Service Programs

Trepidation, Isolation, and Desperation: Life for Iraqi 'Visitors' in Amman

A report by a volunteer who helped with English classes in June 2009:

After living in Jordan for five months, I had yet to interact with many Iraqis outside of the occasional taxi driver or waiter. Still, the presence of the approximately 700,000 Iraqi “guests” did not go unnoticed. In conversing with the different Jordanian families that I lived with, it became clear that Iraqis are looked upon extremely unfavorably. Formerly wealthy Iraqis (Iraqis who had the financial means to flee to Jordan in the beginning of the war but have exhausted most of their funds due to lack of work) are hated for denting Jordan’s economy. Iraqi children are known for being disruptive in Amman’s schools, and Iraqis as a whole are not trusted based on their potential political and religious ties.

Every time I inquired about Iraqis among my Jordanian hosts, I was told that they are “troublemakers” and are not in need of my sympathy. Most Jordanians carried similar pictures of Iraqi guests in their minds: often wealthy and suspicious people that leach onto Jordan’s already depleted economy and limited resources. As a result of this severe dislike, coupled with their status as visitors and their dire economic predicaments, Iraqis in Jordan are often exploited and forced to live their lives in the shadows.

I first cracked an Iraqi community in East Amman this past June when my colleague, Michael Boyce, introduced me to Fosayo Irikoya. Fosayo is an inspiring woman who works with the Women’s Federation for World Peace in Amman. The federation had been organizing English classes, soccer teams, child care, and other resources for Iraqis in need, many of which were spearheaded by Fosayo. Through Fosayo and Michael I was able to meet, teach English to, and learn more about Iraqis firsthand.

It became apparent immediately that the situation of Iraqis in Amman is desperate. Their morale is low and their spirits are sinking as they continue to be manipulated due to their visitor status. They are forced to work illegally since they are not granted work permits. Employers and guarantors exploit Iraqis who have no choice but to accept the manipulation. They cannot go to the police, because Iraqis who are caught working illegally face detention and deportation. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides cash assistance to some Iraqis, it barely covers the cost of rent and food. Most of the Iraqis that I interacted with had extremely unhealthy living conditions located in poorer neighborhoods in East Amman. While many of the Iraqis in my English class came from middle- and upper-class backgrounds at the beginning of the war, their resources are now depleted. Iraqi families who had been living in palaces in Baghdad are sharing one-room windowless basements with rats and snakes. Many cannot pay for medical care for their children or themselves. They shared stories of ill parents and stranded children in Syria whom they are unable to visit (despite the close proximity), and sex trafficking is a growing threat among their women and girls. All of this is in addition to the psychological trauma of the war in Iraq itself. My Iraqi friends have been stripped of all honor and dignity, and their situations are only growing worse.

The programs organized by the Women’s Federation for World Peace helped to foster a sense of community among the Iraqis in Amman, an incredible success based on the complex nature of the Iraqi Diaspora. The federation had been organizing soccer leagues, English classes, and child-care programs. They were helping Iraqis find jobs, apply for visas, and fill out paperwork. They also held social events. Unfortunately, the organization has faced a severe shortage in funds since I left Jordan. They were forced to give up the space they had been using for nearly all of their programs. The English classes have been cancelled since they do not have enough volunteers, and the organization has had to lay off the Iraqis it had been employing. This not only hurts the Iraqis that need work, but it has created gaping holes in what was already a fragile community.

The Iraqis in Jordan need jobs, they need a place to congregate, and a community to provide support. There needs to be a resource center established that employs Iraqis to help Iraqis. Iraqis need access to basic medical care, satellite television, and Internet. The Women’s Federation for World Peace initiated this endeavor, but their resources have been drained. The only refuge Iraqis had has now been taken away. The work done by Fosayo and the Women’s Federation for World Peace has shown that creating a network of support for Iraqis in Amman is possible, needed, and wanted, and its potential is infinite. All that is needed now is help from the outside world.

by Cheryl Lynne Saferstein
Student of International Studies and Islamic Studies, American University

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