AMMAN, Jordan — When Huda fled Iraq it was almost exactly 10 years after al Qaeda militants killed her husband for owning a barbershop that practiced hair threading—a beauty routine they considered anti-Islamic.
It was five months after ISIS militants began forcing their way into her house, tapping their guns against her neck and calling her a spy because the Iraqi government paid her salary as a school principal.
It was after multiple visits by mysterious veiled women who would knock on her door under the premise of enrolling their children in her school, but then ask Huda whether her daughter was the right age for marrying and if her son was old enough to join in the Islamic State’s jihadist crusade.
Now, after smuggling herself across miles of ISIS-controlled territory and selling her last belongings to pay for a ticket to neighboring Jordan four months ago, Huda is out of moves.
Cars swerve in and out of loosely defined lanes in the steep streets of Amman, and Huda, clad in a scarf with delicate flowers creeping up the side of her head, issues stern directions to a driver. She rifles through her purse and pulls out a packet of photos. It appears she always keeps them with her. The first are of her and her daughter, a 10-year-old named Shams, covered head to toe in blue niqabs, the ultra-conservative veil required by the Islamists. She explains that when ISIS arrived in her town, they had to don the identity-obscuring veil even at home, in case anyone came by to check. They stand in front of her house in Iraq, which, as the rest of the photos prove, had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
She points to this photo to justify her currently perilous existence as a refugee: “My daughter, give her to be married? No. My son, give him to daesh to kill people?” she asks, using the Arabic abbreviation for the Islamic State. “No.”
Jordan currently plays host to more than 800,000 refugees, the vast majority fleeing civil war in Syria. But since ISIS spread violently into Iraq, the population of Iraqis arriving in Jordan has nearly doubled, totaling around 60,000. Most of the country’s refugees live in cities, but as they are not legally allowed to work, they survive in the margins. Four years into the conflict in Syria, the flood of newcomers has strained Jordan’s hospitality. In the past few months, the government and the World Food Program have dramatically severed social services and food assistance to the already struggling population.
Huda climbs a steep flight of steps through an undistinguished doorway on a main street to her two-room apartment. She earns the equivalent of $350 per month as a cleaner at one of the community centers run by an international charity, but her three-month volunteer contract ends in April. (The organization is unable to keep her on longer in accordance with rules to prevent labor abuse.) Even with a salary she’s barely able to cover $240 in rent, plus utilities, and food for the month. She doesn’t seem to have a next step in her plan that for so long revolved simply around getting to safety. “These things happen,” she says. “I’m an independent woman, I want to work, I want to earn my own living. I don’t want charity.”
We sit on a donated mattress in the living room as her daughter, Shams, dressed in a white cotton skirt and waist-skimming veil of the same material, prepares tea in the attached kitchen. Sixteen-year-old Abdullah, her eldest son, sits perched on a small step. He has the skinny face of his father, a playful smile on his face even when his mother’s story describes bombings and beheadings. The youngest, 9-year-old Ahmed, is silent and sullen. He keeps his mouth downturned and his eyes trained on the ground. His mother says he’s traumatized. “He imagines everyone is daesh; everyone is a militant come to kill him.”
An educator for 23 years, Huda is unable to afford the $60 in fees to send each child to school. So they spend their days playing hide-and-seek or going to the roof, and practicing 10 English words a day (“Books,” “Beer,” “Butterfly”) in preparation for the move they hope one day to make to America. When asked what she remembers of her life before they fled, Shams begins to cry. “Just the moment my house burst into flames,” she says, covering her face with her white scarf.
Even before ISIS arrived, the family had watched their home of al Qaim, a town of a quarter-million that sits directly across the border from Syria, transform into a battleground for foreign militias. A year after the U.S. invaded Iraq it became a war zone between al Qaeda and tribal factions. It was during this time that Huda says her husband was taken. “So many people were killed you could see chopped heads on the street,” she recalls, and pulls out a folder of scanned documents that she’s been meticulously compiling since his death. She points to a complaint she boldly filed against her husband’s killers, requesting they give her justification for his death.
American forces and local armed groups launched a vigorous and eventually successful campaign to take back al Qaim. But in 2010 militias were forming in the area again. Huda recognized the recruits: They were former students at the school where she taught. Many had dropped out at a young age and were tempted by the smartphones, weapons, and cash offered to new members. “Carry a gun on one side and a cellphone on the other—for them it’s the ultimate dream,” she says.
