In Iraq's next-door neighbour, Jordan, with a population of just 5.5 million, they are currently trying to deal with close to 700,000 Iraqis who have fled the daily violence that is tearing their nation apart. In Jordan, Olivia Rousset found that this largely unreported human tide - the greatest Middle Eastern refugee crisis in 60 years - is really straining the generosity and resources of the Jordanian people.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007 - 21:30

In Iraq's next-door neighbour, Jordan, are currently trying to deal with close to 700,000 Iraqis who have fled the daily violence that is tearing their nation apart.



REPORTER: Olivia Rousset

Abu Haitham relocated this successful fish restaurant from war-torn Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, two years ago. With his wood-fired ovens and special sauce, he's giving Jordanians their fish the Iraqi way. But he's given up on his own country.

ABU HAITHAM, (Translation): What you hear now is one thousandth of what's happening in the country.

Abu Haitham fled Iraq because he feared kidnap and blackmail.

ABU HAITHAM, (Translation): It's a lawless country - just grab your gun, and kill 50 people. No-one will question you. There is no law and order.

He's not short of Iraqi customers and all of them have their own story of the horrors they have escaped. But these people - who can still afford to dine out in Amman - are the lucky ones. Jordan is now home to more than 700,000 Iraqis. In neighbouring Syria there are over 1 million. But there are no refugee camps. Instead, whole families are crammed into tiny dwellings throughout poor areas like this. With nowhere else to go, these people are here to stay.

NASSER JUDEH, GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON: Jordan is a country of 5.5 million people. So the introduction of 700,000 people over four years is similar to introducing - I don't know - 8 or 9 million people to a country of 60 million in a country in Europe or elsewhere.

Sabiha al-Felifl and her family have been living in this dingy apartment for almost two years. Her family manages to eat fairly well, but only because Sabiha buys second-rate market produce. This morning she tried to find cheap potatoes for lunch.

SABIHA AL - FELIFL, ABU'S WIFE (Translation): Today I didn't find any so I got tomatoes. They're 10 piastres a kilo. A bit damaged, but we cut off the bad bits and use the rest. This is what we can afford.

Their 3-month visitors permit expired long ago and the family is now here illegally. Sabiha's husband, Abu Maher, was a jeweller in Iraq with his own shop.

ABU MAHER, (Translation): Before the downfall, my life in Iraq was bliss. Afterwards, things deteriorated because of the bombing and all that. But now I am living in sadness and misery.

Now his family of eight survives on less than $100 a month given to them by a charity.

ABU MAHER, (Translation): Sometimes we close the doors and, because the walls are cold, I hang blankets on them to keep in more warmth. We huddle together, eat at the same time and sleep together for warmth so as to save on heating oil.

Even so, Abu Maher has no desire to return to Iraq, having escaped after being brutally tortured.

ABU MAHER, (Translation): This beating was on the first day.

He and his family are Sabean, a religious minority that claims to predate Christianity. In the past, Sabeans lived fairly peacefully, side by side with Muslim and Christian Iraqis. Now in Iraq, religious difference is often merely an excuse for extortion and extreme violence.

ABU MAHER, (Translation): This is the misery and grief I've seen in my life.

In May 2005, Abu Maher was kidnapped on his way to work.

ABU MAHER, (Translation): They started swearing at me and abusing me and said, "œDon't talk. You're a filthy Sabaean. You've no right to talk. This is the land of Islam. You can't live here." I kept quiet. They took my watch and ring. On top of that, the' put out their cigarettes on my back. And on top of that, they gave me electric shocks. And I kept screaming, crying. And in addition to that, they did something that... ..something that one can't talk about. It's really terrible... They would take off their pants and urinate on me.

After three days his family paid US $10,000 as a ransom and he was released. Abu Maher's nephew took this confronting video soon after he arrived home. He suspects who his captors were, but even in Jordan he's too afraid to tell. His wife, Sabiha, didn't know what had happened to him.

SABIHA AL - FELIFL, (Translation): I only found out when he came back, when he suddenly came home all beaten up and hurt I collapsed straight away and they took me to hospital.

The entire family is scarred by his experience.

MUKHLAS, ABU'S SON (Translation): My father and I are one, so if he's hurt, I'm hurt. When he was hurt I can't describe to you the degree of pain I felt myself.

ABU MAHER (Translation): Whenever I'm alone I start thinking. I think about the torture, the imprisonment, the miserable experience I went through... I wonder how I remained sane. How did I remain sane? It's just impossible.

Tragically, Abu Maher's story is all too common. Kidnapping and extortion are techniques favoured by criminal gangs. And it seems every Iraqi I meet has been touched by extreme violence.

YASSER (Translation): Hello, darling. How are the children?

Yasser, a former accountant, has been sleeping on the floor of a relative's house for nearly a year. He won't reveal his identity because his wife and kids are stuck in Baghdad, and he's terrified they'll be killed.

