ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Loving Embrace

Exiled from their homeland, Iraqis in Amman are not alone

As a bright orange sun rises over Amman, casting the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in a pinkish hue, a middle-aged Iraqi woman rises from her bed for her housekeeping job at an office building. Inam’s position, which is part-time, pays 100 JD (about $141) a month. And though grateful for work and income, Inam’s rent alone exceeds $200 a month. A widowed mother of five, she has a family to support.

As a “temporary visitor” to Jordan, Inam does not enjoy the right to work there. She owes her job – lifesaving no matter how meager the pay – to Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, a social worker who has been working with displaced Iraqis since the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Sister Wardeh and her community, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, have dedicated their lives to helping families secure food, housing, work and other basics. Six years ago, the sisters stepped up their efforts and forged a partnership with CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

Inam first heard about the Franciscan sisters from friends, when she and three of her children were evicted from their apartment after falling short on the rent. Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Sister Wardeh worked with a few dozen Iraqi women who lived alone in Amman. An energetic woman with large, round wire-rimmed spectacles, she counsels a growing number of Iraqi families, administers a convent school and teaches catechism classes.

“When they live the word of God, they strengthen their faith, helping them better handle the bad situations they have here,” Sister Wardeh said.

“I don’t know where my strength comes from,” Inam wondered. “Maybe prayer and faith in God?”

Inam’s husband died of a heart attack 10 years ago. She and her children fled to Jordan in 2005 after her cousin was kidnapped.

Muslim extremists began targeting Inam’s family – members of Iraq’s ancient Christian minority – demanding a $5,000 ransom for her cousin’s release. They also pressured Inam’s captive cousin to divulge the telephone numbers of other family members.

When released, he fled to Syria. Then Inam began to receive phone calls from the kidnappers, warning her that she was next.

Fearing for her family’s safety, in haste she sold her small house in Baghdad and her possessions and left for Amman with four of her five children. (A married daughter remained with her husband.)

As recently as May 2007, Norway’s Fafo Institute of Applied International Studies and Jordan’s Department of Statistics estimated that between 450,000 and 500,000 Iraqi refugees live in Jordan, a resource-poor nation of some six million people squeezed between Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Fast becoming Jordan’s new poor, many of these same refugees once formed the staple of Iraq’s professional middle class. But as their savings salvaged from Iraq run out, many are losing hope for a better future. And compounding their poverty, some refugees suffer symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and many are emotionally and psychologically scarred from the violence they experienced in Iraq.

Inam recalled her own experiences of the bloody civil war she left behind. Members of the Mahdi Army abducted her eldest son and beat him severely. His nose was broken and he suffered a concussion. (Created in June 2003 by the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army is a paramilitary force that, since last August, has frozen its guerrilla activities.)

She and her children now live in a two-bedroom apartment in Amman’s Jebel Hussein neighborhood, a haven for many displaced Iraqi families. In addition to rent, Inam spends $200 a month on food for the family, which includes her ration of food stamps provided by the sisters and the Pontifical Mission.

The family’s savings have long been depleted, though Inam’s elderly mother in Detroit sends money from her pension.

“My children ask me why we didn’t stay in Iraq,” Inam said, avoiding the glances of her 18-year-old daughter, Flora. Flora attended school in Baghdad until the 10th grade, but now remains home, cooking and cleaning. Her younger sister, 11-year-old Diana, also attended school, but she has missed several years since the war erupted.

Inam’s two sons, both of whom finished their junior year of high school in Baghdad, now feel too old at the ages of 20 and 21 to finish their last year of high school in Amman.

“We don’t have anything,” continued Inam, tears pouring down her flushed cheeks, “but thanks be to God one day everything will be better. I feel like this is a nightmare, unfair, and I feel so badly for my children who are not going to school.”

As with most Iraqi males in Jordan, neither of Inam’s sons is employed. Under Jordanian law, asylum-seekers are categorically denied residency – a prerequisite to accessing lawful employment. The few jobs available are short-term, unskilled, black market positions that pay poorly.

