A Visit With An Iraqi Refugee

I returned from my reporting trip to Jordan about a month ago. I’ve written five pieces so far from the trip — linked at the bottom of this article. One more soon to be published by CNBC and I hope others to come.

But one I haven’t written yet, which I can’t get off my mind, is the story of Fadia Bayati, a 42-year-old Iraqi refugee. I found her story a great contrast to most of the news about refugees that comes out of the region. Bayati has been in Jordan since 2004, when she fled with her husband and three boys in the turmoil after the American invasion of Iraq. Her husband, an HVAC contractor, had been disabled, she said.

They were Palestinians, who had been under the protection of Saddam, so after he fell they were vulnerable both to anti-Saddam forces and the Americans, she said. Mahdi’s army killed her brother. They took her nephew, who was 9.

“He had a Pepsi, and he threw it,” she said through a translator. “They took him for 12 hours.”

Western media, limited by time and money and reaching for easy narratives, tend to paint refugees or anyone caught up in the conflicts that litter the region as victims. There’s a fine line between well-meaning pity — as in this Buzzfeed story — and support for people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. They are victims — but they are more than victims, too.

I interviewed Bayati in the small city of Zarqa, where the Atlanta-based charity CARE runs a microlending group for women — a mixture of Jordanians and Syrian and Iraqi refugees. A few hundred thousand Syrian refugees, out of an estimated influx of nearly 1 million, have found their way to Zarqa, about an hour’s drive from Amman. We drove through the Jordanian desert, passing dozens of concrete houses and sheep wearing yellow-orange dust on their wool.

Bayati spoke with strength I found incredibly compelling. We met in a small house, with beautiful dark blue draperies in the living room, where there were three couches arranged. I sat on one of them, interviewing two refugee women, while the Jordanian members of the group met in the breakfast room off the modern kitchen. The idea of this microlending group is that members pool their money and make loans to finance each others’ businesses — baking, or handicrafts, mostly — or small projects. Last year, I wrote about a woman who was using a similar group to finance her son’s college education.

It was clear the women — many of them breadwinners — drew strength from each other. The spirit wasn’t that much different than a girls’ night here the United States — except that the stories were so much more brutal.

Bayati’s story turned quickly to a forced flight. Mahdi’s Army returned her nephew from his questioning, but it was clear to Bayati,, whose older son had already been damaged emotionally by what he’d seen, that her children were not going to grow up well, or maybe at all, in an environment of terror.

When the men told her family to get out, they packed a car with everything they owned, traveling across the country. The 8-hour trip took 16 because there were so many American checkpoints.

She was thankful that her children are fair-skinned and have blue eyes, because she thought that made the American servicemen more likely to pass them trough the checkpoints.

When the family arrived in Zarka, Bayati, had only her gold ring and earrings, which she sold to rent a house. At first, they got 75 Jordanian dinar a month from the UNHCR. — but that support stopped, and that’s when Batia stepped up. She had earned a communications degree at an Iraqi university, but after her marriage, never used it.

Seeking a way to support her family, she began volunteering for non-governmental organizations working in Jordan. Her ties to Iraqi community enabled her to identify which refugees needed help — a big aid to non-governmental organizations that sometimes have a hard time establishing trust. She also began helping with microfinance projects and an organization that educates refugees on sexual harrassment. And, she’s asked to learn English.

As I listened, I heard a familiar story of entrepreneurship. She had followed all the best career advice, volunteering to gain skills, and then making herself so useful that she was offered jobs. “You go search for opportunities,” she explained to the Syrian refugee across from us, who was newly arrived.

“We all love Fadia,” said Ethar Ghoul, who works for CARE. “She works for everyone.”

Bayati also makes tablecloths and knitted clothing for the winter, and last year helped organize a donation drive at Jordanian universities for refugees. It was titled: Donate, Even If It’s One Dollar.

“Where do you get the strength?” I asked.

“Life is a sea, and we have to be the captains,” she answered.

These days, the earnings for her family, all produced by her, are about 350 dinars a month. Her two younger sons, 18 and 15, are beginning to work: She has high hopes for them. Her husband doesn’t work, and her oldest son is mentally disabled and on medication. “He saw too much in the war,” she said.

Eventually, she may save enough to open a small factory to produce yogurt, a specialty of hers. I was scribbling in my notebook, taking down her determination and thinking: “I absolutely believe you can open a factory if you want to.”

By the time I left the interview, any impression of her as a refugee or a victim were long gone. She didn’t allow the word refugee to define her or her family: She’s the breadwinner and heart of her family, and a support to the entire community.

When we write or read about people caught up in conflicts, it is tempting to portray them as powerless. I’m glad that Buzzfeed is putting time and resources into covering international news — that’s a major, and difficult investment, and too few media outlets are doing it.

The story that partly inspired me to write this post includes the word “strength” in the headline. But the images and the details of the reporting reinforce just the opposite idea: that the refugees are weak.

That kind of lazy sentimentality, practiced too frequently by many media outlets and no doubt by some aid organizations, minimizes refugees, and is ultimately defeating to them and to people who want to help them.

Here are some of other stories from my trip

Syrian Refugee Businesses Emerge Out of the Crisis


On An Inspiring Bookseller Defying Censors


How To Finance Your Travel With Freelancing


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