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The Plight of Iraq's Refugees

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Length: 5:10


Muna, 29, lost her entire family in Iraq and now lives in Jordan.

Editor's Note: When General Petraeus answered to Congress this week about the military surge efforts in Iraq, several Senators brought up the region's growing refugee crisis caused by sectarian chaos that has driven hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from their homes. The United Nations reports that 50,000 Iraqis a month have been displaced since the war began. Neighboring Jordan has taken in an estimated 750,000, with precious few resources to cope. In this dispatch from Jordan (with video), Rudabeh Shahbazi talks to Iraqi families whose lives have been torn apart by the violence and who face an uncertain future.

"I lost my family. I lost my daughter. I lost my husband. I lost my house, my kingdom, my wellbeing, my health and my job," said Muna, a 29-year-old Iraqi woman living alone in Amman, the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. "What is left in my life? Why am I still alive?"

Muna, who asked me not to include her full name, is one of up to a million Iraqis who have fled to Jordan since the Iraq war began. The country has traditionally been a refugee sanctuary -- an island of stability in the war-ravaged Middle East. But the fighting in neighboring Iraq has created the largest refugee crisis in Jordan since the Palestinian exodus of 1948. And this massive influx of people is straining the small country's scarce resources to its breaking point.

"I lost my family. I lost my daughter. I lost my husband. I lost my house, my kingdom, my wellbeing, my health and my job. What is left in my life?"

I came to Jordan last spring to find out what life was like for Iraqis stranded in what humanitarian agencies are calling a state of emergency.

We started shooting Muna's interview in the storage closet she lives in with dust and slivers of paint falling from the ceiling. Our three-person crew could barely fit inside the space, and when a neighbor intentionally cut off the extension cord we were using to light the room, we were left in darkness. We asked Muna's Iraqi neighbors if we could use their living room to continue our conversation and hear her story. Oddly enough, this chance encounter might create some sympathy and support for Muna in Amman.

Muna's life as an elementary school teacher living in Wasit, Iraq, with her 5-year-old daughter and husband had been "simple, but happy." But an American bomb landed on her house two years ago, killing seven of her family members, along with her daughter, the joy of her life.

The only survivor, Muna awoke from a coma four months later, alone, crippled and with shrapnel embedded in her skull. She can barely walk now and cannot use her left hand. Her husband, who was not home when the bomb struck, and the only person she had left in her life, abandoned her for another woman, leaving Muna homeless on the streets of a war zone. "I kissed his hand and begged him," she said. "But after the incident, what would my husband do with me in this condition?"

street scene

According to the United Nations, 4 million Iraqis (50,000 people a month) have fled their homes since the war began.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis before her, Muna took the dangerous bus trip across the bandit-ridden Anbar province of Iraq into Jordan, thinking Amman would be her gateway to the West. "I didn't have anyone left and I couldn't find my medicine in Iraq, so I came to Jordan," she said. "But I didn't find what I thought I would find here."

According to the United Nations, 4 million Iraqis (50,000 people a month) have fled their homes since the war began, with 2 million going to neighboring countries and 2 million displaced within Iraq. Half of them are children. Current estimates of the number of Iraqi refugees in Jordan vary widely, but the U.N. places it at 750,000. Salah Mehdi Samarai, the president of the nonprofit Royal Organization for Iraqi Immigrants in Amman, disagrees. Samarai, along with other human rights agencies, says the number of Iraqis in Jordan is more than a million, and he says they are living desperately among the Jordanian population.

"I call it blindness. Can't they see? Can't they hear?" he said. "There are a million [Iraqis] in Jordan. Who helps them?"

A former Baathist who left Iraq in 2005, Samarai is now in charge of distributing blankets, food, school supplies and emergency medical needs to fellow Iraqis in Amman. But he says his work is not nearly enough.

"What is happening now gives an infant gray hair," Samarai said. "I hear that organizations are working, but I haven't seen anything yet. I haven't seen any international organization come to Jordan and distribute food or blankets or emergency pensions for the Iraqi diaspora."

Over the course of a day with Samarai, I watch him juggle phone calls from Iraqis who have been arrested and deported and visits from children seeking medical aid after bombings. There are also the visiting wives, desperate to find their kidnapped husbands. As Samarai and I spoke, his frustration grew more and more palpable.

Samarai, like many others, blames the United States for the chaos in his country and the misery of his people. "What did their occupation result in? Nothing. Devastation, destruction, killing, displacement," he said. "Is this the freedom and democracy they came to us with from their countries? Does this destruction exist in their countries? Do they accept the killing of their women, children and elderly?"


Mohammad lives in Jordan illegally with his wife and six children. They lived a comfortable life in Iraq before the war started.

It is the occupation, Iraqis tell me, that introduced sectarian violence and sparked a civil war in the power vacuum left by Saddam. "Saddam Hussein's tyranny achieved security for Iraqis," said Mohammad, another Iraqi refugee I met in a slum in downtown Amman. "No car bombs, no explosions. He handled the situation. You knew your way." Though it was a peace made possible only by a dictatorial regime that committed gruesome abuses of human rights, Mohammad and many others believe it was preferable to today's Iraq.

"Here in Amman, I have nothing, but I have security," Mohammad said with a weary smile. "There, in Iraq, I have nothing, not even security. Zero, nothing."

Mohammad, who asked me not to use his last name, lives here illegally with his wife and six children. He told me he lived a comfortable life in Iraq before the invasion, but today his piercing green eyes gaze out from a face creased with worry. In Iraq his family had been part of the military and Saddam's Fedayeen, a paramilitary unit meaning "Saddam's Men of Sacrifice."

