Ruth Hoffman, a dear friend, wrote this essay following her recent trip to Jordan and Syria to work with the enormous flood of Iraqi refugees fleeing the chaos caused by our invasion of their country. No further commentary needed, other than to thank Ruth for her selfless dedication to helping people whose lives have been destroyed.
Stony-Fixed: Iraqi Refugees in the Middle East
Background: The United Nations estimates there are 4.2
million Iraqis displaced by the war and occupation in Iraq.
According to UNHCR, at least 60,000 Iraqis are losing their
homes and becoming refugees each month.
It was hard for me to put the suffering of the Iraqi refugees in
context during my recent travel to Jordan and Syria. My reference
point is the abject, visual poverty in Asia that I have experienced.
Yet, it isn’t all about extreme, visual poverty.
Poverty has more than one definition – one is a deficiency or lack
of something. By this definition, all Iraqi refugees live in poverty.
The poverty for all the refugees is summarized in a phrase I have
never heard before – “stony-fixed”. It means stuck – in limbo. They
live in limbo wondering about the next meal, will they get a Visa
to relocate, or will they ever hear from their family in Iraq again…
Imagine leaving your belongings and home behind you. That can
be over-come. Now imagine having your family scattered about
the world without knowing if you will ever see or hold them again.
Imagine seeing your children mature to teen-agers knowing the
perils they face with no country to call them citizen or school to
call them graduate. Will they be the lost generation breeding the
violence of their lack of hope?
We listened to many stories. The themes evolved quickly.
Kidnapping, bribes, threats, rape, dead bodies in the streets,
tensions between ethnic and religious groups not known before the
occupation. No security, false hopes, no infrastructure – fear of
going outside your home. And fear that a bullet would penetrate
the walls that were built to protect you.
Yet theses refugees, in many ways, are the lucky ones who were
able to get out. Inside Iraq, a growing number of internally
displaced people live in constant fear. What is the multi-billion
dollar Iraqi government surplus being used for this year?
A great number of families left Iraq between 2005 and 2007. Hope
for a stable life was waning. Surrounding countries had opened
their borders – although now many are closed. The Iraqis are only
For many, their money is running out. The influx of refugees has
driven rents sky high. Prices are rising for food, as elsewhere in the
world. Medical care is expensive, if you can get it. This is not a
permanent home, they do not legally have the right to work – they
remain “stoney-fixed” about their future.
It is likely that most refugees will never relocate. We visited an old
man and his wife who fled Iraq 15 years ago during the Iran-Iraq
War. They have no children. A small, dingy room near the center
of old Amman serves as their living and bedroom.
The old man’s relative deserted the army 15 years ago to flee to
Australia. Saddam Hussein punished the families of those who
deserted. The old man was tortured in prison for three years. It
took him several months to find his wife. They fled to Jordan.
“Until now”, a phrase used often in the Middle East, they have not
heard from the UNHCR that they can relocate. Until now is the
language of limbo. Until now, the old couple has not had the
appointment to talk about their Visa. Until now, they wait for the
$50 wire transfer from a relative abroad. Until now, they wait.
Another family we visited had young children. She was a dentist in
Iraq, he an entrepreneur who had a grocery store in his mixed
community. Until now, they sit with their children and watch
television. They are guests, not allowed to legally work in Jordan.
The dentist has a toothache, but no way to treat it. Dentists need
tools, chairs and all of those things we hate to see when we go to
get a new crown or our teeth cleaned. Until now, until now.
Until now, I rarely heard of the Iraqi refugees. It seems to me that
our media would like us to think that things are going well in Iraq
and that expatriates are returning – or that people had no reason to
Now I know that millions of refugees lives have been impacted
forever by the war and occupation. Now I know that we need to
care for these refugees. While we should do what we can for the
resettlement elsewhere including the U.S., in the long run the issue
is more likely how to make life easier for them where they are.
If until now, you didn’t know – that’s okay. But now that you
know, we need to do something – not only for the refugees but also
for the safety of our nation. People without hope, the stony-fixed,
need us to open our borders and our pocketbooks so that they can
have a peaceful future. They need us to see beyond the stereotypes
in our media that made me fearful to travel to the Middle East.
Until now, I did not know that many of their roads are better than
ours, that I could walk down the streets at night in Syria with no
fear, and that they like us as individuals. Let’s get beyond the
things we did not know, to help them and like them as individuals