From Jordan: Iraqis Need Our Help

Iraq refugees say the reason they will not return to Iraq is that it is too dangerous and unlivable. Yet living conditions in Jordan are arduous. They wait for a miracle, because that is all that is left.
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Today, Jordan hosts roughly half a million Iraqi refugees out ofapproximately two million worldwide. From our operations in Iraq, weare acutely aware of how this crisis came to be and believe that we,as a nation, bear a moral responsibility for their safety.

As American veterans of the war in Iraq and as humanitarians, we havecome to Amman to see their predicament for ourselves. In response towhat we regarded as inadequate measures by our government, we formedthe non-profit organization Iraq Veterans Refugee Aid Association(IVRAA).

Together, with our press team, we set out on a public diplomacymission paying visits to the American and Iraqi embassies, to theJordanian interior and foreign ministries, to the United Nations HighCommissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to NGOs, and met with localactivists, and, most importantly, the refugees themselves. What wewere pleased to find among all was absolute consensus on one veryimportant point: The Iraq refugees need help now.

But the consensus, we discovered, goes even deeper. To a great extent,the approach to assistance is agreed upon, too. From the refugees tothe UNHCR, to the Iraqi, American, and Jordanian governments, allconcur that returning home to Iraq, once it is safe to do so, is themost favorable course of action. The differences in perspective, wefound, arise from how support is rendered and the view of whether ornot Iraq is now safe enough for repatriation.

The refugees say the reason they will not return to Iraq is that it istoo dangerous and unlivable. And yet, living conditions in Jordan arearduous: work permits are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.Medical insurance, school registration fees, food, rent,transportation, and other basic needs are, for most, cost-prohibitive. So the refugees wait in their tiny homes with no end in sight and noability to help themselves.

They wait for a miracle, because that is all that is left.

Ahmed, an Iraqi father whom we spoke with, fled from Basra in thebeginning of the war. He'd lost his seven-year-old son because hecould not afford medical care in Jordan. Meanwhile, histwelve-year-old son, Amir, was losing his sight and hearing fromdepleted uranium radiation exposure resulting from Gulf War munitions.

The family lives in a poor neighborhood of Amman with only two rooms,no windows, and only a ceiling fan to cool them in the hot days andnights."I cannot even take a cab home at night because the driverswon't come to this part of the city," said Ahmed.

The Jordanians, on the other hand, have concerns of their own.Officials we spoke to expressed concern for their country and itsinfrastructure, and all pointed out that Jordan has undergone as muchas a 10percent increase in its population over a very short period oftime.

Naser Al-Ramadin, the assistant director to the Jordanian Minister ofInterior, said, "Our infrastructure is decaying, our economy issuffering and we are not receiving the amount of international supportthat we need. The burden of this humanitarian problem should beshared."

And Jordanian Foreign Ministry diplomat in charge of the Iraqi RefugeeFile, Mohammad al-Shahankari, said, "No matter what area you canimagine--education, health, electricity, water, security, and alllevels of infrastructure--all of it has been impacted by the Iraqipresence."

Sylvia Braun, the Regional Program Manager of the InternationalCatholic Migration Commission, echoed the sentiment that Iraq is toodangerous to return to: "Every Iraqi we meet says that they don'tthink Iraq will be safe for at least the next 10 years."

Daniel Rubinstein, the acting US Ambassador to Jordan also agreed,telling us that there is definitely a widespread fear among Iraqis.And Shahankari of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry remarked to uscandidly: "Iraq will not be safe for at least five least."

Thamir Salman, the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Iraqi Embassy inAmman did not fully agree, suggesting that Iraq was indeed safe enoughto begin bringing refugees home. "We feel Iraqis should return to Iraqas soon as possible. We need our scientists, doctors and skilledpeople to help us redevelop," said Salman.

But Salman did concede that no comprehensive plan exists to receivethe two million refugees and the 2.5 million more internallydisplaced. He also acknowledged the serious infrastructure shortfallsin Iraq and the need for more time and resources before such a largevolume of people could return.

Imran Riza, head of UNHCR in Amman had a similar opinion.

"The economic, security and infrastructure conditions in Iraq arestill not sufficient to accommodate the millions of Iraqi refugees whohave taken refuge in neighboring countries, and probably will not beany time in the near future."

State Department officials from the Bureau of Population, Refugees andMigration told us that while repatriation was their focus two yearsago, they now support the UNHCR position that repatriation is notpresently a viable course of action. Consequently, they have turned totheir efforts to resettlement and assistance in host nations.

As our discussion turned to statistics, State Department officialsquickly pointed out: "We don't focus on the total number of refugeesout there. We work as hard and as fast as we can to help those withthe greatest need."

Since August 2008, the United States has resettled 11,187 refugees whohave fled Iraq from the outset of the war. They expect to resettleapproximately 4,000 more by the end of this fiscal year.

From our observations in Amman, the numbers in need are vastly higherthan those presently being helped.

This is an area where IVRAA feels the US has performed poorly. Thisis not necessarily due to a dysfunctional process or inadequate efforton the part of field personnel; indeed we witnessed many devoted andhard-working people throughout the system from NGOs, to UNHCR, to theUS departments of State and Homeland Security.

It is more because the process is new and has not yet developed toAmerica's potential -- a potential that was demonstrated after theVietnam War when we welcomed nearly a million Vietnamese refugees intoour country.

State department officials told us that the infrastructure that is inplace now to process Iraq refugees did not exist 18 months ago and, intheir experience, such rapid mobilization was impressive. It strikesus that in another 18 months, even more impressive improvements couldbe made.

To a large extent, US targets for resettlement are driven by thecapacity of this system. As part of the overall strategy to safeguardIraq refugees, this capacity needs to be improved through increasedfunding so that substantially greater numbers of Iraq refugees may begranted asylum.

State Department officials agreed that if they were given a greaterbudget, their ability to assist Iraq's refugees would certainlyimprove.

But even with increased capacity, it seems evident that the US cannotor does not wish to resettle all of the Iraq refugees worldwide. Andwith repatriation off the table for the time-being, we must return tothe issue of aid for those refugees stuck in countries like Jordan.

So, this problem must be broken down into two fundamental questions:How much help is needed? And what portion of that need is theresponsibility of America?

It is clear that the Iraqi refugees continue to languish.

We have heard many tortuous explanations by various bureaucrats whowould have us believe that there is no monetary figure that could everdeal with the crisis at hand. We find that difficult to believe.

As former military officers serving in the Department of Defense, weare quite familiar with the amazing things that can be accomplishedwith a large budget. From the discussions we've had here in Amman andat home in the US, the dollars needed to properly contend with thishumanitarian issue will easily reach into the billions. Butconsidering the rate at which the US has spent money on the war inIraq, we don't believe this is an unobtainable goal.

It is a fact that the US remains, by far, the largest donor to thiscrisis, providing hundreds of millions of dollars since the war began.But, we feel that in light of our nation's integral role in the causeof the refugee situation, "giving the most" is not sufficient. Givingenough to fix the problem is what our government owes the millions inrefuge.

The international community must also increase its assistance;however, responsibility ultimately rests with America.

We have met with a great deal of influential people involved with thisissue and seen many of them shake their heads, shrug, and tell us thesituation is hopeless. They are quick to point out all the challenges,all the limitations, and all the political strife that stand in theway of our helping the Iraqi people.

We cannot accept these excuses. We have met the Iraqi refugees, beenin their modest homes and witnessed their destitution. We've heldtheir children in our laps.

We know that America has the power to help; it needs only the heart.

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