BEIRUT – The young woman was walking with her husband along a Baghdad street when she was abducted, held captive and raped repeatedly by five militia men for several days.
"Before, she was very proud of her body but now she is overweight she eats to protect herself and not to attract people," says therapist Sana Hamzeh about her 27-year-old Iraqi patient, who recently escaped to Lebanon as a refugee.
"When she first came here she hated her body and was very isolated. She could not touch her husband. She sat rigidly, clenched; she could not relax or talk about her feelings."
Hamzeh works at the recently opened Restart center in Beirut, a charity funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) that provides free therapy and psychological therapy rehabilitation for up to 70 mostly Iraqi refugees who are victims of torture. The center also gathers documentation to help argue their case for asylum.
The center is a brief respite for a few Iraqis fleeing torture, death sentences and the grinding violence of daily life back home. But they arrive in Lebanon only to find themselves dangerously illegal, and subject to discrimination and exploitation. Few can find counseling and support.
"We have many challenges," project director Suzanne Jabbour tells IPS. "First, people are afraid to get psychological help because it’s not normal in Lebanese, or Iraqi culture. Second, we need to learn about Iraqi culture, history and traditions to deal with people. The third challenge is that Iraqis are treated inhumanely here. Most have low self-esteem, and because they don’t know how things work, they can’t adapt quickly."
The UNHCR conservatively estimates that 2.2 million people have left Iraq since 2003, the majority to Syria and Jordan. A recent Danish Refugee Council (DRC) survey found around 50,000 Iraqis in Lebanon; half of them Shia, the rest Christian and Sunni. Nearly 80 percent of the refugees entered the country illegally, while many of the rest overstayed their short-term tourist visas.
Lebanon is not considered a final resettlement destination, but the UNHCR faces a huge challenge moving the refugees to permanent home countries. "There were only 600 accepted from Lebanon for resettlement last year," says agency spokeswoman Laure Chedrawi. "This is less than one percent, which is a very, very small number of Iraqis. There are few resettlement countries and they have a lot of criteria, so we are now prioritizing only the most vulnerable cases."
Since Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are afforded little protection with UNHCR-issued identification, and are prey to what Human Rights Watch calls "the whim of the law enforcement officer at the checkpoint." Those arrested are sent back to Iraq after they serve out prison sentences alongside criminals, or detained indefinitely if they refuse to go home. These hard realities contribute to the UN agency’s low registration of 10,000 refugees, and to the isolation of the rest.
Mohammed, a refugee in his late 20s, is a particularly hard off case. "He came to our center for psychological treatment but had no money to eat, or a place to sleep so how could we deal with his psychological suffering?" asks Jabbour. "We arranged a place to sleep for him on a personal level. Usually UNHCR has other partners who do this."
A patient of Hamzeh’s, Mohammed was a former bodyguard for Saddam Hussein and was later imprisoned by the U.S.-led coalition. "He suffered torture, unbelievable torture they gouged out one of his eyes, and he can’t walk properly," she says. "He is very, very depressed. Every time I see him I don’t know if it’s the last, because he’s suicidal. But he’s also religious and feels that suicide will condemn him to hell, so for this reason he stays alive." Hamzeh looks down at the ground. "Every day I think about him."
The DRC found that most Iraqis here eke out a living as laborers, making tea in offices or as building guards for an average monthly household salary just over the 200 dollar minimum wage. They lack the most basic access to health care, and only a little over half of the children attend the overcrowded Lebanese school system. However, DRC says that for most refugees "returning to Iraq despite the hazards (here) is considered a last resort."
Restart’s goal this coming year is to reach out to those suffering torture or trauma from the 40,000 Iraqis not registered with UNHCR. "We want to open community-based rehabilitation centers because not all refugees can travel to our office here," explains Jabbour. "We will train charities, health professionals and lawyers on how to work with refugees, and how to document the legal, physical and psychological aspects of torture."
"I come here because it’s like a family, and the only place where I can relax," says 33-year-old Eyad with a warm smile. "I’ve cried here and laughed let go of all my emotions." Eyad was part of a government security force safeguarding Baghdad’s schools when he received threats from a militia to stop work. He was then abducted by men dressed like the Iraqi army which he says they were not and was beaten and tortured. They ripped out his nails, sliced his forehead with a knife, and dripped melting plastic all over his arms. His body is riddled with scars from his wounds, that were finally treated when he fled to Syria.
Eyad now lives on his own in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut, a relative safe haven for many Iraqi Shia avoiding the Lebanese security forces. He works as an office window cleaner for 300 dollars a month and dreams he will be safely reconciled with his family in Iraq. "All humans are humans at the end of the day," he says softly. "No one should be judged by their identification only."