Wednesday, July 23, 2008

July 18 Al Muhata'ah Refugee Camp

A view of a window in Al Muhat'ah refugee camp, just a 10 minute taxi ride from the center of Amman, Jordan.

Assan and his wife joking as they show their UNHCR registration papers.

I arrived in Amman the 14th of July and after much acclimatization and fact-finding I decided it was time to meet the Iraqi refugees. Mohammed, a police and security officer who I met at the Taj hotel, came as my translator. We went to the Al Muhata'ah Refugee Camp, a 10-minute taxi ride from the center of the old city of Amman. Originally a Palestinian refugee camp it now houses several hundred Iraqi refugees. The camp is similar to those in the West Bank, cramped living quarters, narrow winding streets, over populated, poor and unkempt, yet because its been home to refugees for more than 40 years there is a cross section of dilapidated and prosperous housing. The feeling I got from the Palestinians I met was that most everyone gets along and the Iraqis have been welcomed into the camp.

We went to the home of Assan Hamudi, a 23 years old Shia Iraqi refugee from Al Karmia, ( the district of Bagdad where Saddam Hussein was executed.) and his 18 year old Sunni wife Rusel Adan. They met in Amman and have been married for one year. Assan looks at his wife with a smile and tell me, “see Sunni and Shia can get along.”

Assan has been a refugee in Jordan for 4 years and Rusel for 9. Assan nonchalantly tells me of how he joined the Mehdi army when he was 19 but left after only 2 months because he was scared and appalled at the killing and destruction. He was scared of the Al Madi army, Al Qaeda, the Sunnis the Shias the Americans of everyone. He saw over 400 dead in the aftermath of the bombing of the Ashara Mosque. Then a couple months later his uncle who worked for the Americans was kidnapped by unknown terrorists and cut into pieces. It was the fear of insecurity and horror of the situation in Iraq that made Assan leave Baghdad for Amman.

Assan and Rusel are both registered with the UNHCR as refugees but have no residency or working visa. King Abdullah recognizes the plight of the refugees and at first allowed Iraqis to cross the border as guests. But due to the shear amount coming (up to 750,000 last year) the border is now closed. In January of 2008 King Abdullah granted a limited immunity for Iraqis who had overstayed their “guest” visa. He made into law that if they wanted to stay they had to register with the UNHCR and get a guest visa. If they could not pay, they would be given a period of a month to do so. Many have tried this but were not accepted and left for Syrai. In Jordan if any Iraqi is caught working they will be arrested and immediately deported to Iraq. Rusel told me about her mother who worked illegally in a sewing factory to support her family. Her mother was caught one year ago and deported to Iraq. Her father is still in Jordan.

“I am just happy to be alive, its better to stay here and be safe, no mujahdeen. Fear of kidnapping is very real, and it’s not just the terrorists it’s criminals. It’s Shia, it’s Sunni it’s everyone and everywhere, you never know when you leave your home if you will come back. Okay I have little hope and wait daily to immigrate anywhere but at least I am safe and my wife is safe and we can go and meet friends and talk,’ says Assan with his beautiful young wife smiling at his side.
As I was leaving the Hamudi home, Diad, a friend of Assans came for a visit. Diad told me a bit of his story. Diad escaped Iraqi 1 year ago with his younger brother. His mother was killed when heavily armed masked criminals entered a bus, stole the passengers’ money then shot everyone. Some of the passengers survived but his mother did not. Roughly 1 year later his father left their apartment one morning and never returned. Diad visibly shaken told me he doesn’t know if his father is alive or dead, his body was never found, and he was never heard from again.

Diad is also registered with the UNHCR and like all other Iraqis waits for the phone call either asking him to come for his interview or telling him he has been given asylum. Unfortunately, Diad is risking deportation and separation from his younger brother by working odd jobs. Diad tells me he has to, he has no option, he only gets a few Jordanian Dinar from the UNHCR, its not enough to pay his rent or food for his brother or himself. His biggest fear now is that he will be separated from his younger brother either by deportation or if both of them are not sponsored together by immigration. “I can’t go without my brother,” he says, “he is the only family I have left.”

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