YASSER, (Translation): Be careful and don't go out. Take care of the children. Don't let them go out. Okay darling.

Today his wife tells him the neighbours - a family of four - were murdered last night.

YASSER, (Translation): If he hears gunfire, he cries.

Last year, while washing his car with his 2-year-old son, Yasser was shot three times.

YASSER, (Translation): When they shot me I pushed my son into the house - I wanted to make sure I was hit instead of him. One bullet went in here and came out here. The bullet entered from here and exited there. For someone to shoot me there means that his intention was to kill. If it had hit me here, I'd have been killed.

Days after the shooting Yasser received this letter from a little-known group called the Death Tiger's Brigade. He found he was wanted dead because he had worked for an American aid organization.

GRAPHICS: LETTER "œTo the collaborator traitor Yasser. It's been proven that you've joined the traitors who have sold their religion, conscience and their Iraqi brothers and sisters and sold their honour to the Americans. Your punishment, as God has ordained, shall be a degrading death."

In the three years after the invasion, Yasser worked for French, British and American aid groups. He quit his job with the Americans because he felt he was being exploited.

YASSER, (Translation): Sadly, some of the foreigners who came to Iraq took maximum advantage of the Iraqis - they believe the Iraqis are their servants. I will pay you this wage to serve me, otherwise there's no work for you.

After he fled Iraq, he appealed by email to his former employers to assist him financially with medical treatment. They declined.

YASSER, (Translation): Their excuse was that at the time I was shot I was no longer working directly with the NGO.

After spending his savings, Yasser has no money left. His father told him he has wasted his life by working for the foreigners.

YASSER, (Translation): "œ What did you gain by working with them? Money? The salary you got? It all went on hospitals and treatment". That question just pierced my heart.

Abu Maher, the jeweller who fled Iraq after his kidnapping, knows his children are safe, but they have no future here. They haven't been to school for more than two years. Nonetheless, they make the most of what they find.

MAZEN, ABU'S SON, (Translation): I found this pump dismantled, in pieces. I found it in the rubbish bin.

For the boys, finding toys in the rubbish and making them work is a point of pride. If they can't be fixed, their imagination fills the gap.

MAHER, ABU'S SON (Translation): I found this dumped in the street. It's cracked here. And I also found this, so I taped the cable and fixed this one. I play with them. I just put it on the floor, watch TV and play with it.

TRANSLATOR (Translation): Does it work?

MAHER (Translation): No. I just play with it.

Like most of their clothes, the boys' shoes come from the rubbish. The football boots Mazen brought from Iraq are his prize possession.

MAZEN (Translation): I wear the ones I found when I go out to play. And these, I bought in Iraq. I've only worn them twice. I'm saving them because they're new. I don't play in them.

REPORTER: Why are you wearing those shoes today?

MAZEN (Translation): I want to play really well. I want to show you how good I am.

Unfortunately for the boys, the hospitality of Jordanians is wearing thin. Whenever the brothers play outside the Jordanian kids heckle them. Sometimes they throw stones.

MAZEN (Translation): We play alone. If we want to play with them then they kick the ball to the other house and they won't give us the ball back. They tell us "Get out of here you Iraqis!" "Why are you playing here?"

Many Jordanians resent the Iraqis here as their presence drives up rents and the cost of living. But it's hard to find countries willing to take in the smallest number of refugees. Since they led the invasion in 2003, the US has given asylum to less than 500 Iraqis.

NASSER JUDEH: I think we're the country who hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Nasser Judeh is the official government spokesperson.

NASSER JUDEH: We have problems with the economy here, we have problems with employment, we have water shortages. I don't know if you know, but Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of water resources. I think it's one of the top 10 in terms of water poverty. So not every person who comes into Jordan is carrying a bucket of water on his or her back.

While hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are struggling to survive in Amman, perhaps the worst affected of all are the Palestinians who fled Iraq. They're now stranded and stateless in border camps. I'm on my way to one of these camps, Rweished, where Palestinians have been stuck since the war began in 2003.
Run by the United Nations, Rweished camp is a bleak square in the middle of the desert, surrounded by 3km of fence.

ABU MAEN, (Translation): This boy was born in the camp. He is now two years and three months old.

There used to be 2,000 people living here. Now there are just under 100. Over the past four years, all the refugees have been granted asylum in other countries except for the Palestinians.

ABU MAEN (Translation): Australia took Kurds, Somalis, Sudanese - it took all nationalities. So did Sweden and Canada. When it comes to the Palestinians they say full stop.

Abu Maen tells me people here have reached breaking point.

ABU MAEN(Translation): Most of us here are sick. If not physically, mentally. The old and the young are suffering.

