Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Iraqi refugees in Cairo

I recently started working on a documentary project: Iraqi refugees displaced since 2003.

I am interested in this story for many reasons, but one of the strongest is the outrage I feel that the United States government has granted asylum to a pitiful few Iraqis. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United States resettled 300 Iraqis in 2003, 70 in 2004, 200 in 2005 and 200 in 2006. According to Refugees International, only around 2,000 Iraqis were slated for resettlement in the U.S. in 2007.

Roughly 2.5 million Iraqis are internally displaced persons (IDPs), that is, they were forced to leave their homes but are still living in Iraq, and another 2.5 million have fled Iraq since 2003. That's 5 million. (Duh.)

I wish my government would get with the frickin' program already!

The Iraqi family I have spent the most time with so far is the subject of this post. For now I am just going to refer to them by the first initials of their names, even though they said I could use their full first names.

A little background: H was living with his wife S and son K in his parents' home in a predominately Shiite area of Baghdad. K was born in 2002 and his parents soon discovered that his eyesight was very poor. He had eye surgery at the age of six months.

A few months later, the war began. K's surgeon fled the area, and he didn't see a doctor for the next two years. His eyesight continued to deteriorate.

The security situation in H's neighborhood, and throughout Baghdad, worsened dramatically as 2004 came to a close. H's brother was kidnapped. His car was blown up during a suicide car bomb attack. A friend was gunned down in the street. Al Qaeda left death threats on the doorstep of his parents' home. K, just 4 years old, witnessed two murders, traumatic experiences that continue to haunt him.

One day gunmen showed up at H's CD and cassette store. They kidnapped a co-worker and friend and looted the store. Blood was splattered everywhere, which H perceived as a death threat. H and K fled to Egypt in May 2005; S and a new baby, A, arrived one year later.

Egypt is not a good place to be a refugee. There are at least 500,000 Sudanese here, and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis, as well as Eritreans, Palestinians, Somalis and Congolese. Refugees often have trouble finding work, they receive little or no assistance from the government and their children are not allowed to attend public schools. Refugees are not integrated into Egyptian society. Egypt doesn't want refugees--the government has enough problems feeding and employing its own citizens.

H has been unable to find steady employment in Cairo. Adding to the family's isolation, H and S can't afford the 1900 Egyptian pounds (roughly $325) per semester for private school tuition. They can't even afford badly needed new glasses for K. And After visits with a dozen eye specialists, H and S have blown through their savings and are no closer to a cure for K. The numerous doctors have given different diagnoses and either can't or won't treat him.

In addition to K's eye problems, the family is suffering emotionally. Their sudden poverty, uncertain future, separation from family and lack of outside support have overwhelmed S, who says she sometimes feels hopeless. She and H also worry about K, who has frequent nightmares about what he saw in Iraq.

The family's attempts to seek asylum in the United States have stalled, and lately H has talked about returning to Iraq. He's running out of options.

H gently rouses K from sleep in the early afternoon. K is troubled by memories of violence he witnessed in Iraq and sometimes doesn't fall asleep until 3 or 4 in the morning. He saw two murders in Baghdad and is haunted by frequent nightmares.

K squints to see a picture drawn by an Iraqi family friend. K's eyesight is gradually worsening. The last eye doctor he visited said he needed stronger lenses in his glasses, his fifth new prescription.

When S has a quiet moment to herself, her emotions overwhelm her and she breaks down.

H tells K not to play soccer inside the apartment. K enjoys playing soccer with his dad, but sometimes can't see the ball. K said other children make fun of him. "I don't have one single friend," K said.

H entertains K by drawing him a marker moustache. The family spends most days alone inside the apartment.

S fixes lunch in the sparse kitchen, which she decorated with newspaper curtains to cover the plumbing. S and H lived a middle-class lifestyle at home in Baghdad. After three years in Cairo with very little work, their financial situation grows more desperate every day.

S rubs her face while H takes a call from Baghdad. "I am tired," S said. "It's not that I mind hard work. I work hard cleaning the house and taking care of the children everyday. But my mind is never still. I am always thinking about things and I am so very tired."

It is a nightly battle to prepare K for sleep. H and S try to calm his fears, comfort him, and make him feel safe. Recently H has talked about returning to Iraq, an idea that terrifies K.

S presses on K's chest, which tightens when he is afraid.

K got out of bed early in the morning to sleep next to H.


Lido Vizzutti said...

Interesting story you're helping to bring to light - great photographs - You are easily becoming my hero.

Holly said...

Aaaaaaaaww. Thanks Lido!

fishwife said...

Great story here Holly. Kudos to you for reporting it & calling our govt out on the carpet here.

And as always the photos are great...painful to see the one of S breaking down...brought me almost to tears myself. If only homeland security would grant them asylum,,, I'm sure there are dozens of opthamologists who would probably give away their services here.

LK said...

WOW! Great start, love the intimacy and moments. I can't wait to see more!

cmulvany said...

There ya go... finding the PJ groove. These are a great set of images Holly. Don't forget to do some audio...

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