On June 20, 2014, when ISIS stormed the border, they found an easy victory in al Qaim, seizing it and two other Iraqi towns. The fighters had already grabbed three villages on the Syrian side, and when they continued on, the Iraqi border guards fled. With the border crossing and towns they claimed that day, the militants had pieced together a cross-country supply route. The gains sent chills all the way to Baghdad.
When ISIS arrived “everything” changed, Huda recalls. “They consider the people of any territory they capture as their spoils.” They told her she was blasphemous, like her husband, because she worked as a principal and received her salary from the government. She was forced to wear a full veil and was unable to leave the house without a male escort.
“They do not know anything about our religion,” she says. Abdullah hits his shoulder to demonstrate how ISIS militants would come to the house and slap their guns against his mother, calling her a traitor and a spy. “Why is your son still at school?” they’d say. “He should be fighting.” Women in niqabs would knock on the door saying they wanted to register the children in her school, then ask her about her “pretty daughter,” and whether she’d reached puberty yet.
The new laws they wrote stipulated that any woman, especially divorced or widowed, must marry. Single women sometimes were killed or kicked out of their house by fighters and their new brides. “I thought I’d be forced to marry one as well as my daughter,” Huda says.
“I stayed silent, there was nothing I could do. I didn’t want to get in the situation I’m in now, where I don’t have a house, a job or a salary.”
Children of fellow teachers at Huda's school had started to disappear. She stopped allowing Abdullah, Ahmed, and Shams to leave the house almost altogether. “I didn’t send my children to school anymore because I was so afraid they would take the boys as recruits and the girl to marry,” she says.
Abdullah realized the gun-toting new recruits on the street were his former school classmates. “I recognized their faces but wouldn’t talk to them because I was frightened they’d notice me,” Abdullah says. “I never thought I’d [willingly] be one of them, but I was scared I’d be taken and forced to be.”
Bombings had begun a few days after the town fell, when unidentified planes began bombing al Qaim. Iraqi media reported it was a U.S.-led airstrike, and the U.S. claimed the Syrian Air Force was leading the charge. Twenty were killed and dozens more injured.
In late July, a month after ISIS arrived, Huda and her daughter were in the kitchen preparing a meal to break the fast at sundown on Ramadan when a bomb dropped on her home. By luck, the kitchen was the only room not destroyed, she says, proffering photos of bricks and twisted metal, and the family slept there for the next few months. Her next door neighbor was pierced by a piece of shrapnel in the neck and died. Al Qaim had become a target in the battle to push ISIS out of Iraq and Huda believes that her house was targeted because militants had visited so many times.
In November, coalition airstrikes began hitting the town, killing dozens of militants and leveling ISIS buildings. Huda decided there was nothing left there for her. That month she paid a man the equivalent of $1,000 for a two-day, 240-mile drive to Baghdad. Huda had an eye condition, and at the ISIS-controlled checkpoints her driver would show medical reports and say he was bringing her to Baghdad for surgery. The man was the father of two of her former pupils—both girls had grown up to become doctors—and the journey was tremendously risky. If the militants found out her driver wasn’t a relative, they would both be killed. In Baghdad, she sold her wedding ring and jewelry and bought a plane ticket and visa for Jordan, arriving on December 23, 2014.
They were safely in Jordan when, in February, U.S. airstrikes killed at least 17 militants in al Qaim and sparked rumors that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been injured. According to reports from the time, the jihadis called in backup from Syria to tend to the destruction.
“Everything here is about money, but my children sleep and that’s all that matters,” Huda says.
Her kids have seized upon an idea that President Obama will orchestrate the relocation of embattled Iraqis like them to the U.S. Call Obama, her daughter says, he will sponsor their visa application. Ahmed, the youngest son, begins to cry when the American president’s name is mentioned. “They have this image of Obama as this savior to look up to,” Huda explains, saying she thinks it’s because they don’t have other male role models in their lives.
“We know life in the U.S. is not very easy, [even though] people think it is heaven on earth. But at least there are opportunities; at least it’s clear that what you see is what you get. In the Arab world it’s only unrest. Once al Qaeda leaves, daesh comes in. Once one country settles, a war comes in another country. This is not what I want for my children.”
Life is hard and uncertain now, but her family is adamant that they’ll never return to their hometown. “Where do I have to go back to?” Abdullah asks. “To a war, to bombing, to an uncertain fate?” He wants to be a human-rights lawyer to defend his family’s case for resettlement to the United States. The numbers aren’t promising: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicts that only 1,500 Iraqis will be resettled outside Jordan in 2015.
“People might just die waiting,” Huda says. “The only difference in our situation is that we moved from a fast death to a slow death.”
This reporting was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
To help Huda and refugees like her, please go to: indiegogo.com