Taking Risks for Peace

By Cathy Breen

Cathy first met Abeera in Baghdad a number of years ago. This photo was taken in Amman, Jordan in June, 2006 when Abeera was fourteen years old. She and her family had joined the refugee population there. As a child in Baghdad she wanted to be a ballerina; as a young woman in Amman she wants to be a soldier.

Editor's note: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are some 1.9 million Iraqis displaced internally, and up to 2 million in neighboring countries. There are between 750,000 to 1 million Iraqis in Jordan. In 2006 Iraqis had become the leading nationality seeking asylum in Europe.

March 27, 2007
Amman, Jordan

As a US citizen currently living in Amman, I have wanted to write an article to The Jordan Times, an article to express my gratitude to King Abdullah for his extraordinary address at a joint meeting of the US Congress in Washington earlier this month.

"Today, I must speak" he said. "I cannot be silent…I must speak about a cause that is urgent for your people and for mine. I must speak about peace in the Middle East. I must speak about peace replacing the division, war and conflict that have brought such disaster for the region and for the world." He continued…"Thousands of people have paid the highest price, the loss of their life. Thousands more continue to pay this terrible price, for their loved ones who will never return. Are we going to let these thousands of lives be taken in vain? Has it become acceptable to lose that most basic of human rights? The right to live?….How can there be anything more urgent than the restoration of a world where all people, not only some people, all people have the opportunity to live peacefully? This is not only a moral imperative, it is essential to the future of our world, because long-term, violent crisis is the enemy of all global prosperity and progress…It begins with courage and vision. We, all of us, must take risks for peace."

Our dear Iraqi woman friend and her three children are desperately trying to find a way to return to Amman from Baghdad. Time is precious as the children have already missed over a month of school here. They want to be reunited with their father in Amman. About 1½ weeks ago they risked the dangerous road from Baghdad by car only to be turned away at the Jordanian border. A small delegation of women coming from the US will arrive in Amman in about three weeks. This Iraqi friend is to be an integral part of this delegation and her services are needed. We are trying to get needed letters and documents to the Ministry of Interior on her behalf in order to get permission for the family to cross over into Jordan.

Yesterday I heard the tragic account of a father and three of his children who live down the street from me. His wife and their youngest child, a 2-year-old, traveled to Baghdad about a month ago to see his wife's father who had suffered a heart attack. About 1½ weeks ago they too were turned back at the Jordanian border. They returned by land to Baghdad, and tried to get into Jordan by plane about four days ago. Their attempts proved unsuccessful; they were turned back at the airport. Beside the risk to themselves that the trips involved, the cost of the two trips totaled almost $2,000.

As I met this family for the first time and listened to the grieving father, I was filled with dismay. They had to flee Baghdad due to multiple death threats, death threats which followed them as they kept changing their residence in Baghdad seeking safety. They wanted their children to attend school, and they dreaded leaving home, work and country. They were followed and their car shot upon. When their oldest son, 15 years of age, was wounded in the leg by a suicide bomb, they decided to escape to Amman about seven months ago. And now they are separated by a border. "What shall we do?" the desperate father asked me. "Shall we go back to Baghdad?" Having fled Iraq seeking safety, what options remain for this family? They have overstayed their Jordanian visa and are now here illegally and subject to deportation.

According to an article in yesterday's paper, a government spokesperson told The Jordan Times, "We have not imposed any limits in any way for the number of Iraqis who are allowed to enter Jordan as it has been written in some newspapers." But first-hand accounts like the above mentioned would seem to contradict this. Iraqis we know who have recently tried to cross have all been denied.

The same article quotes the spokesperson as saying that the only official decision made this far is "as of June 1 this year only Iraqis holding 'G' series passports will be allowed to enter the country. The old 'S' series passports will not be accepted for reasons of security."*

I am aware that I, like Iraqis, am a guest here in Jordan. My visa is for three months, and then I will return to the states. Unlike Iraqis however, I have freedom of movement and can return without risk to my country when my visa expires. And my passport is valid. My country is not war torn and afire, at least not on the surface. My loved ones are safe and awaiting my return.

Too often in the last weeks have I witnessed dear Iraqi friends and families, agonizing over whether they should return to Baghdad, a city fraught with violence and carnage. They feel constrained and without options. How else can they join their loved ones? How else can they get a "G" passport, without which they are unable to move elsewhere in the world? I recall the words of Iraqis that I have heard repeatedly over the years "If we live, we shall live together. If we die, we shall die together." For them, being together is a matter of life and death.

Let us take heed to the words of King Abdullah: "We, all of us, must take risks for peace." The seemingly endless problems besetting our Iraqi friends must somehow become our problems. We must find ways to extend hospitality to them, insist that Iraqis having family and friends in the US be allowed to join them. We must find scholarships for Iraqi students, help them to secure student visas. We must find a way out of the nightmare that the new "G" passport has created. Their backs are already bent to the ground, they cannot bear any more burdens. Their wounds are still fresh and open. Instead of rubbing salt into these wounds, we must find ways to apply a soothing balm and restore healing and hope.

* One of the casualties of the war in Iraq is the validity of older Iraqi passports. Effective January 8, 2007, the older passports were invalidated for travel to the US and other countries followed suit. The only Iraqi passports valid for travel to the US and many other countries (including Jordan) are newer passports beginning with the letters G. In order to obtain a G passport, one must return to Baghdad. Known locally as the "G nightmare," the situation is dire: Iraqis who have been waiting for up to a year to get into the US are told in one breath that even though their visas have been approved, the Iraqi embassy in Jordan isn't issuing the new passport and it can only be obtained in Baghdad.

To read Cathy Breen's reports from Amman, Jordan, visit the Voices for Creative Nonviolence website at www.vcnv.org

Cathy is a member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) . She has lived in Iraq and has been to Jordan several times. She started her most recent stay in Jordan in January, 2007 and advocates for Iraqi refugees there.