Every week here in Amman we visit the community of Iraqi refugees we are helping by providing them with food, medicine and shelter. The eldest man in this community is Kareem. He is very thin and walks with a cane. His eyes are gentle and his demeanor is calm and rhythmic. I would describe him as observant, caring, and the best of listeners.
A younger man works as a translator for us but there are times when he doesn’t understand a word we say. It is then that he looks to Kareem, who translates what we have said into Arabic to help the translator. Even though Kareem does not speak fluent English, he understands what we are saying.
We sat down with Kareem, who is always dressed in slacks and a button-up shirt that has the feel of the 1920s. Kareem has been married to Siham for 16 years and has three daughters. He is, to our surprise, only 57 years old. Kareem had lived in Baghdad his whole life until sectarian violence there caused him to leave in 2006 and relocate his family to Mosul in the north of the country. Mosul was annexed by ISIS in June last year and Kareem and his family had to flee for a second time.
When we asked Kareem what the hardest part about being a refugee is, he replied: “Being strangers in a foreign land.” So often, Westerners think that Arab countries are facsimiles of each other and that the differences are marginal. But for Kareem, the difference between Iraq and Jordan is huge.
Providing for his family is extremely difficult for Kareem. He is unable to provide for his three young daughters and this is a great source of anxiety. Previously, he had worked with a photocopying company in Iraq. However, in Jordan it is against the law for him to work. Jordan will not give work permits to refugees – this is to discourage people like Kareem from going to Jordan, even when they have nowhere else to go. Kareem also struggles with a hip replacement, the result of a bad automobile accident, which makes caring for his family even more challenging.
Kareem and his family fled Mosul on Wednesday 6th August 2014. On that day, Kareem received a phone call from a friend. It was late at night and his friend told him he had to flee for his life; that his whole family had to flee immediately. He walked outside. There was no electricity anywhere, not even the sound of emergency generators. It was dark and everyone was gone. Kareem and his family left their home at 11.00pm – they took nothing with them, they simply walked out into the desert in the clothes they were standing in.
After walking for 25 miles in the dark, at around 4:00am Kareem and his family were picked up by a complete stranger who offered to drive them to the relative safety of Dohuk, where Kareem’s mother-in-law lived. Two months later, the family made their way to Amman in Jordan and Kareem has not seen his homeland since. Interviewing Kareem reveals a sadness many Iraqi refugees feel:
“What do you hope for? What do you want?” I asked Kareem. He answered: “I want a place where I can settle down that is safe and to guarantee the future of my children. For myself, I don’t want anything, only for my family.”
“Would you ever go back to Iraq?” I asked. Kareem said: “If there was peace, I would.”
Kareem is the first Iraqi refugee that I have heard say he would choose to go back to Iraq if the fighting there ended. I am sure there are many like him. My conversation with Kareem reminded me of this quote by Mother Teresa:
“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.’”
If you would like to help Kareem and his family, or other Iraqi refugee families who have fled to Jordan, you can do so by visiting our new Just Giving page: The Emergency Appeal for Iraqi Refugees.
Heather Joy Quinones
The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME)