We, Too, Are Underdogs

AMMAN, Jordan - On the first Saturday in May, at Churchill Downs, the underdog, come-from-behind, runaway victory of Mine That Bird in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby thrilled people across the world. Racehorse victories are attributed to team efforts: credit the jockey and the trainer for winning. And the trainer in this case - Bennie Woolley - was as much an underdog as Mine That Bird was a long shot, having never previously run a horse in a stakes race before Saturday.

If this appeals to something in you, if you are cheered and comforted and strengthened by examples of people overcoming adversity and succeeding against the odds, not on the basis of privilege, but on talent and determination, then come with me to the Middle East, where an Iraqi horse trainer named Balasem is fashioning a kind of comeback that is far more remarkable and instructive than the one Mine That Bird and his team produced last week.

The first thing I learned when I spoke with Balasem is that he loves and respects horses. Practically as a greeting, he said to me, "Never hit a horse. Treat him kindly, and he will remember you as a friend." There isn't anything he'd rather talk about.

But there are some things he doesn't want to talk about. When Najlaa al-Nashi, co-coordinator of Direct Aid Iraq and a friend of hers first visited Balasem, they found him living in a typical basement apartment - more hole than home - in a typically rundown neighborhood in Amman, Jordan. His wife, Umm Mohammad, and their adult daughter, Karina, greeted them at the door, sat them down, served tea, and began to describe the conditions in Iraq that led their family to flee the country.

"We were very well-off in Iraq," Umm Mohammad explained. But after the US invasion, "militias, backed by Iran, began to threaten us. They forced us to leave, and now they occupy our homes." Balasem, in bed in a back room, began yelling, "No! Don't talk about Baghdad. Don't say the name of that place!" And a little later, "My sons! O, they took my sons!" And then: "I blame the Americans. They own the world. They are responsible for my sons' deaths!"

Their son, Jamil, was killed in an explosion in Baghdad nearly two years ago, after Balasem, Umm Mohammad, and Karina had fled the country. "The news of Jamil's death," Umm Mohammad said, "was such a shock" that Balasem had a stroke. He has spent much of the last two years in bed, without medical care. "The doctors at the Red Crescent said that he is 'hopeless'. They said there are other people that they should help. And they walked away." And in fact, without physical therapy, without stimulation and exercise, as Balasem's muscles atrophy, he has become less and less able. The man who spent his life training horses to run, has lost the ability to stand and all hope of ever walking again.

On that first visit to Balasem's home, Najlaa found the family with almost no furniture and Balasem on his back on a mat on the floor. "He was angry," Najlaa said. "He had bedsores from being on his back all the time, and he was so stiff. But he let me massage his back, and this changed everything. He felt like someone cared, and he started praying for me. This man who is twice my age, that I should help, was praying for me. Then he asked me to massage a specific part of his back. And he took my hand, and told me his story. He told me everything. He cried, he poured his heart out."

In 2006 and 2007, as the numbers of Iraqis fleeing their country reached the tens of thousands per month, and a humanitarian crisis mounted in neighboring countries, Iraqis who had fled to Jordan sought to assist the most vulnerable in their midst. In the two or three years since then, in what seems to me to be one of the most significant untold stories of this war, formal and informal (Iraqi) networks of support have developed, strengthened, and grown.

Among the key people in this network are Iraqis who are collecting and storing household items - furniture, appliances, kitchenware, clothing, etc. - and then distributing them on an as-needed basis to Iraqis. Because of this, Najlaa was able to arrange for a delivery of furniture (donated by an Iraqi family that recently resettled) to Balasem's family's apartment. She also arranged a hospital bed, a wheelchair, and an air pump sheet to prevent bedsores and to improve blood circulation.

As we have gotten to know the family, we learned that Karina hasn't been receiving the small monthly cash stipend ($75 - $100) she is entitled to through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The kind of vulnerabilities that Iraqis face every day in Jordan - where it is illegal for them to work, where many of them live close to the edge of subsistence with no reserve to manage crises - make this cash assistance, small as it is, vitally important.

