Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My First Home Visit - A Voice for Many

When I mentioned earlier that CRP takes on a range of different issues in order to help Iraqi refugees, home visits to Iraqi families was one of the first I had the privilege of participating in. In order to understand this experience as a whole, I must first share what a home visit actually is, what it requires, and why it is such a crucial part of Sasha's work and of CRP. Initially, I should introduce the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees or UNHCR, an organization which will be mentioned regularly throughout my stories regarding Iraqi refugees and CRP. What one really needs to know about UNHCR in relation to Iraqi refugees is as follows.UNHCR first receives millions of dollars from international donor countries in order to provide assistance to refugees. UNHCR then has what are called Implementing Partners or IPs, who impliment and futher propose projects directed towards these refugee communities using the money collected by the international community. Once an Iraqi family registers with UNHCR, that family is then considered to be in protection. This refers to a phase in which that family cannot be asked to leave Jordan in the case of an expired Visa, but only in the event that someone in the family commits a crime or another equivalent issue arises. While the rules and policies are not exactly clear to me just yet as I have just arrived and am still learning, the stage following protection is called resettlement. While both stages can last for an unlimited amount of time, the ultimate objective when in resettlement is to be resettled to one of several countries that have previously agreed to accept a specific number of refugees from specific countries, something that can unfortunately change at any given point in time. Major countries that have accepted Iraqi refugees in the past include the US, the UK, Canada France, Germany, and Australia.

Now that I have established a foundation for what UNHCR actually does, I can explain exactly how CRP's work fits into this picture, and share my first experience vising Iraqi families at their homes in Jordan. When Sasha does a home visit to that of an Iraqi family, she is ultimately doing an initial assessment of several different aspects of that family's life. This assessment encompasses everything from their life in Iraq all the way to their living situation now, as well as their most crucial needs in the immediate future . As I may have forgot to mention earlier, because these refugee families have been scattered all over Amman, it is often impossible for a family to come here to CRP in order to meet with Sasha. Secondly, doing a home visit truly allows Sasha and CRP to see how this family lives on a daily basis, something that can only be done if Sasha is to visit a family in the environment in which they are most comfortable. Although there is a language barrier between Sasha and most of these families, although some of the individuals in the family speak some English, Sasha's co-worker Ghazwan is both a translator as well as a friend to these families that CRP visits. When the two of them work together, they provide these Iraqi families with both a means of communication regarding their situations as well as a long-term system of support to help guide and encourage them into the future.

My first official home visit with CRP took place last night. I would have written sooner but there is a bit of emotional digestion that must take place before one attempts to translate such personal narratives into words. Ghazwan, Sasha, and I all took a taxi to the area where this family lived. When we knocked on the door, all three of us were welcomed with an overwhelming sense of love and warmth. Sasha and I sat on one couch, while Ghazwan sat on another couch, and the husband and wife of the family then sat across the room from us on two separate chairs. We were greeted several times over, and then served cold drinks and bread, a very common tradition of hospitality in the Middle East. After several more minutes of "hello" and "how are you?" in both Arabic and English, Sasha then took out of her bag a pile of forms on which she would be writing for the rest of the evening. While these forms contain several sections all addressing a myriad of different issues a family could be facing at any given time, I will spare you the 10 hours it would take to list all of these possible problems and just share those that are relevant to this particular family and story. This family consisted only of husband and wife. While it may have been this couple's dream to have children one day, previous circumstances and torture when living in Iraq have made this dream virtually impossible. While this might seem like an unusual story to some, this is an unfortunately common reality for so many Iraqis today. Both the husband and the wife who lived in the home we visited were brutally tortured before they fled their country several years ago. Although never convicted of an actual crime, the husband was tortured so badly while jailed in Iraq that now him and his wife are not able to have children, something that is very emotionally devastating in a tradition where children and family are valued so greatly. In addition to the man's individual torture, 20 members of his family were killed by numerous different militias. When we speak of death in the United States, it is often people dying of disease, influenza, old age, etc. For this man, some of his family members had holes drilled through their heads and other horrific markings indicating showing the intense torture and pain before death. As for this man's wife, she had been thrown up against a wall and beaten to the point that she is now loosing her vision in one eye, the majority of which is irreversible. Even more devastating the story itself was the fact that the husband had videos on his phone of his dead family members during their autopsies. Not able to comprehend how he could relive these tragedies on a daily basis, he told us that he had these videos in his phone to prove to authorities the extreme trauma his family has undergone in hope that this documentation might possibly help his wife and him more forward in the process of resettlement. It is absolutely unthinkable to me that someone should be required to show and relive such memories, only to improve but not guarantee his chances to receive assistance or resettlement.

