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Torment and Alienation: Why Vampires are Popular and Iraqi Refugees are Ignored?

January 23, 2010

Joachim Ladefoged: The Flight from Iraq

I’ve yet to succumb to the vampire craze. Given the growing number of conversations –- with friends over brunch, strangers on a bus, acquaintances at a dinner party – that this excludes me from, at some point I’m sure I’ll give in and read the Twilight series or watch True Blood.

In the meantime, when I recently saw a Huffington Post article comparing Iraqi refugees to the undead I was convinced that I was, yet again, not in the know.

This time it wasn’t simply vampire knowledge that I was lacking.

The “crepuscular parallel universe” Kathryn Shultz refers to in her article is that of individuals who have fled violence, persecution, and torture in Iraq to seek refuge in a Syria, Lebanon and the United States.

Shultz describes life as an Iraqi refugee this way:

… you come to occupy all the professional, geographic, architectural, and — yes — temporal interstices of normal life. In fact, “normal life” ceases to exist; life itself becomes un-lifelike, unrecognizable. I can’t tell you how many times in the Middle East I heard a refugee tell me that he or she was not really alive. This isn’t living, they’d say. My life is over — this, from someone who was thirty-four years old. I might as well have died in a bombing in Baghdad. I am dying in slow motion. I am already dead.

There are roughly 2 million Iraqi refugees worldwide, most living in Syria and Jordan.  As recently as December 2009, UNHCR described the unenviable choice many Iraqis face: unending destitution or a return to ongoing violence and serious human rights violations in Iraq. Neither the Syrian or Jordanian governments permit Iraqis to work – leaving men and women, young and old in dire straits. Of those who do choose to return to Iraq, many end up fleeing again – only to once more find poverty and hopelessness.

Inevitably Iraqi women, like most displaced women, experience increased vulnerability. Particularly as violence has increased in Iraq – and more men are killed and kidnapped – female-headed households and unaccompanied women have flooded out of the country. Whether they are with or without the support and protection of male relatives, women face substantial psychological and physical risk. A UN report found that many girls and women, in secret or with the knowledge and involvement of family members, turn to prostitution — also known as survival sex.

Iraqi boys as young as 12 and 13 years are put to work with little prospect of a better future. Accustomed to being the breadwinner and protector of their family, many men grapple with a diminished sense of worth. (According to Michael Boyce, young men reluctantly confront this newfound reality by seeking alternate ways of “getting laid.” I appreciate the unique stresses that men face, however I find it hard to prioritize the presumably insatiable libidos of 20-something men.) Anderson Cooper 360 identifies domestic violence as a symptom of the Iraqi refugee crisis and, surprisingly, focuses on the male perpetrators of this violence. Or rather yet, the focus is on Iraqi men and the burdensome pressures that serve as a backdrop to their abusive behaviors. (After a lengthy explanation of the refugee crisis there is this chilling statement: “Fahed’s face betrays no emotion when he admits he beats his children to release his frustration.”) It is critical to understand male violence against women – both as an individual action and a socially sanctioned behavior. However the implication (whether implicit or explicit) must not be that there is any valid justification for the abuse men mete out.

The situation for Iraqi refugees, both men and women, is similarly as desperate in the United States as it is in Syria and Jordan – except with the added burden of heightened expectations. (Images of American wealth and prosperity are virtually omnipresent in the rest of the world. And it is undeniable that the vast majority of people in this country – whether in the midst of economic crisis or not – live comparatively comfortable lives.)

Prior to February 2007, the United States resettled only a few hundred of the millions of Iraqis who fled the country after 2003.  By 2009, the number had increased to approximately 17,000. Still this is a minuscule portion of the total Iraqi refugee population.

Advocates worked tirelessly to encourage the US government to accept Iraqis who were forced to flee a war initiated by the United States. Only so now a flawed U.S. Refugee Admissions Program can resettle Iraqi refugees into poverty and despair.

