Suddenly, Abather heard gunshots. The men shouted. The car crashed, and everything went black. He woke up in a hospital bed 60 miles from Baghdad; Iraqi forces had attacked the bmw and pulled him from the burning wreck. He had a compound fracture in his leg and severe burns all over his body, but the nurses urged him to leave: His captors would be looking for him. His brother—who had received a ransom note from the kidnappers, complete with a photo of Abather bound and gagged—brought him back to Baghdad, where doctors fused a piece of plastic onto his shin and grafted skin from his thighs over his wounds. A few weeks later, he was back at the Jordanian border, and this time the guards took pity. The family hadn't told Balqes of the kidnapping. But when she saw her disfigured husband, she says, "I knew right away what happened."
On a crisp, clear day this past December, clutching a sheaf of papers documenting Abather and Balqes' ordeal—contracts, soldiers' recommendations, death threats, a missing-person report—I headed to American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Abather and Balqes had made several pilgrimages there; they were convinced that if only they could speak to an American, Abather's charred and mangled flesh would make their case, but they had never gotten past the Jordanian security guards.
Outside the embassy, I joined a chatty, eclectic crowd of Americans: a retired hippie turned English teacher from Vermont; a woman with a New York accent who struggled through the narrow eye-slit in her black veil to keep track of her hyperactive daughter; a white-bearded man in a Santa hat, who said he was picking up his passport before returning to the North Pole. I wondered whether any of us would risk our lives for the United States as Abather and Balqes had. To get past the compound's first wall, we navigated a metal detector, a body frisk, and an X-ray machine; after crossing a 30-foot no man's land we repeated the process at the second wall. Then we waited to be called.
The United States admits more refugees than any country in the world, but in 2006, only 202 Iraqis were allowed in, and most of them had fled persecution under Saddam before the war. This year, millions of Iraqis, Tibetans, Sri Lankans, and Afghans must compete for a mere 5,500 refugee slots Congress has allocated for the Middle East and South Asia. The Iraqis are in line behind their compatriots who have been waiting in Jordan since the late 1990s.
Like other Western representatives, U.S. officials here refer displaced people to the unhcr, which is charged with determining whether someone is a real refugee, and if so, with finding him a safe place to go. Except that, as Amman unhcr head Robert Breen told me, a 1998 agreement with Jordan forbids the agency from classifying anyone as a refugee whom it can't get out of the country within six months—an impossibility in the post-9/11 world. (A country of about 6 million, Jordan has long had the world's highest refugee population per capita, hosting more than a million Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948 and were supposed to stay only a short time.) Of the 21,000 Iraqi asylum seekers the office has registered since the U.S. invasion, only 291 have been granted refugee status; meanwhile the line outside the unhcr's gates gets longer every week, and the wait for an interview stands at five months.
To care for all of the region's displaced Iraqis, the agency had a total budget of $22 million in 2006—less than $7 a person, which must cover not only the Kafkaesque registration programs but also basic survival aid to refugees trapped in desert camps or squatting in abandoned buildings. Recognizing the potential for "severe humanitarian suffering," the Iraq Study Group in December recommended that "the United States take the lead" in funding the UNHCR's Iraq program; currently it donates no more than a quarter of the budget. Direct U.S. aid to the refugees consists of a tiny grant to the Catholic relief organization Caritas (see "How to Help," page 68).
At the embassy, I recounted Abather and Balqes' ordeal at Window 3, then at Window 1—the setup was similar to visitation in a high-security prison. Then, at Window 4, I told the story again to the consul general, who stood behind the bulletproof glass wearing a telephone headset. I was expecting to hear that "the United States is doing its best to help," but there was only silence as the consul's eyes welled up. (An Amman-based aid worker later told me that American diplomats are so distraught by the policies they are charged with representing that "it just takes a few gin and tonics and they'll break down.") Finally, the consul said, "We hear stories like this all the time. We have enormous empathy for the Iraqis who've suffered after working with the Americans, but there's really nothing the embassy can do for them." She handed me a document outlining Congress' sole concession to people like Abather and Balqes: visas for up to 50 military translators from Iraq or Afghanistan each year. "But don't get their hopes up," she added quickly; there were thousands with the same story. "This is something Congress really needs to address," she said as we parted.