During summer the temperatures reach 50 degrees and in winter it drops below freezing. Violent storms rip the fragile tents to shreds. One of the refugees filmed this sandstorm on a mobile phone five months ago. There is no school here for the kids and nothing to do. Khaled and Ikhlas live here with their four children.

IKHLAS (Translation): It's like living in a prison even though we've done nothing wrong. We're being punished when we've committed no crime.

KHALED (Translation): Our only fault is that we're Palestinian.

During his reign, Saddam Hussein offered refuge to stateless Palestinians. Khaled had a refrigeration shop in Baghdad - after the war began it was taken from him along with his home.

KHALED (Translation): All that Saddam did for us Palestinians was to build us units to live in. Now these units are targeted by the Iraqis. They want them at any cost - they kill or kidnap to get them.

Since the fall of Baghdad more than half of the Palestinians in Iraq - roughly 20,000 - have fled. 600 have been killed. Even if they were born in Iraq, like Khaled, Palestinians don't get citizenship.

KHALED: This is document from Palestinian in Iraq, and this the ID card.

Khaled's travel documents are useless. He can't even use them to return to Iraq.

KHALED (Translation): This was a travel document. But nobody recognized it. Some countries accepted them, but none of the Arab countries.

REPORTER: But you have no citizenship of any country?

KHALED: No, no. No, we don't.

Stateless, this family has no choice but to stay here until a country somewhere offers them asylum.

ROBERT BREEN, FORMER HEAD OF UN HIGH COMMISSION FOR REFUGEES: It is not conducive to human life out there. And that they have survived four years in this situation, is testimony to their strength.

Robert Breen is the former head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, in Jordan.

REPORTER: Why won't the government take them in? There is only 95 of them.

ROBERT BREEN: The Palestinian population of Iraq are unfortunately - the line in the sand that the government has drawn. They have made very clear that to admit the Palestinians into Jordan would only encourage more Palestinians to flee Baghdad and to seek safety in Jordan.

Last year the UNHCR estimated that 50,000 Iraqis were fleeing every month. But in November 2005, suicide bombers from al-Qa'ida in Iraq blew themselves up in three major hotels in the Jordanian capital, killing 60. After the bombings, the virtual open door between Jordan and Iraq began to close. Now it's not just the Palestinians who are being held back, but all Iraqis are facing tougher restrictions at the border.

NASSER JUDEH: We cannot be but vigilant. We cannot afford to make another mistake that will result in tragedy here. And I think that is the right of the government of Jordan and the authorities here to ensure they have done all that they could to prevent something like what happened towards the end of 2005 from happening again.

A few months ago this famous Iraqi café in the centre of town would have been full of customers, but today it is completely empty at lunchtime. A rumour has been circulating that the government is cracking down and deporting illegals. No-one here wants to go back to Iraq.

ROBERT BREEN: There are a small number of cases of detention and deportation. The numbers pale in comparison to the large numbers of Iraqis here. But the consequence within the community is one of fear and insecurity that they will be detained, and the consequence of that detention is a forced return to Iraq which is their greatest fear.

Can you imagine ever going back?

ABU HAITHAM (Translation): Me go back? It's impossible. It's impossible. Go back to what? What's left of the country? Look sister, tell her the country has no law and order, it has no services, no electricity, water, petrol, gas, fuel. There is only air left and if America could suck that out, it would have.

While Abu Haitham has said goodbye to his homeland, he despairs as he watches the nation unravel.

ABU HAITHAM (Translation): They're all our children, countrymen, relatives. Wouldn't you be mad if this happened to your country? Of course we suffer, seeing all the death and killing. This suffering flows like blood in our veins. We feel it daily. We can't eat or drink like normal human beings because our country is gone and done for!

All the Iraqis I spoke to are afraid the US forces will leave too soon, they say the sectarian violence ignited by the invasion would only intensify.

REPORTER: Do you think the troops should be withdrawn now, the foreign troops?

ABU HAITHAM (Translation): No, they're not the problem. They should stay. If they leave, nothing will be left of the country. If America leaves there will be a number of little wars, not just one. Wars among Kurds, among Sunnis, among Shiites.

Abu Haitham's fears are already playing out. In the last year alone, sectarian violence has displaced 730,000 people within Iraq. Both inside and outside the country nearly 4 million Iraqis have been displaced. Earlier this year, the US government promised to take just 7,000 Iraqis. Abu Maher has twice applied for asylum in Australia. A week ago he got his second rejection letter from Canberra. Like so many Iraqis, he feels that he has run out of options to secure a future for his family.

ABU MAHER (Translation): Sometimes when the kids argue I lose my temper and end up beating them. When I do that, I feel hurt. I think, I get them out to save their lives and I hurt them? I end up blaming myself because I'm sort of living in a state of despair. About a week ago when I got the rejection I told them "œThis is the limit of what I can do. I can't take it any more, I can't bear it, I can't stay with you. I want to go back to Iraq and die."




Fixer and Translator