Now that you have read about this family's brutal history, one similar to so many Iraqi families living in Jordan today, I will share the next steps involved in the process of a home visit. After hearing each family's story, something that we attempt not to have to have retold unless absolutely necessary, we begin going down the list on the forms. Beginning with medical issues, both the husband and the wife listed off every medication he and she was taking, what it was for, how much it costs per month, and what portion of that cost was being covered by UNHCR. Although not mentioned earlier, UNHCR partakes in something called "cash assistance" in which a lump sum of money is given to a family via ATM or bank card most commonly to the father in the family. The lump sum is based only upon the number of members in the household and not on those family members' individual needs. There is a limit on the amount of money to be given to each family, approximately equal to around $320 dollars per month. Because these families are not legally eligible to work legally in Jordan, this money is often not enough to provide for even a family's basic needs. I should also explain that although the rules and regulations are not quite as strict as they once were, if an Iraqi is caught working illegally, instead being deported back to Iraq like in the past, he is jailed and then required to find a guarantor. Using a lawyer, a guarantor or sponsor is sometimes but not always found. After this sponsor has been identified and agreed to the process, that Iraqi is then dependent upon him in order to stay out of prison from there forward. If the Iraqi does not have the money to pay the sponsor, which is usually the case because he cannot work, the sponsor then refuses to be involved and the Iraqi is sent back to jail. It is a somewhat vicious cycle in which numerous Iraqis can easily be trapped.

To get back to this specific home visit, the list went on and on. After recalling all past medical problems, all previous treatment, all present medical issues, and all related costs, it is on to the next section. As sad as it may be, this is the foundational information that must be recorded before any further treatment, financial aid, or other forms of support can even be considered. After medical questions comes living questions. How long have you lived in this house? How many other family member are living here? It is often common that an entire family will live in one house (father, mother, children, grandparents, etc.). When did you come to Jordan? What was life like in Iraq? What was life like when you first came to Jordan? Did you go anywhere else? Why did you leave Iraq? Next comes questions about the children and school. How old are your children? Are they going to school here in Jordan? Public or Private? How was the transition for them? Do they have emotional or psychological issues do to past traumas? Have they missed school because of the transition?Are they able to get along with other children here? Do they feel safe? While all of these questions may sound exceptionally ordinary, the answers to all of them influence how these families live, what these families basic needs are right at that specific moment, and what must be prioritized by CRP in terms of helping these families in the best way possible. I need to mention that due to the very limited budget on which CRP is working, Sash's main goal is to facilitate and work within different systems to help Iraqis meet their most critical needs. Furthermore, her work is a combination of both social and humanitarian jointly aimed at creating some sense of stability in the lives of Iraqis, something that is far to uncommon for the majority of these families.

After learning of this family and their story, word of mouth lead us to another house near by consisting of husband, a wife, two young boys, and the children's grandmother all living in one small house. Two things that stayed with me about this family, although the same problems were present in the last family as well as many others, are diabetes and hypertension. These two medical problems slowly became know among CRP staff as the Iraqi diseases. Most Iraqis attribute the onset of both diabetes and hypertension to the stress and trauma that they experienced during the war, most specifically when one family member discovered that another relative had been killed. More in alignment with western sciences, diabetes is often caused by a poor diet, and families living in such poverty as the Iraqis find themselves eating only what is cheap, not necessarily the most healthy. Some of the children in these families, however, suffer from hypertension as well which leads me to believe that a portion of these two diseases is equally caused by trauma and stress. Although not as life threatening as a disease like cancer, the combination of diabetes, hypertension, and little to insufficient medical care can create a stressful, unhealthy, and dangerous physical state for a countless number of Iraqi men and women. Then last to issues that stayed with me with regards to the second family were the psychological health of his children and the physical health of the father. The father needed three surgeries. He had severe varicose veins causing him an almost unbearable amount of pain, calcified knee caps making it nearly impossible for him to walk, as well as an ear problem which although I did not fully understand the medical terminology seemed to be very uncomfortable. Of this father's two sons, one of them had just got to the point, nearly 5 years later, where he could rest at night without sleep walking around the house screaming in fear of the events he had experienced in Iraq. Bringing me to tears, the father said, "I would read him verses from the Qur'an and this would wake and calm him from his terrors".

After hearing these two stories, just the start of many I am sure, there is still the unfortunate fact that we are often not able to do a single thing. While it is the work of Sasha and CRP to help in any way possible, there are still impossible medical expenses, unchangeable living circumstances, and irreversible psychological damage for which there is often no assistance.

When I arrived back at CRP after after these two home visits, it was my initial inclination to curl up in my bed and cry. While there is a time and place for this particular emotional expression, I am more aware than ever that I have a responsibility to each and every one of these families. It is not a responsibility that promises money or medicine or a new home, but an internal promise that I will transform and project my own individual sadness into a voice for many.

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