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Helping Iraqi Refugees

Jordan, November 8, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    This woman's ex-husband threatened to expose her as Sunni — a disclosure fraught with mortal danger in post-Saddam Iraq. She fled to Amman. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

Amman, Jordan — Few items furnished the cramped apartment, one of hundreds like it in one of this city's poorer districts: a tattered rug, an old couch, a mattress in the corner and a small fan to relieve the 100-degree heat.

Inside, a 43-year-old Iraqi woman wept as she told visitors her story. She is a Sunni Muslim with a master's degree who until last year lived in Baghdad with her husband, a Shiite. But they divorced and he threatened to expose her and her daughters, aged six and 10, as Sunni — a disclosure fraught with mortal danger in post-Saddam Iraq.

So, in June 2006, she took her daughters and fled to Amman. A 56-year-old cousin followed six months later, after her own husband was murdered. Here, both are jobless — refugees in Jordan can't obtain legal employment — and depend on the charity of relatives still in Iraq to survive.

As many as one million Iraqis have fled to Jordan since 2003, part of what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls "the biggest displacement crisis in the Middle East" in nearly 60 years. Most arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs. The Jordanian people, in keeping with traditions of Arab hospitality, have welcomed fleeing Iraqis — but this small, resource-scarce country is straining to meet their needs.

Most Iraqis in Jordan are not legal residents, and cannot seek formal employment or access government services. With support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mercy Corps is feeding hundreds of impoverished families through our local partner, Tkiyet Um Ali.

In September, 523 families received a month's worth of dry food delivered to their homes. During the month of Ramadan, which ended October 13, three Iftar tents serving hot meals welcomed an estimated 150 to 200 Iraqis a day. A soup kitchen in Amman serves roughly 300 a day, most of whom are Iraqi refugees.

Staff from Mercy Corps and our two partner organizations visited the Iraqi mother of two during home visits to assess whether or not refugee families qualified to receive the monthly food packages. They conducted in-depth interviews of more than 700 families, asking questions about rent and dependents, touring people's homes to get a sense of their living conditions, and calculating their incomes, most of which came from family remittances.

It's just one of several Mercy Corps programs designed to help the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees — along with their impoverished Jordanian neighbors — improve their quality of life. In the last several months, Mercy Corps purchased equipment for 100 Iraqis and Jordanians with disabilities and organized four peer-support meetings.

We've also assisted Iraqi families in registering their children for formal schooling and helped Iraqis gain access to neighborhood social services like psychosocial counseling, youth activities and job-skills training. The agency recently forged an agreement with an operator of three community centers in East Amman to extend their services to 300 Iraqi families living nearby.

Health and education are the two top immediate concerns for Iraqi families here, according to a recent survey of 372 Iraqis in Amman conducted in conjunction with Community Development Centre-Sweileh. Their longer-term future is uncertain. Very few want to go back to Iraq in its current situation or stay in Jordan; the vast majority has applied for resettlement outside the region, in countries such as Sweden, Australia and Germany.

Until those requests are fulfilled, Mercy Corps will continue to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration in providing informal and non-formal education services to meet their basic needs.