WASHINGTON // In a sense, I’ve been preparing for this trip since the spring of 2000. That’s when I first traveled to Iraq, to write about life for Iraqis then caught between sanctions and Saddam.
I journeyed from Baghdad to Basra to visit hospitals, schools and the homes of ordinary Iraqis. By then, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq was estimating that the widest-ranging embargo in history, then more than nine years old, had been responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis, most of them children.
I met doctors who told me they could not get the medicine they needed to treat simple illnesses, teachers whose students sat on classroom floors for want of chairs, and parents who said they had sold appliances, furniture and even clothing for money to buy food.
The U.N. Security Council lifted the sanctions after the fall of Saddam in 2003. But by then, Iraq was aflame. Growing sectarian violence eventually triggered a massive refugee exodus, and soon I was talking, once again, with Iraqis struggling for survival.At The Baltimore Sun, we took a particular interest in the crisis. The top State Department official for refugees, Ellen Sauerbrey, had been a veteran Maryland lawmaker and two-time Republican nominee for governor. And Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, was addressing the outflow as co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe – the Helsinki Commission.
With the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimating that more than 2 million Iraqis had fled the country, the International Center for Journalists and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting agreed to fund a reporting trip to Syria and Jordan – the countries that have taken in the greatest numbers.
In the weeks leading to my departure, I have met with Iraqis recently resettled in the United States and spoken with advocates who say more should be allowed to come. I’ve been briefed by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on the challenges of resettling the most vulnerable, while addressing the needs of the many for whom the ultimate goal is a return to a peaceful Iraq.
And I’ve been working with fixers in the two countries – local journalists who help visiting reporters set up appointments and interpret interviews – to plan a productive experience.
I’ve timed my arrival to the Jordanian weekend, which began on Friday. I left Washington last night, and arrive in Amman this evening. On Sunday, we get to work.