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June 27th, 2007 Julie Sabatier | Q & A
 

Zahra Hamid Sultan

One Iraqi refugee among 2 million—and counting.

     
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IMAGE: Jenna Biggs

Zahra Hamid Sultan is an Iraqi refugee helping some of the 2 million people also forced to leave her homeland.

Sultan, 37, and her two teenage daughters have been living in Amman, Jordan, since 2002, when they fled their native Iraq—Sultan says her Shia Muslim family was targeted by Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Now she works with refugee groups like No More Victims and Family International to connect refugees with resources that can help them get education and medical treatment.

Sponsored by the nonprofits Code Pink Portland and the American Friends Service Committee, Sultan is in Portland through July 3 trying to raise money and support for other Iraqi refugees by speaking to antiwar groups about their plight. At 2 million and counting, the number of those refugees is equivalent to more than half Oregon's population.

WW: What's the best way to connect what's happening in Iraq and Jordan to people in Portland?
Zahra Hamid Sultan: I try to focus on specific stories. If you have this one story of this child or this family or that woman, you can think or decide what kind of help you can do for this person. If we speak in general about the big numbers, people wouldn't care or don't know what to do...

For example?
I have this family, they have four children. They live in Jordan now. It's not allowed in Jordan for all Iraqis to work. The father was trying to get any job in Jordan, but the police were trying to detain him when they saw him working and he escaped. He sent his daughter, Noor. She's a 14- or 15-year-old and now she is the only one who supports the family. She starts her work at 8 in the morning until 7 and sometimes 9 in the evening. She works in a factory. They make notebooks. She glues them. She arranges them. She puts them in big instruments to make holes and it's really a dangerous job for her. The Jordanians, they try to use this little child because of her age and because she's Iraqi. They let her work long hours, but they give her very weak payment. But if she left the work, who can support the family?

How has she handled that?
I visit them and I talk to her and she's really sad. She didn't use to live in such hard conditions, and she's so smart and she likes to be in school and it's hard and difficult for the father when he sees and hears his daughter complain among foreigners, strangers like me. Sometimes she comes to the house, and her mother told me she said, "I wish to die."

What can someone here do to help?
It depends on the person and his ability to help. They can help this family to send, for example, some monthly payment. They can help in trying to bring this family to the States because they can't go back to Iraq.

How could they send money there in a way that it would get to that family? Doesn't it create suspicion from the U.S. government about people sending money to the Middle East?
When I was in Jordan, people were sending money [to] me via Western Union, and I would give that money [to] the families... I heard that you have a problem here to send money to [the] Middle East, and so we have to find an organization that could be responsible for taking money and giving the money in Jordan to Iraqis.

How do you maintain hope?
I'm living in the same situation and I know how hard and sad it is...sometimes I can't go out and see anybody or talk to anybody. Sometimes I help this person and he goes and he talks about it to any person and these persons try to call me to get any help and I don't know what to do. I don't have anything to give them. And so it really drives me crazy sometimes.


Sultan will speak at 7 pm Thursday, June 28, at Peace House, 2116 NE 18th Ave., and at noon Saturday, June 30, at the South Park Blocks, behind Shattuck Hall. Both events are free, though donations to support refugees are encouraged.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced a bill, HR 2265, earlier this month that would make it easier for Iraqi refugees to emigrate to the United States.

Sultan's father was taken prisoner by Iraqi forces in 1980 and her family still does not know what happened to him. Her mother and sisters still live in Baghdad.

 
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