High levels of trauma, injury, and illness – even when compared to other refugee populations – are compounded by Iraqis’ inability to meet their basic needs. Assistance is often hundreds of dollars short of paying rent (never mind buying food and other necessities). Refugees, including women who may have little employment experience and not speak English, are expected to find a job and support themselves and their families within 8 months (!!) of arriving in the United States.

Yet, lest we forget, there are no jobs – or very few – in America these days.

If and when they don’t find jobs, very few refugees have a safety net in the United States. As one Iraqi man in Chicago put it: “Nobody — and excuse my language — gives a damn if you have a place to live or become homeless.”

An additional facet of this unfortunate reality is that many of those imperiled are so because of their association with the United States – as interpreters for our armed forces, as civil society experts for the State Department and USAID, or as employees with the many U.S. companies and NGOs. They served – loyally and respectfully – alongside American counterparts, yet in many cases have not been privy to the same upon arriving on US soil.

In the face of extremely difficult conditions – both in Iraq and in countries of first asylum (Syria, Jordan) – resettlement in the United States is meant to provide sanctuary. The reality is far from that. Some refugees say they have even considered returning to war-ravaged Iraq in order to escape dire poverty in America. In the midst of their own turmoil, individuals are sending money from Iraq to finance the basic needs (housing, food) of refugees in the United States. This is troubling.

“Maryam” 3/11/2009: After her husband was killed in 2005, she fled to Jordan with her young children. They registered with the UNHCR immediately and sought resettlement. Because no one met her at the airport, she tells us, she had to go to a shelter for homeless families. She has been living there with her children ever since. The oldest two are enrolled in school, but because it is so far away from the shelter, they have to wake up at 5:30 every morning. The transition from a middle-class, married lifestyle in Iraq to homelessness and single-parenthood in the United States has been stressful and traumatic. She has been taking prescription antidepressants, but now finds that psychiatrists and other  doctors will not accept her Medicaid coverage. She says, “I left Iraq to find security, but what kind of security is it to live in a homeless shelter?

I can’t fathom what it is like to live through war. It is difficult to imagine the strength it takes to flee to a distant country. I can only try to conjure up what it must feel like to arrive as a refugee in America – dependent on people who speak a different language, surrounded by ubiquitous excess with access to little of it. (The image of an American grocery store comes to mind. Roaming the aisles, hungry, without money to buy even the cheapest of the endless loaves of bread.) Nevermind being perceived with skepticism – or at best ignored – by most Americans.

Kathryn Shultz ends her article entitled, “Are Iraqis undead?” by saying:

A dispossessed and exoticized people, exiled from a distant Eastern land, reluctant to venture forth in daylight, living on the margins of society … any of this sound familiar? As every Brown University literary theorist plus every teenage girl in America can tell you, all the great vampire stories in history draw their power not just from a pair of bloody incisors, but also from the pain of living a life that makes you unknowable and incomprehensible to others. Sadly, we are fascinated by this kind of torment, alienation, and otherness in fantasy, while remaining comparatively indifferent to it in real life.

It is not just literary theorists and teenage girls who can tell you about vampires. Something about the life of a vampire has gripped our culture (I’ll avoid a reference to incisors here).

Can someone please explain to me what is so fascinating about vampires? Is it really their torment and alienation?

The reality that America – touted as the land of opportunity and promise – offers so little to Iraqi refugees that violence, insecurity and human rights abuse may be a more compelling option strikes me as far more surreal and troubling than anything the fantasy world of vampires could possibly offer.

Alicia Simoni currently lives in Washington, DC where she works in the field of gender and peacebuilding – documenting women’s unique perspectives and highlighting the integral role gender plays in building and sustaining peace globally. She has a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

2 Comments
  1. Cigdem permalink
    January 25, 2010 5:46 pm

    It’s so true..
    There are so many tragedies going on throughout the world, yet so little media attention about them all. I know so much more about Twlight then I do about the conditions in Iraq for example.
    I do think it’s my job to go and look for the information if I want to, but why shouldn’t it be accessible? We should be more aware of other cultures and the way of living in other countries that brings these refugess into Canada.

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