Books, Not Bombs
The dirty little secret of the Iraq war isn’t in Baghdad or Basra. Rather, it’s found in the squalid brothels of Damascus and the poorest neighborhoods of East Amman.
Some two million Iraqis have fled their homeland and are now sheltering in run-down neighborhoods in surrounding countries. These are the new Palestinians, the 21st-century Arab diaspora that threatens the region’s stability.
Many youngsters are getting no education, and some girls are pushed into prostitution, particularly in Damascus. Impoverished, angry, disenfranchised, unwanted, these Iraqis are a combustible new Middle Eastern element that no one wants to address or even think about.
American hawks prefer to address the region’s security challenges by devoting billions of dollars to permanent American military bases. A simpler way to fight extremism would be to pay school fees for refugee children to ensure that they at least get an education and don’t become forever marginalized and underemployed.
We broke Iraq, and we have a moral responsibility to those whose lives have been shattered by our actions. Helping them is also in our national interest, for we’ll regret our myopia if we allow young Iraqi refugees to grow up uneducated and unemployable, festering in their societies.
“My husband and I have decided to pull our three children out of school,” said Yussra Shaker, a college-educated English teacher who fled Iraq and went to Jordan when her 15-year-old son was shot in the leg in a kidnapping attempt. Ms. Yussra deeply believes in education, and her eyes welled with tears as she described the decision to withdraw her children because of school fees and beatings by Jordanian students.
“My children are very good students, and the teachers like them,” Ms. Yussra explained, “and so the local children beat them up even more.”
Ms. Yussra’s family is Christian, but most of those fleeing Iraq are Sunni Muslims — and some of them may have shot at Americans or brutalized Shiites in the ongoing sectarian conflict. One Sunni family I visited came from Falluja after their house was blown up, possibly by Americans, and they have decorated their leaking apartment with a huge poster of Saddam Hussein.
This family was composed of two wives of one man (who was back in Iraq, living in a tent) and their five children. The eldest son was a surly young man in his 20s who looked as if his preferred interaction with Americans might have involved an AK-47 in his arms.
Yet the family also has four small children and was nine months behind in its rent and in danger of being thrown out on to the street. I visited them at 2 p.m., and nobody in the house had eaten anything so far that day.
Iraqi refugees don’t get help in part because this is a problem that almost everybody wants to hide. Syria and Jordan worry that if the refugees get assistance, then they will stay indefinitely. The U.S. doesn’t want to talk about a crisis created by our war, and Iraq’s Shiite leaders don’t much care about Sunnis or Christians displaced by Shiite militias.
“It’s among the largest humanitarian crises in the world today,” said Michael Kocher, a refugee expert at the International Rescue Committee, which recently published a report on the crisis. “It’s getting very little attention from the Security Council on down, which we feel is scandalous and also bad strategy.”
It’s easy to blame the surrounding countries, such as Jordan and Syria, for not being more hospitable to Iraqis. But those countries have, however grudgingly, tolerated the influx despite the burden and political risk.
Iraqi refugees are hard to count but may now amount to 8 percent of Jordan’s population of six million. The average Jordanian family, which opposed the war in the first place, is now bearing a cost that may be as much as $1,000 per year for providing for the refugees.
In contrast, last year the United States took in only 1,608 Iraqis. European countries have done better, but they believe that America created the refugee crisis and should take the lead in resolving it.
“Apathy towards the crisis has been the overwhelming response,” Amnesty International said in a report last week.
We have already seen, in the case of Palestinians, how a refugee diaspora can destabilize a region for decades. If Jordan were to collapse in part from such pressures, that would be a catastrophe — and the best way to prevent that isn’t to give it Blackhawk helicopters, but help with school fees and school construction.
If we let the Iraqi refugee crisis drag on — and especially if we allow young refugees to miss an education so that they will never have a future — then we are sentencing ourselves to endure their wrath for decades to come. Educating Iraqis may not be as glamorous as bombing them, but it will do far more good.