Out of stricken Baghdad, into uncertainty
AMMAN, JORDAN — A mortar tumbled out of the sky and onto the Baghdad elementary school. Two of their three children were inside. The girls escaped, panicked but unharmed. Parents Mayada and Ali Hussein al-Obeidy decided enough was enough. They were getting out of Iraq.
That was six months ago. Since fleeing Adamiyah, a once middle-class area turned nightmare-zone even by Baghdad standards, the Obeidy family has taken shelter in Amman, Jordan. They spend days waiting. Like most Iraqis here, they aren't allowed to work and haven't been able to renew their temporary residency permits that expired months ago.
But they consider themselves fortunate: At least the children are safe and in school. The Jordanian government has said this is the last year it will allow Iraqis to send their children to class. With anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million Iraqi refugees pushing Jordan's already-stretched public services to bursting, the Iraqi presence in Jordan has become – in the words last month of the chief government spokesman – "a burden."
On the wall of their apartment are snapshots of the Obeidy's relatives, some living halfway around the world in Texas. There, the Obeidys have a slew of relatives. Mayada's older brother and mother, both citizens of the US, live in El Paso. They have been trying for several years – and recently, with great intensity – to get her and another brother in Amman to join the rest of the family in America.
They haven't been successful and they are not alone. Only 202 Iraqis were permitted to take refuge in the US in 2006. Since the US-led invasion, 466 Iraqis have been allowed entry to the US as refugees, according to figures given by the State Department at a Senate hearing last month. The numbers are particularly stark in comparison with the scope of a burgeoning refugee problem.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are some 2 million Iraqi refugees, most in the region, with the numbers in Jordan rivaled only by those in Syria. Add to that number another 1.8 million Iraqis who are internally displaced. During the first half of 2006, the UN says, Iraqis became the largest asylum-seeking nationality in Europe.
US policymakers are gradually waking up to the reality of the scale of the refugee crisis caused by the war, and the likelihood that the numbers of people seeking a haven will increase. Under growing international pressure to do more, this week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a task force to enable more refugees to come to the US. The Bush administration this week said it would allow about 7,000 Iraqis into the US this year.
But to the Obeidys, change feels far off. Despite having immediate family members in the US keen to sponsor them, they've made no progress on their two-year attempt to come to America. Mayada's brother, Mustafa Ali, reached at his home in El Paso, said that he was told by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that the process could take five to eight years.
"For some reason, no one wants Iraqis in their countries," says Mr. Ali. "We've been suffering long enough. We were hoping we'd get a better life. The INS should process the Iraqi applications more quickly, because their situation is different from any other country. [The US] could make a special effort and arrangement, couldn't they?"
It's getting close to noon on a recent chilly February day at the residency office in Amman, a place through which any foreigner seeking permission to stay in Jordan must pass. Mayada and Ali Hussein are leaving after a long morning in which they, along with hundreds of other Iraqis, sought help in extending their residency permits. Hundreds of thousands (numbers are difficult to pinpoint) are now in Jordan illegally, fearing expulsion.
"The residency office isn't giving us an answer. Not 'yes' and not 'no,' " says Mayada. She looks down at the notepad of the reporter who has come to speak to her and, seeing that her name was misheard as "May," she begins to well up with tears. May was the name of her sister, who was killed when Baghdad was under bombardment by the US military four years ago next month.
Her husband's face locks up, he looks away. So many people have it worse than they do, he says. They are the fortunate ones. They're out. They and the throngs of Iraqi couples walking up and down the hill, looking for solutions.
Jordanians imagine them to be rich. Some are comfortable, but more typical are people like the Obeidys, who were both longtime schoolteachers. She taught primary school, he taught math. He's supposed to be getting an Iraqi pension now. He can't work here, and their money is quickly disappearing.
"If they see you working illegally, they'll throw you out," Ali Hussein says. "We just want to assure our survival. I'm ready to pay to stay here, if they would let us."
"We're spending our savings and we don't know how long it will last," he says. "We don't blame the Jordanians – they don't have so much money. But why doesn't the world help the Jordanians so we can survive?"
When they arrived, Mayada went to the UNHCR and registered as a refugee. However, unless she can prove they are specifically targeted for violence, it's unlikely they'll meet the current standards for asylum here or in most Western countries.
She displays the card, which has yet to be of much use to the family, and shrugs. "Does America not know how terrible things are for us?" She asks the question with a quiet calm, as if genuinely unsure of whether people in the US are aware of the scale of the carnage in Iraq. "Why are we allowed to come only to Jordan and Syria? Our situation is just getting worse. If we go back, we will be killed."
In Baghdad they knew several other middle-class families whose children had been kidnapped. They were sure it would happen to them sooner or later.
Before leaving, they invited a poor family who'd been living in a slum to come and stay in their home. Few would pay rent for a home in Adamiyah. And if the Obeidys left the place empty, it would be sure to be taken over by squatters or militant groups.
So began the dynamics of becoming a reluctant refugee: handing over the keys to your house in the hope that one day, they'll be returned in peace. You make a choice: your belongings or your very being. When you leave this way, you really never know when you are coming home again.
It's afternoon in Jebel Hussein, a busy part of Amman that is so heavily populated with Iraqis that Baghdad-accented Arabic dominates the streets.
Jordanians complain that the influx of Iraqis has driven up real estate prices and the cost of living in general, making it harder to find affordable apartments. At the other end of this resentment, Amman society is buzzing with chatter about the crime rate going up due to the Iraqi refugee population. In the Iraqis' defense, one Jordanian analyst pointed to the fact that Iraqis here are economically trapped: They can spend but they can't earn. Many are getting desperate, and in such circumstances, it wouldn't be surprising for them move into the black market or find other ways to survive.
All of that is to say nothing of the fear that the Sunni-Shiite conflict could spill over into Jordan.
Newspapers reported that Shiites here might want to build a Shiite mosque, drawing ire from several Islamic leaders in Jordan, which has always been an almost exclusively Sunni nation.
The Obeidys, who are Sunnis, dislike even talking about the sectarian divide, which they prefer to leave behind. Before 2003 and today, they say, they've always simply been Muslims.
At home, Mayada and Ali Hussein are in a much smaller apartment than the home they had in Baghdad. They spend a lot of time watching TV and then calling people back home to make sure they are OK.
"You hear the news and we know we have friends and family there," says Mayada. "It's in your head all the time. It's not like you take everyone you know out with you. Things are shaky. We're not sure of anything now. Mortars fell yesterday right on the area we lived in."
Five days earlier, a mortar landed on a school just like the one their daughters went to, killing five girls.
The children are confused, unsure of where they'll be attending school next year. The adjustment was rough at first. Other children made fun of their Iraqi accents, but soon enough, they caught to the new dialect. Jordan is a hospitable country. Still, Jordan is not home.
And where is that? The children can't decide. They sit, quiet, and well-behaved, watching "The Biggest Loser," a US reality show about obese Americans competing to lose weight.
What should the family do now? Each child has a different answer.
"Stay here," says Nur, 9.
"Go back to Iraq," answers Mustafa, her fraternal twin brother.
"To America," declares Shams, 13 and slender, and stares back at the TV.