The Middle East @ Work

Work not enough for Iraqi refugees

Alisa Roth Mar 6, 2008


Scott Jagow: All this week, we’re hearing the voices of an Iraqi family living in Amman. In Baghdad, Ayssir and Maher had jobs as civil servants. They ran a computer business on the side. Now, they’re among hundreds of thousands who’ve left their homes in Iraq to seek refuge in Jordan. People who, for the most part, aren’t allowed to work there. Alisa Roth explains how you make a living when you’re really not supposed to.

Alisa Roth: Ayssir and her husband, Maher, both work — even though it’s illegal.

Ayssir: I’m you know, a saleswoman, in a shop, sells clothes.

And things like cheap dishes and off-brand cosmetics — the kind of place you have to check your bags before you’re allowed in. She works:

Ayssir: Seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

That’s 10 in the morning until 10 at night.

Ayssir: I have one hour break, but if I took the one hour break, I will lose time. So instead of that, I stay at work.

To earn about $200 a month. Maher brings home much less, from his job as a porter in a travel agency. Their rent is about $140, so there’s not a lot to spare. Even when the landlord gives them a break, which he often does.

Ayssir and the kids are drinking tea at the family’s brown plastic “dining room” table one morning when Maher calls to check in. When they hang up, Ayssir explains how her husband tries to remind himself that it doesn’t matter if the job is beneath him, rather that:

Ayssir: It’s a job, to bring money for the kids that fills the house with food, or to pay the rent.

He does stuff like go in early to clean the offices before anyone’s there to see him do it. But more than ashamed, Maher’s scared.

Maher (voice of interpreter): I have heard a lot of stories about people who got deported. It really destoryed the family. I don’t want that to happen to us.

So he changes jobs often. Mostly, though, they just feel like they can’t keep up.

Ayssir: I’m working hard, but it’s not enough. We work hard, me and my husband, but it’s not enough.

Which means they have to accept some help from the aid organizations. They’re grateful. But they’re still waiting to hear if they’ll get cash assistance from one agency, and they’re anxious about whether another will keep paying the school fees next year.

They get help from the neighbors, too. The neighbors are related to their landlord, the one who helps with the rent.

Ayssir: They cook food for my kids, and they bring them for them to feed them while I’m in my work in the shop.

The family never had to get help like this before. Ayssir hasn’t told her sisters, back in Baghdad, how desperate she really is. And she often thinks about what her mother would say, if she were alive.

But mostly, Ayssir’s afraid her children will think getting free help all the time is how things are supposed to be.

Ayssir: They should be independent, they should earn what they have to get, not to let other help them.

It’s one of the many lessons she tries to squeeze in — when she gets home at 10:30 every night.

In Amman, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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