Jordan has not signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which guarantees asylum-seekers the chance to apply for “refugee” status – a status that grants many of the rights of citizenship to its holder. Instead, Jordanian authorities treat what could very well be bona fide refugees as “guests” or “temporary visitors.”

To make matters worse, tensions have heightened between Jordanian authorities and the Iraqi community since November 2005, when three Iraqis set off bombs in three prominent Amman hotels, killing 60 people and wounding many more.

“But my family is coping now,” Inam concluded. “We are united. They accept the situation. They understand that their mother doesn’t have the money.”

Sister Wardeh is inexhaustible. From time to time the convent basement, which houses her school, cannot handle all the children in attendance, so she readies the kitchen upstairs as a classroom.

Among the courses the convent school offers is a remedial tutorial for Iraqi children who have fallen behind since the war’s outbreak and fled west. Some of these children have missed several years of school – not until last August did the government permit Iraqi school-age children to enroll in its schools. Inam’s daughter Diana attended the remedial course for a year and a half. The course brought her up to grade level and Diana was placed in her appropriate class when she enrolled last autumn.

In addition to the remedial program for young children, the convent school operates a kindergarten, a second grade and a literacy course offered at no cost to young adults between the ages of 14 and 20.

The new kindergarten teacher – at present a volunteer – is an elegant 31-year-old woman named Iman, who hails from Dora – a suburban neighborhood south of Baghdad once nicknamed the “Vatican” of Iraq. As with so many displaced Iraqis, nightmares of life back home still haunt her.

“One day I was walking to work at Babal College and four men tried to kidnap me in a car. I screamed and called out to people for help and they let me go,” said Iman, touching a medal of the Virgin Mary that shimmered against her black T-shirt.

“I left the college and my job,” she said.

After that, Iman’s family did not allow her to go anywhere except church. But even that became too dangerous.

“One day I was leaving church and a guy ran up to me, pulled the cross and chain off my neck and tried to kidnap me,” she recalled. “I pushed him away.”

On the evening of 1 August 2004, two men in a car stopped in front of Iman, who was standing near her parish church.

“Are you Christian?” they yelled. “We will make you cry.”

Moments later, two car bombs exploded nearby, killing 40 people.

“My whole family moved to Jordan after that,” Iman said. “We sold our house and everything else. Then in 2005, my parents, two sisters and two brothers moved to Detroit using documents from the 1990’s.”

Stories like Iman’s are familiar among Iraqi Christian refugees, most of whom experienced violence in Iraq. The Fafo Institute estimates roughly 12 percent of Iraqis in Jordan are Christians – a high number considering Christians once accounted for less than 5 percent of the Iraqi population.

Iman tutors kindergartners, who range in age from 3 to 9. At first glance, these children appear to be like any other group of preschoolers. They are seated in small plastic chairs at crowded tables, giggling with their neighbors. Some draw and color while others practice their penmanship.

But a closer look at their behavior and vivid drawings reveals the scars that the extreme violence in Iraq has left.

“The children are aggressive and angry, start fights, cannot concentrate in school and are tense,” said Sister Wardeh.

Yusuf, age 6, pays no attention to his teacher. Iman said he listens but cannot focus.

Marina, age 7, draws a picture of his uncle. Marina draws another figure with an angry face and he says he is a “thief.” Marina’s uncle was kidnapped.

Jonathan, age 5, draws a house on a street with a tree next to it. A car is driving past and an explosion looms in front of it. Next to the car, a man’s head sticks out of a large rectangular box. “He is dead,” said Jonathan.

Toni, age 9, draws a red, green and black flag and a heart. He says he loves his country and that it is his heart.

“The kids talk about Iraq all the time,” said Sister Wardeh. “They love their country and say it is very beautiful. If the situation gets better, they say they will go back. When you ask them to sing, they sing the national anthem of Iraq.”