But it is very difficult for Iraqis to advocate for themselves with UNHCR, in part because of how vulnerable they are. UNHCR's bureaucracy, as Iraqis in Jordan experience it, tends to be impersonal, inscrutable, and impenetrable. We hear over and over again from Iraqis we meet: "The families who came when I did have been resettled. I've been here five years now. When will it be my turn?" And "I've called more than twenty times and sent more letters than I can count, and they don't respond." And "They said they would call. It's been a year and I haven't heard from them."

It may require $6.00 or more for roundtrip taxi fare to the out-of-the-way UNHCR offices, and the strength to wait in line for hours, only to be told "You need to make an appointment," or "We'll call you." Understandably, in the face of this, many Iraqis have lost hope in this system of support. We've met many families who aren't receiving the level of support they clearly deserve: some, like Karina, haven't been receiving it for years.

But it is also true that a single person within a bureaucracy, someone in the right position with the right attitude, can make things happen. We have found that with research and persistence, individual UNHCR employees respond positively to information and requests. Thanks to this, Karina should begin receiving her cash assistance in June.

When Najlaa met with Balasem on that first home visit, she was accompanied and introduced to the family by a friend of hers who is also a member of this network of support. Together, they were able to help Balasem up off the floor and bring him outside, where he seemed transformed. Afterward, when they had left the house, Najlaa's friend commented, "This one visit changed this family," underscoring the obvious: that war sentences some people to a long, slow death by stripping them of their dignity and their social support.

Now that he has a wheelchair, Balasem only needs help out of his bed and into the chair, but this remains beyond the ability of his wife and daughter. When Najlaa and I visited the family two weeks ago, we went right in to see Balasem, and after exchanging greetings, we helped him out of bed, into his wheelchair, and out into the yard, where we sat together with the family for a couple of hours.

I don't speak more than five words of Arabic. Knowing this, Balasem didn't press me with long statements or stories. For much of the time, he seemed content to be there with me. I found this remarkable. "Come close to me and turn my chair," Balasem said at one point, "so I can see you better." Balasem talked in a very direct and intimate way about horses. I swear his eyes shone as he sat there. And in fact, an Iraqi friend who came as my translator later said, "His face was shining."

I learned that Balasem was an internationally famous horse trainer, with "the best stable" in Iraq. "The first person," his daughter claimed, "that the Television journalists called." He worked in Dubai and the UAE, and he trained racehorses for Saudi princes and sheiks, and for wealthy European owners. The family showed me pictures of him smiling alongside princes and aristocrats, and alongside horses in the winner's circle.

"When he walked into a stable," Umm Mohammad said, "the horses would whinny and sing."

"Let the horse smell you," Balasem said to me several times. "Then he will know you . . . People will forget you, but a horse will remember. . . even if you are separated for a long time, he will remember."

We learned that Balasem's wife and daughter are not comfortable changing his urinary catheter. And since it costs $22.00 to bring a nurse to the house to change the catheter, the family only does this once or twice a month. In fact, it should be changed twice a week. Najlaa contacted an Iraqi doctor in Amman who is concerned about the plight of refugees, and now he comes to the house twice a week to change the catheter. He does this for free. "For refugees, there is no charge. My time is for them. They are poor and need medical care." And one of DAI's team members is visiting Balasem twice a week to massage his legs to help his muscles recover, with the hope that he can regain his ability to stand and use his legs. Next week, insha'allah (God willing), we will take him to a racetrack to visit the stables and the horses there.

Balasem's is only one of thousands of Iraqi families across the globe who have literally run for their lives and who are trying, against the odds, to stage a comeback. Some of these families have been resettled. Many have fled to a neighboring country and live there in hopes of resettlement or return. Many more remain in Iraq. Their chances of success, of course, will depend on many factors, but the odds can be improved if existing networks of support can be maintained and strengthened.

As Iraq becomes "old news," what will the citizens of the wealthiest countries on the planet do? Will we ourselves beat the odds and find ways to get involved, ways to advocate for and to support Iraqis in need, or will we be merely spectators, or worse, will we be absent, unaware even that the race is unfolding? I'm afraid the odds are heavily in favor of these latter outcomes.

We stand at a juncture in our relationship with Iraq and its people, a question confronting us, suggesting that we, too, are underdogs.

Kali Rubaii and Debra Ellis contributed to this report.

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