Amman – Back in Najaf, Iraq, Khayzaran and her family lived in a well-kept house. They had two cars and a small orchard. Her children, two girls and three boys, attended school and came home to modest feasts.
But when her husband, Saad, received death threats, they abruptly packed their lives into a few suitcases and left home, relatives and all that is familiar behind. They sidestepped many obstacles and dead bodies along the way to reach safety outside the inferno that Iraq had become.
Khayzaran’s husband and their eldest son, Khaled, were granted asylum in Austria, but she found herself stuck in Jordan, becoming both “the mother and the father” to the two younger boys, Mohammed and Ali, and to the girls, Fatima and Hajar.
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“We left unexpectedly. Most of our belongings are still in Iraq. My husband’s family sold some of them to help us flee,” Khayzaran said, as she braided bamboo sticks into baskets and food trays that she sells on street corners during the day.
Jordan was supposed to have been a temporary stop, a waiting room, until the firestorm in Iraq calmed down. But as the violence in her home country escalated, Khayzaran knew that there was no going back.
She registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and applied for asylum, but she and her younger children were denied it for lack of appropriate documentation.
According to UNHCR estimates, over 4.7 million Iraqis have been displaced since the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, with at least 700,000 of them settled in refugee camps in Jordan.
Today, Khayzaran shares her basket-making skills with other Iraqi women, facilitating workshops at international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for extra cash. She, like other Iraqi refugees here, must navigate semi-legal avenues and the underground economy in order to survive.
The founder of the Bushra Institute for Research on Women, Jehan Nourjan, says that the Iraq war and its aftermath resulted in an over representation of households led by single mothers. This change in family structure has strongly affected women who now find themselves either the primary or the sole heads of their households.
“Iraqi refugee women are bearing a disproportionate burden of family responsibilities,” says Nourjan. “Many have had their husbands either killed, disappeared or seriously injured. The onus is now on the women to find a way to secure income,” adds Nourjan.
In an effort to help Iraqis, international and local NGOs offer Iraqi refugees, mostly women, a small stipend in exchange for “volunteer time.” This play on semantics (Iraqis can “volunteer”, but not “work”) allows refugees to supplement the inadequate aid they receive.
Dr. Jalal Damra, director of the Institute for Family Health in Amman, says that NGOs specifically target Iraqi women to help with much needed administrative assistance.
“Because women more so than men, were perceived as better equipped to enter homes and build relations with families, and because Iraqi men were more likely to be targeted by local police, aid organisations relied heavily on Iraqi women to volunteer,” said Damra. “Now you have a situation where Iraqi men, who were the primary breadwinners, depend on their volunteer wives to bring in food for the family.”
The increased breadwinning responsibility that Iraqi women have had to shoulder in exile has impacted traditional gender roles and has become a source of conflict within families.
Ahmed, a father of three, jokingly introduces his wife, Eman, as the “husband.” He nudges Eman on the shoulder and chuckles saying that she is “the man of the house.” But behind the laughter, Eman, who supplements the family’s finances by working as a data collection volunteer for an international NGO, said that he often breaks into violent verbal storms. The trend of Iraqi women providing for the family has “deepened Iraqi men’s emotional scars,” said Damra, who is also the director of the Trauma Centre at Nour El Hussein in Amman. “The men already feel their sense of dignity degraded, having to depend on aid for their and their family’s survival. Having the women in their family supplement the aid adds more pain to an already deep wound,” he added.
While much of the outside world considers Iraqi asylum seekers to be refugees, in Jordan Iraqis have no corresponding status. Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Iraqis in Jordan are accommodated as “guests.” But, behind this poetic designation lies an uncertain “legal limbo.”
Being a “guest” and not a “refugee” means denial of legal protection and services. Iraqis cannot work legally and they can be detained and deported any time for being in the country illegally.
Ibtesam is the mother of a newborn baby girl. She used to sell cigarettes on a street corner in downtown Amman. Her home in east Amman was attacked by a group of men – informants for the militia that was after her husband in Iraq, she says – who came looking for him. Her husband disappeared shortly thereafter, leaving her four months pregnant. IPS met Ibtesam at an Iraqi restaurant and nightclub, where women, Iraqi, Jordanian, Moroccan and East European, entertain clients.
“I’ve become the mother, father, husband and the grandmother. I am everything to my daughter,” Ibtesam, a thin-lipped woman with a hint of rouge on her cheeks said. “When I don’t have anything else, what can I do? I need to pay for rent, food, medical bills, diapers and milk. I have no hope that I can live without this,” she said.
With no one to look after her month-old baby, Ibtesam takes her to the clubs. The baby sleeps in a seat set next to a table, as Ibtesam and Um Rima, a Jordanian ‘madam’, and her 20-year-old daughter, Rima, spot clients.
At the night clubs, the women sit at tables, headed by stern looking madams, holding flavoured tobacco water pipes in one hand and whiskey glasses in the other. They eat dinner that the restaurant provides the female workers free of charge.
When the music beats loud, the women get up and dance to live Iraqi tunes, sung by prominent Iraqi performers like Sajida Obaid. The songs are heavy, filled with imagery of bereavement and nostalgia.
At dawn, if the women workers have found a client, they negotiate a price and leave together. The price depends on the club tier. Um Rima told IPS that some women make as much as 500 Jordanian Dinars (700 US dollars) a night, at top end nightclubs.
“When looking at sex work, it’s important to not only look at this phenomenon but to look at why this phenomenon is happening,” says Damra. “Sex work is not present only in the Iraqi refugee community. Rather, it is present in most refugee communities. We see that refugee communities are one of the most at risk communities,” he adds.
Damra is one of the few observers to have followed the situation of Iraqi refugees in Jordan from an early stage. He says that the lack of effective employment opportunities combined with the absence of traditional familial control, “a watching eye” he calls it, and a feeling of exclusion in the new community push refugees to seek financial stability through sex work.
A report put out by the Women’s Refugee Commission in December 2009 affirms that the vast majority of Iraqis in Jordan cannot lawfully work and have few sources of sustainable income.
Many receive aid from the UNHCR in the form of preloaded ATM cards to cover basic rent and food. Individuals receive approximately 105 dollars a month; a family of three gets 225 dollars and a family of five is entitled to 310 dollars.
For Khayzaran’s kids, their days of plenty are long gone. Living on 310 dollars a month means not only having to secure illegal jobs to help their mother, but also irregular meals.
Hanan Tabbara is a freelance documentarian based in New York. She and Salam Talib, an Iraqi journalist, are currently working on a film about Iraqis living in Jordan.