This series will hopefully give people in the West a unique insight into the struggles being faced by Iraq’s five million refugee’s and also provide a unique glimpse into the work being undertaken to provide solidarity with struggling families, who have been uprooted from their homeland.
1. How, when and why did you establishing the Collateral Repair Project?
Collateral Repair Project was first initiated as a local (Seattle WA USA) effort to raise funds to help one Iraqi widow and her family to establish some security after US forces killed her husband while he was driving ambulance during the aptly named Operation Iron Fist in Anbar province, Iraq in October 2005.
After returning to the USA from Baghdad, when I went there as one of the internationals responding for a call to be “human shields” to try to thwart the then eminent US invasion in 2003 I watched, with my heart breaking and utter frustration, the slaughter of the Iraqi people that I had seen there – the mothers and fathers holding their children’s hands as they walked them to school, the joyous brides and grooms celebrating their weddings, shop keepers and vendors in the souks, and children selling cigarettes on the sidewalks. I knew the humanity of Iraq that was being blasted and shredded in Bush’s campaign of “Shock and Awe” and I felt helpless to do anything significant to counter this mass murder being committed in my name.
One day I read a report by an Iraqi journalist who interviewed staff at a hospital in al-Qaim after a dreadful US military attack. This report gave the names and details about some of the victims of this attack – one being Mahmoud Chiad, their ambulance driver and the report told of his surviving widow and their six children. I wondered how Mahmoud’s family would survive and I wanted to do something to help them. After a lot of searching on the internet and begging help from other journalists and activists, I was put in touch with the journalist who had written this report under a pseudonym. I asked her if she could ask the widow, Nouriya, what she and her children needed to improve their stability. At the time I was working two jobs and thought I could send money to them every month. However, Nouriya’s request was a bit more than I could provide myself - she asked for an acre of land, two cows and ten sheep.
At that time, I began telling her story to anyone who would listen and asking people to contribute. Several friends pitched in to help with this informal campaign, another volunteer created a web site so that we could reach more people outside of the Seattle area…by spring of 2006 we were able to send Nouriya and her family the funds. (We received photos of her and the children in front of their new home and recently just received an updated photo of the family. Do you want copies of these photos?)
We were amazed at how people responded to the crisis of this one family and attributed that response to being able to put names and faces to replace that cold, impersonal term “collateral damage” as well as knowing that many of us had not wanted this war and, like us, wanted a way to express our remorse to its victims. With our small success behind us and a web site already in place, we knew we must help other Iraqi victims. We held a contest via email, asking supporters to suggest names for our project , then we compiled all the suggestions in one email and sent it out to the entire group to vote for their favorite. Submissions came from all across the US and the UK. Collateral Repair Project won by a landslide.
Soon after naming the project, our trusted Iraqi contact in Baghdad had to flee the country because of threats against her and her daughters’ lives. She was one of the first academics and journalists I heard of that was targeted for these type of threats. It was 2006 and Iraq was falling apart under sectarian violence and the general lawlessness resulting from Bremer disbanding security forces and police. We became concerned about sending funds into Iraq – not only were we afraid that the funds would not get to who they were intended for but, even more so, that anyone who worked with us might be targeted because of their cooperation with a US entity. We spent a long time researching other ways that CRP could help. We researched the possibility of purchasing large quantities of low-tech water filters to distribute to homes but we still had deep concerns about the lack of security and putting Iraqi partners at risk – as well as the shipments of water filters.
But then, with this tsunami of violence, the first large waves of Iraqis began fleeing to Jordan and Syria. I recall, at the time, inserting “Iraqi refugees / Jordan” into Google and coming up with less than 20 links. But that changed rapidly. We heard about the needs of refugees in Amman and knew that our work would benefit Iraqis here and not put anyone at risk. We began providing funds for small projects for Iraqis in Amman in early 2007. Mary and I came to Jordan for the first time in the fall of that year.
2. Can you describe what resources you provide for Iraqi refugees in Jordan?
Currently, because of the extreme reduction in contributions since the global economic meltdown, we have trimmed back our projects tremendously and eliminated quite a few in order to be able to continue our vital work here – especially since other, much larger NGOs assisting Iraqis have had to cut back their aid programs, leaving Iraqis with less than the inadequate resources they had before. Right now we are focusing most on these projects:
· Milk for Kids: initially we purchased infant formula for high risk infants when their parents could not afford it, putting the child at even more risk when their parents would water down the formula to “make it last longer”. Because the high cost of formula limits the number of children we can help, we are ending formula provision and switching to providing powdered milk for impoverished children ages 1-14. $10 pays for one child to have three glasses of milk per day for one month.