Fadi, age 5, colors a huge orange mass on his paper. Having arrived from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil last autumn, he regularly experiences anxiety and often hits his classmates. His father, Alaa, a 37-year-old man with closely cropped graying hair and a dark mustache, is a chemical engineer. His 29-year-old wife, Ban, is a pharmacist.

The family used to live in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. But their lives changed on 24 May 2006. Ban was walking to her job at Baghdad University when a bomb went off in the street. Her pants now hide where she lost a portion of her right leg, just below the knee.

Several months later, a group of young, masked men kidnapped Alaa, beating and torturing him. They shocked him using electric cables on his feet and legs. The kidnappers set Alaa’s ransom at $50,000. Ban sold their two-bedroom house to pay the ransom and afterward the family fled to Erbil, where Ban’s parents lived. Ban sold her jewelry and Alaa worked for a few months to gather money before fleeing to Jordan.

Alaa’s elderly parents in Baghdad were the next victims. Soon after Alaa’s capture, his parents’ house was ransacked and they were badly beaten. Removed by force from their home by extremists, they fled to Damascus to stay with relatives.

Alaa now has scars on his back and feet and suffers from anxiety and nightmares and takes tranquilizers to sleep at night.

Fadi used to attend a Christian-run kindergarten in Baghdad, but he stopped going when his father was kidnapped. The boy became very nervous and sad, his mother said, and refused to play with other children. Now, women in Islamic dress who cover their faces terrify Fadi and his sister, Farah; their father’s kidnappers wore masks.

The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in east Amman that costs about $350 a month. With the family savings drying up, Alaa and Ban are hunting for a cheaper place. But if Alaa does not find work soon, they may have to return to Erbil, where at least the couple can legally work.

“We have no options,” Alaa protested. But there is no guarantee he will find work in Erbil and the cost of living there is equally high.

Something more serious is keeping Alaa, Ban and the children in Amman, however. Ban is undergoing treatment at the Italian Hospital in Amman for cysts on her ovaries. Administered by the Iraqi Dominican Sisters of the Presentation, who also run an 86-bed general hospital in Baghdad, the Italian Hospital is one of the few places where Jordan’s Iraqi refugees feel comfortable receiving medical attention. A number of Iraqi women doctors even practice there.

The stress under which these refugees must live takes a heavy toll on relationships, eating away at the fabric of the family. Heads of households feel ashamed that they cannot provide for their families; distraught men sometimes become violent toward their wives and children.

A social worker by training, Sister Wardeh counsels families struggling with domestic violence and the pain associated with it. Families have come to trust her and rely on her for guidance. She often finds herself at their homes, listening to their fears, holding their hands and helping them cope with their situations.

“Poverty brings out every type of problem between children and their parents. They have no money to go anywhere or do anything. There is no work. Women and their husbands argue over whether they should have left Iraq. They are home all day long, all the time,” Sister Wardeh said.

Between running the school, counseling families and distributing food stamps, rent and other day-to-day necessities, Sister Wardeh manages a tight work schedule. But she still makes time each day to listen to the smiling school children sing the Iraqi national anthem – and she too smiles.

Sister Wardeh ends her workday with a Bible lesson, which she teaches at the convent school.

Tuesday evening classes draw a particularly large group of both children and parents. The convent’s basement is transformed into a forum and social group for Iraqi refugees. The room is packed with people. Inam, her daughter Flora and Ban sit side by side. A hush falls over the room and all heads bow when Sister Wardeh begins a short prayer. She then takes up the day’s lesson and all eyes in the room rise and converge on her; the group is mesmerized and perfectly still. Tonight, she is teaching the story of Abraham.

For a few short hours, the participants leave behind their worries and gather the strength to move forward despite the seemingly impossible and unending challenges in their lives – at least for one more day.

Formerly with The Associated Press, Diane Handal covers events in the Middle East.

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