Mohammad has been in Jordan illegally since he arrived on a bus in 2002 to earn money working under-the-table construction jobs. Three years later -- when sectarian strife began to rip Iraq apart with daily kidnappings, bombings and killings -- he sent for his wife and children. The eight of them now live in a decrepit one-room house. Seeing their squalid living conditions and barren kitchen, I wonder how his girls, smiling the whole time, are able to produce juice and biscuits for all their visitors.

"Here in Amman, I have nothing, but I have security," Mohammad said with a weary smile. "There, in Iraq, I have nothing, not even security. Zero, nothing."

Like Mohammad, the majority of Iraqi refugees here are Shiites who fled an increasingly sectarian Iraq only to find the same prejudices here in Sunni Jordan. Some have tales of being turned away at mosques and charities. Children speak about the bullying they endure.

"Sometimes they ask me, 'Are you a Shiite or a Sunni?'" one 12-year-old Iraqi girl told me after proudly showing me her straight-A report card. She and one of her sisters recently attained refugee status after their father was deported on the job in Amman and then kidnapped on the way back to Baghdad. Although the girl says she loves school, she is sometimes frozen by her classmates' comments. "They say, 'You killed Saddam,'" she said timidly.

But for their part, after three simultaneous suicide bombings by Iraqis on Amman hotels in 2005 killed 56 people and injured 100, some Jordanians are increasingly suspicious that Iraqi immigrants have brought war and terror with them.

To address these and other concerns about the refugees, the Jordanian government has classified the Iraqis flooding into the country into five categories. The "investors" have permanent residency in Jordan, based on their large bank accounts and property ownership. The "professionals" are also granted residency based on their work permits as professors, doctors, technicians and other socially needed professions. Then there are those seeking refugee status and those already granted refugee status by the United Nations.

Amman Mosque.

One of the poorest countries in the world in terms of natural resources, Jordan says it is spending a billion dollars a year on Iraqi refugees.

Finally, there are the "visitors," who illegally overstay their visas. It is this group that comprises the vast majority of those fleeing the war. Those who were lucky enough to be granted refugee status -- typically because they face certain death if they return to Iraq -- receive some benefits. But most, like Muna and Mohammad, are illegal -- unwanted in Jordan, yet afraid to return home. "I feel like I am useless here, like I am just a burden on society," said Muna.

Many Jordanians told me they have done what they can for their Iraqi brothers, but that there are valid reasons for their conflicted attitudes about hosting the refugee population. In their small country a million new immigrants means a 25 percent population increase.

"Jordan has always been a haven for people fleeing horrific situations in their home countries," said Nasser Judeh, Jordan's official government spokesman. "We welcome them with open arms. We share with them what little we have, but that's not to say that it's not taken a toll on the economy, on the natural resources, on the infrastructure."

One of the poorest countries in the world in terms of natural resources, Jordan says it is spending a billion dollars a year on Iraqi refugees. And although wealthy Iraqi investors have boosted Jordan's economy, they have also sent the cost of living soaring. Property prices doubled last year alone. The influx has also resulted in overcrowded schools, hospitals, roads and neighborhoods.

Despite losing her family to an American attack, Muna is one of the many refugees I met who begged me to take them back to the United States.

Even more problematic, is that the jobs taken by Iraqis, legal or illegal, has increased an already high unemployment rate among Jordanians and the Palestinian refugees who make up 33 percent of Jordan's population. "Palestinians don't get jobs now," one young Palestinian told me outside a mosque. "Jordan is full of Iraqis. You could say the Iraqis have invaded the country, and there are no more jobs."

But now at the border, more Iraqis are being turned away.

"The whole process of Iraqis entering is more regulated, better regulated, better organized," said Judeh. "You can't just have an open-door policy. That doesn't happen anywhere in the world."

Certainly not in America. Although the United States has promised to take in 7,000 Iraqis this year, so far fewer than 200 have arrived in the country since the war began, according to the State Department. Muna, despite losing her family to an American attack, is one of the many refugees I met who begged me to take them back to the United States. She said she does not blame the American people, and though the American embassy has turned her away several times, her final hope is to get to the States. "I have only one wish before I die, I want to go abroad," she said. "I hope God will grant it, so I can breathe."

Mohammad shares her dream of relocating to the West. "There are human rights. They respect human beings. A human being has dignity in the Western countries," he said, adding that he has no hope for his own life anymore. "The only hope now is to take my children abroad so they can live in safety, like normal children."

Rudabeh Shahbazi is a recent graduate student of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked in print, online and television journalism.

Related Links

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FRONTLINE: Beyond Baghdad
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Charles Gillis - Spokane, WA
Sorrow too deep for tears.

Slims Jayyosi - Athens, Athens
Here's The Royal Organization for Iraqi Immigrants In Jordan,
You Can Help This Organization ,

Your everything and more we ALL knew you would be...keep informing the world and help may come. You CAN make the difference!

mahnaz nejat - gilbert, az
i loved your movie and it was very interesting and heartbreaking.This shows that you worked so hard and there is a bright future ahead of you!

Excellent article - informative yet sensitive. Bravo.

- San Diego, California
It's horrible that these people are being swept under the rug without a second thought from the mainstream media. Good reporting. This gives added incredulity to George W. Bush's comment that the Iraqis should be grateful for what the US has done.

Tim Christensen - Boulder, CO
Nice, that was a very interesting and informative article.

Denver, CO
This is first rate reporting. In a straight forward voice, Ms Shahbazi delivers the hard facts about the extremely difficult situation in Jordan. The personal stories of the Iraqi refugees she interveiwed are heart breaking; I am impressed by the depth and breadth of this article.