We are also trying to find a way to encourage and support mothers in breastfeeding since this is, by far, the most healthy option for both mothers and babies – as well as being the most economical. We would like to facilitate training of “peer support trainers from within the local communities to provide this type of support - based on a model such as Le Leche League International uses. Iraqi women have been torn from their nuclear families and home communities and the support provided by their mothers and other elder experienced women. Alone and traumatized in exile, they flounder and often give up when encountering normal challenges in breast feeding. We hope peer supporters can, in this type of situation, make up for some of the loss of that essential support.
· Pre-natal Vitamins for Expectant Mothers In the course of interviewing families for eligibility for the MILK for KIDS program, we encountered several expectant mothers – many who had doctor’s reports stating that they had vitamin and mineral deficiencies. None of these women were given prenatal vitamins and they could not afford to purchase them. We are just beginning this project and hope we can build on it as it is critical to protect the lives of the unborn and their mothers. We are still exploring cost options but, right now, we have a reasonable estimate that $20 will provide a pregnant woman with three months of prenatal vitamins
· Emergency Assistance this is and no doubt will continue to be our most crucial program. Many families receive a small monthly cash assistance grant through UNHCR that is barely adequate to pay for their most basic needs of food and shelter. Extra expenses – such as a medical emergency or chronic illness requiring prescription medications and payment for doctor bills and treatments – can throw a family into crisis, putting them in the position of having to choose whether to pay the rent or pay for their medical needs. Any unexpected expense puts a family in jeopardy. Also, new arrivals from Iraq often come with little more than a suitcase of clothing and a small amount of money – often loaned by family and friends who have little themselves. It can take several months after registering with UNHCR and applying for cash assistance before they receive their first grant. CRP has provided many types of Emergency Assistance such as:
o rent payment when there is risk of eviction
o utility payment to reinstate the utility or to avoid disconnection
o heaters with fuel tanks in winter
o fans and refrigerators n summer
o prescription medicines
o low-cost surgeries, child birth expenses, and medical tests
o necessary household items – stoves, dishes, blankets, etc
Micro-Projects are one-time purchases of equipment and supplies to allow Iraqis to create informal “cottage industry” in the safety of their homes in order for them to earn income to provide for themselves and their families. Cost: $100 and up. Iraqis in Jordan without legal residency are barred from employment. They must rely on charity to meet their needs. Many have specific skills that can be used to earn much needed income for their families.
Because Micro-Projects do not allow Iraqis to open official businesses (they cannot openly advertise or hire employees), their earnings from their projects are usually not enough to make them independent of the need for the UNHCR cash assistance program but these projects, in addition to bringing in extra cash that is so sorely needed, also provide an intangible benefit; days that we formerly idle and spent ruminating on their current situation and grief of their losses in Iraq are now spent productively instead. Many Micro-Project recipients were employed professionals in Iraq and few, no matter what their former employment was, feel good about accepting charity. Micro-projects provide Iraqis a path to dignity by allowing them to earn money through their own efforts. Examples of some of the many types of Micro-Projects CRP has funded are:
o Laptops and printers
o Specialty ovens for baking Iraqi flat bread
o Sewing machines – both home and industrial
o Home beauty salons
o Key duplicating machines
o Tile sanding machines
o Ovens, utensils, and ingredients for cooking specialty foods such as kuba, and dolma,
o Pickling supplies and jars
o Art supplies
Sadly, we have had to cut back on the number of Micro-Projects we provide as the cost-per-recipient is high with our current budget limitations. We currently only provide Micro-Projects only when a donor specifically requests their contribution be used for them. We hope that in the future we will be able to return to granting more of these as they are our most popular project among the Iraqi refugees themselves.
· Distribution Center: “Free Store” of Gently Used Clothing and Household Items CRP recently opened a small office and distribution center. We collect good used clothing and other items from wealthy Iraqi and Jordanians in Amman (and now, one corporate donor has offered to contribute women’s hygiene products for distribution through CRP) that are available at no cost to needy Iraqi families. We hope to utilize our distribution centre for other activities such as:
o Informal conversational English language practice sessions
o Cultural celebrations – i.e. Iraqi feasts on special occasions
o Children’s art sessions
o Informal craft activities for women
o A small lending library
· Coats for Kids (annual program) warm winter coats for children ages 1 year to 18 years. Last winter we distributed nearly 1000 coats. This winter 300 children received new warm coats
· Education for Kids with Special Needs CRP has paid tuition for special needs students and for home tutoring for capable students who missed too much school to be integrated into normal classrooms. We have also provided tuition, books , uniforms and shoes, and school supplies for students who, without help, would not have been able to get these necessary items. Unfortunately this project, because of its substantial expense, has currently been scaled back dramatically. We are sadly unable to pay tuition on an ongoing basis for many special needs students because of the lack on consistent donations.