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US Vets Return to Middle East to Help Iraqi Refugees


Amman, August 5, 2008 -- The journey to Jordan is long and arduous enough when you set out from the United States: traveling robs you of an entire day, and you forgo the creature comforts of life during 12 hours spent on a plane.

But it would be exponentially longer and infinitely more perilous if you were to set out to cover the much shorter distance from neighboring Iraq, fleeing a devastating war and leaving behind a lifetime that has been stolen from you by violence.

I'm on the first day of a rapid-fire visit to Jordan, the kingdom in the Middle East which has provided a safe haven for an estimated 750,000 refugees from Iraq who have traveled the shorter but more dangerous route to get here.

I'm traveling with a small delegation from the newly founded Iraq Veterans' Refugee Aid Association (IVRAA) -- co-founders of the organization, Luis Montalvan, a former US Army captain, and former US Marine captain Tyler Boudreau, plus photographer Paul Park -- on a mission to try to assess the situation faced by Iraqi refugees, and the burden that hosting those refugees has placed on the Hashemite kingdom.

We also hope to work out what, if anything, we can do to help provide relief to either or both.

That may seem a tall order for three or four people, but in the first 12 hours of the trip we've achieved far more than any of us would probably have dared to imagine six weeks ago when IVRAA germinated.

Tuesday was our first full day in Jordan. People kept moving the goalposts or adding new obstacles, but we kept ducking and diving and taking up the challenges. From when we woke at 6:00 am -- 9 pm Monday on the east coast of the US -- after having slept something like four hours, we went into rounds of meetings, one bang after the other, with Iraqi refugees, Jordanian officials and leaders of NGOs.

Each painted a different picture of the situation faced by Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Each taught us a different lesson. And each called for the people and government of the United States to open their eyes, recognize that the refugee crisis is real and present, and do more to resolve a problem that the United States created, in large part.

The day started with a meeting with two brothers, Hamza and Ali, who left Iraq just over two years ago with nothing more than their savings and the irreplaceable treasure of their family: their father, sister and her two sons, Ali's wife, and themselves.

Both brothers have been kicking their heels in Amman ever since, awaiting word about whether or not they will be given leave to emigrate to the United States. Ali should have been fast-tracked and given priority under the US policy of direct access, which eases the application process for those who worked for the Americans during the war. But he hasn't been, partly because he stepped up to the plate before there were official badges and IDs that identified someone as having worked with the Americans. Those badges are like gold dust these days, giving the bearer the right to a new life, far away from the country they loved and still love, Iraq, but to which they cannot return since they have been branded enemy collaborators by some of their compatriots.

So Ali simply whiles away the days, staying at home so he isn't picked up by the Jordanian police, watching what's left of his life slink away but never really giving up on the idea that he will, one day, make it to the US.

Hamza, on the other hand, learned recently that his application to emigrate to the United States has been accepted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and he is simply waiting for the date when he can fly out to start his new life in America.

He wasn't fast-tracked -- how can anyone call a two-year wait fast-tracking? -- but was given a visa as an urgent humanitarian case after being detained while walking on the streets of Amman.

"I was walking alone in and a policeman stopped me and asked for my resident's card. I didn't have one but I gave him my United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) paper. He didn't care. He took me to the police station," Hamza said.

"This happened around February. I called the UNHCR and told them I had been jailed. I got jailed about 8 o'clock in the morning and spent about 4-5 hours in the cell with a couple of Egyptians and a Syrian man, all of whom had also overstayed their visas -- like me. I think the Jordanians wanted to deport me the day after.

"I was released because a Jordanian friend got me out. I got out by using clout.

"The UN called me days later, and I was interviewed by an American man. I explained everything about my case, and he understood. I told him I can't even go back to my house now. I can't tell what will happen with me. I told him it was an emergency."

Hamza was issued with a coveted blue card bearing a stamp from the Jordanian Interior Ministry and the signature of Imran Riza, head of the UNHCR in Jordan, which indicates that he is a bona fide refugee. He was also told he will be heading to the United States, possibly by the early autumn.

But when he heads stateside, he will leave behind him his brother and sister-in-law, a sister and two small nephews, his elderly father. It's almost like the Sophie's Choice of the Iraq war. And it's our creation, and we are perpetuating it.

As Hamza spoke, you could hear the hope in his voice and see the optimism in his eyes. Ali fixed his haunted gaze on a distant point and listened to his younger brother's tale of goals to be fulfilled and dreams to realize. There was no bitterness between them, no rivalry, just hope that their lives could be put back on track and their dreams would not be snuffed out.

Hamza was headed in the right direction to achieve his goals; a big part of IVRAA's mission is to help the likes of Ali to never lose sight of theirs.

It's just six weeks, buckets of sweat, sleepless nights, wells of tears on my part, and more emails than a chain letter generates since IVRAA was formally created. But today, we took a huge step down the path to getting this fledgling organization with a big heart to truly soar. We met with Jordanian government officials -- I was told that was nigh-on impossible --; with UN officials, with refugees. Tomorrow the cycle continues, with talks not only with US diplomats but also the Iraqi ambassador to Jordan and at least one humanitarian aid worker.

If that's what just three people can achieve, working tirelessly for a cause, think what 300, 3,000 or a few more zeros at the end could achieve.

Time to wake up and smell the Iraqi chai that we've brewed, America.


Karin Zeitvogel is a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, based in Washington DC. An American citizen, she has also worked for AFP in Poland and France, and on short-term missions in the Baltic states, Cyprus and Greece. When Iraq Veterans' Refugee Aid Association (www.firstgiving.com/iraqveteransrefugeeaidassociation) was founded, she volunteered to serve as the group's press officer.

Karin will file posts every day until Sunday on IVRAA's Jordan mission.