Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Undesired Road to Becoming a Refugee

What drove me, and thousands of other Iraqis to leave our country, our homes and our lives was the growing fear of being kidnapped or killed by various armed groups. Suicide bombings and militia rampages had become routine, and the reliance by U.S. forces on air power too often resulted in a stray rocket killing innocent civilians. For you, my dear reader, and the international community at large, this “hectic and unstable security situation” is well known.

Overlooked in every newspaper headline and television newscast is the day-to-day reality for ordinary Iraqi families. How does one survive in an environment of daily conflict? How does one keep their children safe? What happens when the “security situation” in Iraq’s most cosmopolitan city, Baghdad, becomes too hectic and unstable? Imagine having to make the decision to leave everything behind, everything, without turning back and flying to nearest available country?

My family and I left Iraq with a certain amount of regret but with a lot of hope. Jordan was our destination because we had a lot of relatives and acquaintance who had left before us.

To my surprise, Jordan wasn’t as good as I hoped or expected it would. Problems began at the entry borders with questions of Why? With whom? For how long? We were asked as if we were coming for a vacation under normal circumstances. It was a shock to me as an Iraqi going to a close Arab country. Under the glare of the Jordanian authorities, I remember thinking ‘if anyone in the world should be aware and care about what’s happening in Iraq, it should be our Jordanian brothers and sisters.’ But to my surprise, they showed no compassion for our circumstances, only hypocrisy.

The Jordanian authorities demanded legal reasons for our entrance and stay in Jordan. Fleeing mortal dangers apparently was not a good enough reason. In the end, all we could get them to approve was one week. After that we would have to submit to the law of daily charged payments. The daily charge of illegal stay in Jordan is 1.5 Jordanian dinars which is the equivalent of more than $2 dollars. It is charged for all departing foreign visitors who have overstayed their visas, if not paid, a stamp on the passport will prevent the concerned visitor from entering Jordan in the future.

This wasn’t all, in order to get legitimate status as refugees, a status that is still hard for me to accept, we had to acquire documentation by the UNHCR. Without protected legal status as refugees, my family and I were at risk of deportation and further displacement.

We had to wait in a long line for nearly 4 hours, some people waited longer, to schedule a date for an interview with a UNHCR officer. The purpose of the interview is to determine whether or not we are truly refugees. The earliest available date was a month later.

On the day of the interview, there were 50 or more people, women and children standing in a line outside the UNHCR office in Amman, Jordan. Since it was still January, it was very windy and cold. Two hours later, they finally opened their doors and allowed us to enter the building. For another 5 hours, we waited in the crowded entranceway without any heat of any kind. The only pieces of furniture were the chairs that we sat on during our long hours of waiting.

When our turn came, as all the other families, a UNHCR staffer called our number and directed us to the room where our interview was to take place. A Jordanian lady was seated behind a computer. She asked us a few questions about how, when and why we left our home in Iraq. Then she instructed us to return to the waiting area until they call our number again.

Another 2-3 hours of waiting. Finally our turn was up again. They took individual photos of me and each member of my family. One hour later, we had the documents that we prayed would protect us.

All this trouble for a piece of paper that changes nothing about our status or our circumstances, or the status and circumstances of hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis who are obligated to undergo the same exhausting process.

In my next entry, I’ll write about what’s its like for Iraqi families living in Jordan.

The writer is an Iraqi refugee living in Jordan.

Photo caption: Thousands of Iraqi refugees gather outside the offices of a UN refugee agency in Damascus, Syria's capital, in February to register their names for obtaining refugee status.
(Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press)

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