Draining the hourglass: Iraqi refugees in Jordan

In Jordan, Iraqi refugees are commonly referred to as ‘brothers’ yet at the same time also suffer a variety of social stigmas. But do Ali and his family have a better chance, having worked for the coalition forces?

Phil Leech
11 April 2012

Ali waits, that is what he does. He is waiting for a phone call from a faceless bureaucratic organisation to tell him if he has passed his security check and then if he is eligible to fulfil his dream of resettlement in the United States. As a teenager, between 2007 and 2010, Ali worked for the coalition forces in various capacities. Most recently he was a translator for the US military – including on operations with Special Forces. His father had also worked for the Americans, installing air conditioning in the various bases and offices throughout the country. Because they are veterans of the campaign and the occupation, according to the US' rules , Ali and his family have a better chance than many refugees of being allowed to move to the US.


Ali in Wadi Rum

I got to know Ali while I was studying at the British Institute in Amman , Jordan. He was often around the Institute, visiting friends and using his engineering experience to help out with all kinds of things. Through Ali I met a number of other Iraqi refugees in Amman who had found themselves trapped in similar situations. Not one of them believes that conditions are safe enough to return home, yet they remain in a kind of stasis because so few other options are available for resettlement or to build a new life outside Iraq .

There are approximately half a million Iraqi refugees in Jordan , which means it ranks second behind only Syria (approx. 1.2 million) in terms of total number . Under most circumstances Iraqi refugees are not legally able to work in Jordan and, although officially there is support provided through the United Nations (UNHCR), the practical reality is that most refugees in Amman live without any regular source of income. This is the situation that Ali and many of his friends are in. Most seek to support themselves through informal employment or they depend on support from family members elsewhere.

The term in Arabic: al-laaje’ (refugee) actually carries negative connotations. The burden (as it is often described behind closed doors) of Palestinians who were expelled from what is now Israel in 1948 , still weighs heavily on governments and the populations of many Middle Eastern states. In these states the presence of refugee communities is often seen from two conflicting perspectives. Simultaneously, they are both regarded as latent (and on occasions , very real) threats to the status quo and yet also as comrades in arms, whom there is a responsibility to protect. This conflict might explain why, in Jordan, Iraqi refugees are commonly referred to as ‘brothers’ yet at the same time also suffer a variety of social stigmas .

In terms of the greater international community’s responsibility to those displaced from Iraq, the narrative is one of miscalculation and mismanagement from the outset . Official estimates from international bodies preparing for the aftermath of the invasion predicted that after the war began, in 2003, there would be an exodus of approximately one million people. This, in fact, failed to materialise and as a result resources were cut or redirected. However, some three years later the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in the Northern city of Samaara, precipitated the widespread deterioration of Iraq's security situation. Refugee numbers rose rapidly and both international organisations and host states struggled to cope. Further, the Jordanian government itself was particularly concerned for its own domestic security after an Iraq-based off-shoot of al-Qaeda had carried out coordinated bombing attacks in Amman 2005, killing 60 people.

The 2007 US military’s ‘surge’ restored some order to Iraq. Following from this, in 2008, both the US government and the UNHCR declared that conditions had improved enough to allow the majority of refugees to return rather than be resettled . Yet, this claim was contested by both Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group . For Ali too events demonstrated that it was not safe for him. In 2008, at the age of 18, he was attacked near his home in Baghdad. He was shot through the abdomen but fortunately survived without sustaining any major permanent physical damage. After he recovered Ali continued working for the coalition until he left for Syria, moving to Jordan later.

A 2008 survey of Iraqi refugees suggests that the overwhelming majority remain reluctant to return home in spite of the various hardships they endure in the host nations. Further, many lack confidence in the ability of official institutions to deal with their concerns. Partly this results from the fact that the US and other states essentially responsible for the conflict in the first place have fallen short of their obligations toward refugees dictated in relevant international treaties .

If and when he gets to the US, Ali says that he would think about joining the military again, although he would prefer to join the Air Force rather than the Army this time. He is drawn by the professionalism and camaraderie of the US Forces he remembers from the war. However, his first love has always been driving. “I don’t care what I do really. I just always want to be around cars,” he told me, before explaining through a broad smile what model of Ford 4x4 he wants to buy so he can take on the long stretches of wilderness in Arizona, Nevada or Texas. But for now, Ali – like so many others displaced by the last war in Mesopotamia – does not know when or if he is going to get a chance to fulfil that dream. Right now, that is for other people to decide. He just has to hope for his phone to ring to be told the news that he is waiting for. 

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