ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Alive, But No Life

The Jinan family struggles to make a new life as Iraqi refugees in Lebanon

“It is out of the question to go back,” said Jinan, an Iraqi mother and recent grandmother, who shares a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Beirut with two sons, a daughter, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.

A Chaldean Catholic, Jinan and her family lived comfortably in Iraq’s southern city of Basra. Her husband, Bashir, ran a convenient store. Jinan raised their children. The family wanted for nothing.

But after military hostilities ceased in 2003 and British forces settled in, the family began receiving anonymous threats. Gunmen set fire to the store and armed youth robbed the family’s house.

Then, on 24 September 2004, in broad daylight, gunmen shot Bashir in the head as he shopped for groceries. A British military patrol found and photographed his dead body – a marble-sized wound in the forehead.

Jinan’s brother knew the killers’ identities, but he could not report them to the police. The Mahdi Army – a Shiite militia – had infiltrated Basra’s police force, meaning many doubled as militiamen. Complaints filed with the police often resulted in reprisals against the family.

Even after Bashir’s murder, the family remained hopeful that the situation in Basra might improve. Jinan’s two sons, Dured – now a father in his own right – and Bassam, supported the family. Dured found work as an electrician for an Italian firm and Bassam as a security guard for an American company.

But seven months after taking the job, Dured and his family began receiving new threats. Dured explained that, as members of the Chaldean Christian minority and as an employee with a Western firm, he and his family were easy targets. He added that, at the time, the militias exercised a great deal of influence in Basra.

The first threatening letters that arrived at Dured’s workplace were general and warned those who worked with foreigners that they would be killed. Then, he began receiving threatening email and telephone calls. Even as he walked the streets, he recalled, people would yell, “Kafara!” meaning “infidel” or “unbeliever.”

“Day by day, we received more threats as the militias got stronger,” said Dured. Then, in late 2006, he received his “last warning to leave,” specifying his name and that “the same as your father was killed, you will be killed.” On 16 December, Jinan received a note under the door: “We will burn your house over your head and the head of your children – we will finish you.”

The next day the family took what savings they had and left everything behind, hiring a taxi north through Iraq to Syria, then west to Lebanon. Their new home became a small flat in Sadd al Bouchrieh, north of Beirut, where up to 75 percent of Lebanon’s 6,000 Iraqi Christian refugees live.

Six months later, Dured was asked for his I.D. at a police checkpoint. Holding only an expired Lebanese entry visa, he was arrested and sent to the Roumiyeh Prison in Mount Lebanon, where 800 other Iraqi refugees were already incarcerated. After six months in prison, Dured was finally released.

Today, Jinan and her growing family sit in the living room of their shared flat. Dured packs bags at a nearby grocery store. Bassam works intermittently. Together they earn about $300 a month for the nine-member family, half of which covers rent. Charities help with food and medicine. Thanks to the Chaldean Church’s intervention, the family avoided crushing hospital debt when last July Dured’s wife delivered twin baby girls, one month premature.

Jinan’s family is alive in Lebanon, but they say it is no life. For more than a year and a half, they have had no legal rights, no money or economic prospects. U.S. officials interviewed Jinan for resettlement. Though she presented evidence of death threats as well as photographs of her dead husband, she was told Bashir’s death was not targeted but random: “Your husband was shot like all the others.” Her application was rejected. She has won a rare second interview opportunity, but prospects remain slim the outcome will be different.

To return to Basra would be to step in front of the firing squad. The family says the militias have lists of the people who worked with American and British forces and foreign companies, making Dured and Bassam targets. They have heard from the few Christian friends who have not left Basra that only one of the city’s nine churches is open, and then only when there is a police guard.

Based in Beirut, Canadian Spencer Osberg covers the Middle East for numerous publications.

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