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Being Faithful: Ruqayya and Ihsan need our friendship and support

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February 11, 2009

Relationships with Iraqi people who resist the corrosive effects of war and violence have inspired the work of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and the work of Direct Aid Iraq from their inceptions. And faithfulness in these relationships is part of what has helped us find our way over the years. It is the thread of light we have followed, leading us down a path we sometimes couldn’t discern very clearly, showing us where to put our energy and efforts and reminding us that this work has always been a partnership in the most ordinary sense: a friendship. Our relationship with Ruqayya and Ihsan and their young children, Mohammad, Ahmed, and Zaineb, is one example.

In the Spring of 2006, Ruqayya and her husband, Ihsan, left their three children and their home in southern Iraq and traveled to Amman, Jordan, seeking medical care for Ruqayya who suffers from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer that originates in white blood cells. They believed the cancer was caused by exposure to depleted uranium, a highly toxic and radioactive munition used by the US military in Iraq, especially in the south of the country. Kathy Kelly, who was in Amman at the time, studying Arabic and learning about the plight of displaced Iraqis, met Ruqayya at the Al-Monzer hotel where they both were staying.

At the time, Kathy wrote, “Ruqayya faces her illness and the terror of death with an intense longing to live.” Kathy was drawn into this 32-year old woman’s struggle to survive and overcome, to be with and care for her children, to live her life. But treatment of the cancer would cost many thousands of dollars, money Ruqayya and Ihsan didn’t have, and no hospital or NGO that Kathy contacted in Amman was willing to pick up the cost. Face to face with Ruqayya and her thin thread of hope, and with no good news to reinforce that hope, Kathy also wrote, “Words would have failed me in any language. But now the stumbling explanations of my inadequacy, the clumsy words of regret and dismay are understood. We sit together, Ruqayya and I, sometimes holding hands.”

Part of being faithful is “being with,” especially when it means acknowledging our considerable limitations, when there are no remedies, no words. Sometimes this willingness can open unseen doors. Sometimes the doors are within us. In this case, Kathy’s willingness to be with Ruqayya despite having no ready solution to her problems deepened their connection.

The alternative – refusing to acknowledge our limitations – can lead us into hell. A steadfast refusal to acknowledge the flaws and inadequacies of military action as a means of addressing conflict and solving problems is no small part of what allows so many Americans to support ongoing warfare blithely waged in the name of liberty or democracy or human rights. A sober acknowledgment of war’s actual consequences is a first step in an honest assessment and acceptance of its deep inadequacies.

As it turned out, Kathy may have felt wordless while trying to respond in person to Ruqayya, but she not only found ways to be with Ruqayya, but compelling words to tell Ruqayya’s story to others. An anonymous, American donor came forward, offering to pay for medical treatment – a bone marrow transplant and chemo therapy – for Ruqayya at a private hospital in Amman.

Ruqayya completed this treatment and returned with Ihsan to their family in Iraq. But because of violence and a largely broken health care system, Ruqayya didn’t receive proper care in Iraq, and a year later, once again in need of chemotherapy, she and Ihsan returned to Amman. People rallied to support her. Veterans For Peace, which had created an account to accept tax-deductible donations in Ruqayya’s name the previous year, agreed to receive monies again. Direct Aid Iraq (DAI), which had been formed a few months before, helped pay for her hospital stay. Noah and Natalie Baker Merrill, co-founders of DAI, visited Ruqayya in the hospital and met with Ihsan at the Al-Monzer hotel. The network of friends and support expanded. Money was raised to cover the treatment, and Ruqayya again returned to Iraq.

In the fall of 2008, Kathy learned that Ruqayya and Ihsan and their children had fled Iraq and had reached Ankara, Turkey, with hopes of being resettled to Europe or the US. Ruqayya’s health, it seemed, had worsened: the cancer seemed to be spreading. Because she was busy helping plan and organize Camp Hope, Kathy asked Noah to be the point person in advocating for Ruqayya.

