Hope, Change, and the Iraq Displacement Crisis
Barack Obama, elected on a platform that promised "change," is in meetings with his transition team, weighing decisions about cabinet posts and administration assignments. As media analysts feed greedily at the prospects of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State and Robert Gates continuing as Secretary of Defense, the whole world is watching. Displaced Iraqis – both within Iraq and in neighboring countries – are, arguably, among those with the most at stake.
I'm thinking of people like Khalid, whose fifteen year-old son, Nabil, was injured a year ago when he and his friends were walking home from school and a car bomb exploded a hundred yards away. The car bomb killed nine people, and injured seventeen. Nabil was walking along the Euphrates Dam when the bomb exploded. The concussion from the explosion threw him off the Dam; he landed on his head, ten feet below.
Terrified and stunned, Nabil picked himself up, stumbled, and finally managed to run home. It was ten days before it became clear that Nabil had suffered severe neurological damage when he fell. The first indication was his sudden difficulty remembering. Soon, he began to slur his speech. Then his balance left him, and he found he couldn't bring a spoon to his mouth to eat. Today, over a year later, his speech is unintelligible, and he can't control his bladder or his bowels. He needs a full-time caretaker.
Seven months ago, Khalid sold his taxi to obtain enough money to bring his family to Amman, Jordan in the hope of getting medical care for Nabil. When the family arrived at the Jordanian border, however, authorities turned away Nabil's mother and his five siblings, allowing only Nabil and his father to enter the country. This family, devastated by the injury to their oldest child, is now separated as it tries to cope with the injury's consequences.
The Jordanian government has done a great deal for Iraqis by allowing so many displaced people to enter the country. But it does not have the resources to provide for the needs of Iraqis, and the international community has failed in providing support to it. In Amman, Khalid is treated like a visitor or tourist. He is not allowed to work; his visa is temporary and short-term; he must find and pay for his own housing; and he has no right to social services. Because the emergency support services provided by international NGOs continue to fall so far short of what is needed, Nabil has received little medical care in Jordan, even though excellent medical care exists for patients who can pay for it. Staffing is so short at the physiotherapy clinic Nabil attends that his father – instead of a trained therapist – ends up assisting Nabil with the exercises. "Why bother going to the hospital, when no one works with us?" Khalid asks. "It would be easier to work with my son at home."
To assist Khalid with living expenses, an international NGO provides him with 20 Jordanian dinars ($30) a month. The cost for his fourth-floor apartment, however, is nine times that: 180 dinars (approximately $250). In addition, there are utilities costs. It is an untenable situation, not only because he can't afford it, but also because Nabil, whose condition is worsening, has to struggle up four flights of stairs to arrive home.
A complete medical exam for Nabil will cost 200 dinars ($280), and physical therapy at a private clinic, almost certainly part of a good treatment plan for him, will cost 180 dinars per month, without accounting for transportations costs of 50 dinars ($70).
We all know that the kind of medical care Nabil needs and the assistance that his family needs begin with (and depend on) quality personal attention, with skilled professionals who take an abiding interest in their well-being. At Direct Aid Iraq (www.directaidiraq.org), we aim to provide this kind of support, on the small scale which our resources allow. We ask ourselves why foreign policies can't be predicated on the same level of attention.
The lack of attention being paid by US leaders – and by leaders throughout the world – to the needs of displaced Iraqis is worrisome and deeply disturbing to us. It signals that Iraqis really don't matter in their considerations, and that the embryonic hope which Barack Obama's Administration represents will be stillborn. It signals that Iraqis will have to continue to fend for themselves against the enormous and sometimes overwhelming forces of war and displacement.
Viewed from the perspective of displacement, poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and physical and emotional trauma, the current process of choosing cabinet members must seem bizarre at best, and at worst, a cynical and irrelevant game where political calculations trump all other considerations. When was the last time you heard Barack Obama or Joseph Biden or one of their advisors talk about the Iraq displacement crisis? In making choices for cabinet posts and in setting Administration priorities, are the needs of Iraqis even being placed in the hopper?
Given what the US-British invasion and occupation have wrought and unleashed in their country, who could blame Iraqis for shaking their heads in disbelief, for believing the world has forgotten them, for concluding that, in fact, whatever change an Obama administration ushers in, it isn't likely to be the change they need?
Here at Direct Aid Iraq, we believe that US policy toward Iraq can in fact address the needs of Iraqis displaced both within and outside of the country. But the best hope for this change lies in the American people, in people who haven't forgotten their Iraqi sisters and brothers, who haven't forgotten the responsibility that the American government bears to provide humanitarian aid and to pay war reparations. The best hope lies in the possibility of American people demanding that their government wake up, pay attention, and act on behalf of Iraqis harmed by war and occupation.
At Direct Aid Iraq, we continue to bring the voices and perspectives of Iraqi people into the US discourse on Iraq. Anyone who wishes to participate in our work can contact us through our website.
Another opportunity for Americans who wish to stand up for Iraqis is Camp Hope: Countdown to Change, being organized by Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). Camp Hope is an effort to "build popular momentum behind the progressive goals of President Obama's campaign." Activists convening in Chicago will maintain a three-week outdoor presence (January 1st - January 19th) in Hyde Park, where Barack Obama lives. They have created an 8-point platform, a set of goals on a range of progressive issues that an Obama administration could actually accomplish in its first hundred days.
In a forthcoming letter, Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) writes: "We believe that the U.S. should ultimately initiate massive nonmilitary aid programs to help Iraqis rebuild their neighborhoods, their infrastructure, and their lives, and to assist especially those who have been displaced by war." VCNV rightly recognizes that this won't happen without a "visible groundswell of support," one which "starts" with vocal public support for troop withdrawals and an end to American hostilities in Iraq. Activists across the country who wish to support Camp Hope can do so by coming out to Chicago (bring your scarf) or by organizing short local vigils (one- or two-day) to demonstrate widespread support of its goals.