care and mental health. As many as 80% of Iraqi refugees in Jordan have some form of mental illness, from situation-induced anxiety disorders and depression to more serious conditions caused by trauma they endured in Iraq.

As our group left the clinic, an Iraqi woman tugged on my sleeve and said something in Arabic. I looked at her blankly, ashamed that my Arabic wasn't strong enough to comprehend. She merely shook her head and said, in perfect English, "you don't understand what I am saying."

Later, I asked someone what she had said in Arabic. "You have made a big hole, and put our lives into it," my friend translated roughly. The woman must have known we were Americans.

Our group made a small donation to the Red Crescent as part of our time in Jordan. It wasn't much, but enough to pay the doctors' salaries for three months. To learn more about their programs and support the Jordanian Red Crescent, please
visit their website.


Anonymous said...

If we do pull out of Iraq, will this condition be better or worse - that is the question.

Emily Stivers said...

I don't think that is the question we should be asking. I think a better question is, "what do we need to do to make Iraq stable enough for these people to go home." Troop withdrawal or not might be part of that equation, but the picture is so much bigger. Iraqis need humanitarian assistance, jobs, microfinancing, capacity building, infrastructure, clean water and reliable electricity, and so many other things we are not helping enough with. They need a government that is not crippled by corruption and sectarian divisions. US troops are such a small piece of the puzzle, and one that we in the US are disproportionately preoccupied with.

Anonymous said...

The truth is that most people here are preoccupied with their own economical problems so that the monies spent on the military has to be grating.

RWSt346@aol.com said...

The facilities look like a real 'Potemkin Village'. We need the equal of a Marshall Plan and lead the rest of the free world in order to be successful.

Anonymous said...

The answer is to supply Iraq with US goods and services on a lend-lease, creating jobs here in this country.

Anonymous said...

Lend-lease? How would that work??

Anonymous said...

Iraq has a ton of oil revenue but lacks the infrastructure to spend its own money right now; if it tried, there would just be sectarian squabbling about who/where should get more, and corruption resulting in a lot of individuals getting richer at the expense of the country. So the money just sits there and the US has to foot a lot of bills. Some sort of program where they pay us back once they get their act together might be a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Surely someone in government has thought of something like this, right?

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