Given the need for urgent medical care, advocating a quick resettlement became the first priority. “It helped,” Noah explains “that Natalie worked in resettlement in the US.” He contacted a professional associate of hers who works with UNHCR in Ankara and began to find out what was needed. Along the way, individuals and groups learned of Ruqayya’s situation and offered their help, and very quickly Noah became the point person in a widening network of support.

In our work, it isn’t always easy and convenient to be welcoming and receptive to input and participation by other people and groups. Yes, we need ways to evaluate other groups and to set standards, but openness and receptivity are a fundamental starting point. The participation of others can help us see the whole picture and address more needs. We all wear blinders in our work. It may not be possible to say that the efforts of the World Dreams Peace Bridge – whose members are providing psychological and spiritual support to Ruqayya – are moving her resettlement case along. But one of their members, a Turkish woman named Ilkin, lives in Ankara, and she has befriended Ruqayya. Who is to say that Ilkin’s home visits are any less important than contacts with UNHCR? And as it turned out, Ilkin’s close proximity was a boon to the resettlement process, as she was able to interpret official requests for information.

Because it can be complicated or impossible for young Iraqi men to resettle in the US, and to avoid questions about Ihsan’s case delaying Ruqayya’s resettlement process, UNHCR recently created a separate case for Ihsan, effectively splitting his case off from Ruqayya’s. Suddenly it looked as though efforts to resettle Ruqayya would separate her and the children from Ihsan. We know from experience that the only predictable thing about resettlement is that there will be complications and delays. What would happen if Ruqayya died, before Ihsan’s resettlement could be completed, or if he was ultimately denied? How would the children be cared for, and who would provide it?

With help from a number of people, especially Natalie’s mother who is a social worker, Noah learned that Mohammad, Ahmed, and Zaineb would still have resettlement benefits if their mother died. The first best option, in this case, would be for Ihsan to designate someone, preferably a family member, to be the guardian for the children. After a phone conversation and videoconference with Ihsan, Noah learned that Ruqayya has a cousin in Arizona, though she hasn’t been in touch with him recently and doesn’t know his phone number. But wait! A couple of days later, Ihsan found the phone number. Noah called Ruqayya’s cousin who said “If something happens, we will take the children and support the family.” Noah was also able to put Ruqayya’s cousin in touch with Ihsan, adding a very important leg of support for this family.

More good news followed this. Last week in Ankara, Ruqayya had a biopsy which determined that the cysts she had produced were benign. It appears, the cancer hasn’t (as was feared) spread, and we are cautiously optimistic about her prognosis. She is still in need of comprehensive medical care to manage her Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but plans to contact hospice services once she is resettled have been put on hold. The next step in Ruqayya’s resettlement process is a February 13 meeting in Instanbul with ICMC (International Catholic Migration Commission), the resettlement agency responsible for the family.

We’re habituated to think in terms of stars, and to associate organizations with charismatic individuals. Certainly Kathy Kelly continues to play an important role in this story, but did Ihsan and Ruqayya play a less important role? It is easy to overlook the agency of Iraqi people in their own survival and recovery. And what about the family members back in Iraq who took care of Ruqayya and Ihsan’s children, making it possible for them to travel to Jordan for medical treatment? What about the websites, www.counterpunch.org and www.commondreams.org that published Kathy’s article back in May of 2006? And the people who volunteer for and donate to VCNV, to DAI? OK, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this so I’ll stop there. Beginning with a single strand, start to unravel a story, and the farther you go the wider and thicker the web of connections.

Families like Ruqayya and Ihsan’s need coordinated support, and the role that DAI and VCNV have played – faithfully following the process from beginning to end and ensuring its progress at each stage, identifying credible and effective partners, troubleshooting, preparing for contingencies, etc. – is a crucial one.

The point of telling this story isn’t to pat ourselves on the back or claim big accomplishments, but rather to talk openly about the fragility of our efforts, the uncertainties, and given that, the need not only to be steadfast and faithful, but also to find ways to work that emphasize respect, openness, intelligence, and cooperation. The need, too, to work in ways that invite others in. Maybe there’s some truth to the idea that we don’t always know the twists and turns of the path we need to walk down, but we do know HOW to walk it.