4.8 million Iraqis have been displaced, internally and externally, since 2003. Seven years later, where are they?
Recently as I translated for an American photographer doing a project on refugee women, I was able to visit some of my clients in their home. I realized how valuable this time was, something I took for granted when I used to visit my Iraqi friends who have now moved to other countries.
I hear many stories in my office, and they do affect me. But there is something about sitting behind my desk that keeps some distance. It’s a protective barrier that I need most days. It prevents the experience and predicament of the client from completely overwhelming and engulfing me.
But then I go to their home. Sitting on the farash, those cushions on the floor, I see the lives they live. These individuals, two middle-aged sisters, came in the mid-nineties seeking medical treatment. Under the sanctions, the situation in Iraq was so bad that many couldn’t find basic items they needed, so medical supplies were scarce. They have lived in the very apartment I sat in for 11 years. Waiting. When I say apartment, I am speaking of one room with a small kitchen and bathroom. The neighborhood is “local,” as they like to say, so the women don’t feel comfortable going out very often.
A man sat in my office yesterday. He was a leading commander in the Iraqi police force and he assisted the coalition forces in tightening security in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. He and his family fled to Jordan after a number of death threats and assassination attempts. He has been here since 2007. Waiting. Frustrated when I told him that there was no news or developments regarding his file, he said, “Life for Iraqis is like a slow death. It’s a slow death.”
I visited the Noor Hussein Foundation a few weeks ago. I was interested in the services they provide for Iraqis and how I might refer my clients to them. I spoke with a doctor who heads many services at the foundation. She told me how they are initiating group therapy for refugees, trying to prepare them mentally for the fact that they may not be resettled abroad, or that perhaps they should try returning to Iraq.
According to surveys, the majority of Iraqis, when asked how they see their future, expect to receive resettlement to countries such as the United States, Germany, Sweden and Australia. When these expectations are not met year after year, the mental and emotional affects are severe and far-reaching.
The question remains: What should we be doing about the displacement of these people? I don’t have the answer. There is no doubt that the situation in Iraq, with the exception of Kurdistan, is far too unstable for people to return to their “normal” lives. If you think differently, ask yourself, Would I let my son, daughter, sister or parent go and live in Baghdad right now? (Without being armed with an automatic weapon).
Many of my clients are Asylum Seekers, registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Because many of them have not experienced direct threats, it is unlikely they will ever be resettled. According to regulations, they do not meet the criteria to be resettled. They do not deserve to be resettled. They can’t find work in Iraq; they don’t feel safe there. Unfortunately, these aren’t great enough reasons for them to move and live elsewhere, on another government’s dime or not. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Until Iraqis can safely return to Iraq, a wider system must be implemented for the displaced, one that addresses their needs beyond resettlement. There are too many holes in the system. There are too many refugees in limbo, barely surviving a slow death.