The administration certainly doesn't seem inclined to take the initiative. Philip A. Frayne, an embassy spokesman in Amman, told me that "there are no reliable figures" on how many people have fled Iraq, and that in any case, it was Saddam who drove out "a large percentage" of them. Likewise, in its 2006 annual refugee report to Congress, the State Department focused mainly on those Saddam-era exiles, and blithely intoned, "It is hoped that significant numbers of Iraqi refugees will soon be able to return home, although the security situation will remain an important consideration." The report ignored the fact that, according to a survey by the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees, 644,500 new refugees entered Jordan and Syria in 2005 alone. And 2006 will likely be worse.
As much as a quarter of greater Amman's population is now Iraqi, and the crowds have exacerbated the city's severe water shortage. Prices have skyrocketed. Until recently Iraqi children couldn't attend Jordanian schools, and their parents cannot legally work; easily identified by their dialect, Iraqis are discriminated against and terrified of deportation. Some refugees never go outside. Jordanian government spokesman Nasser S. Judeh told me that his country, a staunch U.S. ally and aid recipient, "certainly needs help, and has held discussions with U.S. diplomats" about this issue. Incidentally, Human Rights Watch has also called upon the Gulf Arab states to pitch in; Saudi Arabia's response so far has been to plan construction of a 560-mile wall along its border with Iraq.
before i left jordan, Abather invited me to visit his family and a physician friend from Baghdad who shares their two-room basement apartment. On the Al Zawraa TV channel from Baghdad, we watched U.S. Army vehicles disappear behind roadside bomb blasts as a man sang, "Let's go kill the Americans!" The channel's endless stream of anti-American propaganda perplexed Abather and his friends: "Why does the United States allow this?" they inquired.
When images of dead children supposedly killed by the Americans hit the screen, Abather's friend switched to a channel on which voluptuous Arab women danced in an un-Islamic way. Balqes served Iraqi coffee, and to keep the baby from playing with the colorful cups, Abather suspended her from an elastic swing above our heads. She giggled as he bounced her by her tiny foot. "This is her prison," he joked.
Six months after the kidnapping, he still hadn't gotten the surgery he needed to heal his burned flesh; if the wounds become infected, he could die. Abather rarely complained. "God is testing us," he said. "But we will get through it." He looked at the girl bouncing from the ceiling and smiled. "I have a daughter, and I'm very happy." Balqes was more fearful—twice in the past month, suspicious men had shown up at the apartment. Iraq, she worried, had already caught up with them.
How to Help
Very few organizations are working on getting aid to Iraqi refugees, and of those that are, many are too small or too beleaguered to accept individual donations; the Iraqi Red Crescent, for example, has suffered bombings and mass kidnappings, yet its volunteers continue to deliver aid to displaced families inside Iraq. One of the larger relief organizations working with the refugees is the Catholic group Caritas, whose caseworkers I shadowed while in Amman. Bucking the image of the Land Rover-driving aid worker, they made their rounds in an aging gray Honda, its roof eaten through by rust. They visited Iraqi doctors, engineers, and executives desperate for food, heat, or blankets to fend off the desert winter; one family told the crew they had just sold their stove to buy food. Caritas helps a few thousand families a year, but "the demand far outstrips the money available to us," says Magy Mahrous, who oversees the project. You can make a contribution at:
International Catholic Migration Commission
153 East 53rd Street, 16th floor
New York, NY 10043
Account # 10100491, ABA # 21000089, Swift Code CITIUS33
To ensure that the money reaches the Iraqi program, write "Iraq-icmc" on your check.