TOPICS > Politics

Refugees from Fear in Jordan

February 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JOHN BURNS: Jordan is an interesting place to be right now as war between the United States and Iraq approaches. Here in Amman, we’re about 600 miles southwest of Baghdad and because of the political geography, Iraqis seeking to flee Saddam Hussein, flee southwest to Jordan, and many of them end up in Amman, the capital of Jordan, where we are now. The present estimate is that there are about 400,000 Iraqi migrants living in Amman — many of them, illegal migrants — many of them subject to being rounded up by the Jordanian police and returned back to Iraq.

They tend to congregate in the old city of Amman, in tenement buildings. They go out in search of casual labor, selling cigarettes, selling Iraqi souvenirs. These people are fleeing for a number of reasons, almost all of them quite expectable. They’re fleeing the terror of Saddam Hussein, and, of course, they are fleeing the draft.

HADI ABDULLLAH JASEM AL-ASADI (Translated): My name is Hadi Abdullah Jasem al-Asadi, and I’m from Basra, southern Iraq, and I was born in 1958. My work is in a restaurant cooking kebabs. I live a very simple life. The most important thing is that I have a better life here because life is worse back in Iraq. We don’t have food, we don’t have freedom and dignity. I am comparing myself with animals. Even animals in European countries have more rights than we do in Iraq.

JOHN BURNS: Life under Saddam is a life live constantly in terror, in fear — in consequence, which, for correspondents like myself, finding true voices in Iraq itself is not easy. It’s not impossible. The appeal of Amman, which is a holding place for many of us on our trips into and out of Iraq, is that there are voices available absent the terror. — not completely absent the terror, as anyone who takes a camera amongst them discovers, because even here there are Iraqi secret police operating. But they have a tremendous yearning to tell their truth, and the truth is a terrible truth.

SALAM ABDULLAH ELJALEL (Translated): My name is Salam Abdullah Eljalel. Unfortunately, I hold an Iraqi nationality. I came three months ago. I work in a coffee shop. Life in Jordan is much easier than the life in Baghdad. I was looking for better options, but I’m satisfied with my life here. The situation in Baghdad is very sad. I lost my two newborn babies, a boy and a girl. They told me they died, but they killed them. As a Muslim, I believe in death, but they killed them in the hospital. They were very healthy. I saw them. But they want to kill them to show the world what the sanctions are doing to our kids. When I came the next day, they told me that my babies were dead.

JOHN BURNS: You have to remember that these are people who have emerged from a country where the media is rigidly controlled. So everything they know about the United States, or almost everything they know, has been filtered to them through a state controlled media. This is not to say that it’s all wrong, but it’s a long, long way from being true, too. In a sense, their sense of America has been as distorted as the sense of Iraq itself in the Iraqi media. There is a widespread distrust of the United States over the issue of the Palestinian struggle. This, of course, you would find replicated throughout the Arab world. There is a widespread suspicion that the United States, in preparing for war against Saddam, is in pursuit of Iraq’s oil fields. This is a point that has been pressed on the Iraqi people throughout this crisis.

The interesting and, to me, critical point– at least in my encounters with Iraqi migrants here– was when I said, “all right, the America you’re talking about is not the real America. This is Saddam’s America as filtered through the press. But let’s assume that this is the real America. Is this the country that you would wish to liberate you?”

SALAM ABDULLAH ELJALEL (Translated): Don’t imagine any individual Iraqi would hate to see Americans. Every Iraqi wants to see Americans, but they keep their feelings inside. They cannot talk. I was there three months ago, when I went to bring my family to Jordan. Every single Iraqi was asking, “Where are the Americans? Where are the Americans?” Not only Americans, but any power just to get rid of him Saddam. Don’t think we’re not going to welcome Americans in our country.