ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Although safely out of their war-weary country, Iraqi refugees in Jordan find that life is still a struggle.

I will call him Joseph. He was nervous about my using his real name or taking his picture since he still had relatives in Iraq. We met in the house of the Latin Patriarchal Vicar in Amman, Jordan. Joseph and his older sons were helping count and bag rosaries for shipment, while his wife held their infant daughter. They were refugees from Iraq – a Chaldean Catholic family eking out survival in Jordan while waiting for asylum in any country that would accept them. Their prospects, and the prospects of many other Iraqi refugees, are bleak.

Joseph is 39, his wife, 33. Their sons are 10, 9, 7 and 6; their daughter was born three months ago.

They enjoyed a fairly good life in Iraq before the Gulf War in 1991. Joseph owned a small supermarket and a house. He was drafted into the army but survived the war. The life he and his family had previously lived, however, did not. His supermarket was looted while he was in the army; their house was destroyed when Saddam Hussein suppressed one of the uprisings that followed the war. Their life deteriorated further as the U.N. trade embargo led to severe shortages of food and medicine. In 1994, gathering what money and possessions they could, Joseph and his family fled Iraq, hoping to begin a new life in another land.

The Western world saw televised coverage of Allied smart bombs destroying targets during the Gulf War. What they did not see was the impact of the war and the embargo on the lives of the Iraqi people. Likewise, they hear about Gulf War syndrome afflicting Allied veterans of the war; they hear less about the profound effects of this war on the health of Iraqi citizens. Much of the country lacks functioning water purification and sewage systems. The infant mortality rate remains very high: one human rights monitoring group estimates that every month 4,500 Iraqi children under the age of five die from lack of food or medicine.

Understandably, many Iraqis wish to move to another land, but where? Jordan is the only friendly country bordering Iraq and, in the hopes of the refugees, a way station to Western countries. Jordan grants a refugee such as Joseph a six-month-visitor’s visa while he applies for permission to emigrate to another country. To discourage the refugees from remaining indefinitely, those who remain longer than six months are charged one Jordanian dinar (about $1.40) per person each day. Jordan does not grant work permits to Iraqis like Joseph: Jordan is poor in natural resources and about 30 percent of its population lives in poverty. Sources indicated that granting Iraqis work permits in Jordan would swell the number of refugees from hundreds of thousands into millions, exacerbating an already desperate situation.

Joseph has been unable to find another country willing to accept his family as immigrants. He paid an intermediary for an entry visa to the Netherlands but was turned back when he tried to travel there: refugees like Joseph are sometimes victimized by unscrupulous operators who falsely promise visas in exchange for money.

Joseph and his family belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. This church has ancient roots, tracing its beginning to St. Thomas the Apostle’s missionary work among the Semitic people of Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq. They spoke Syriac, an Aramaic dialect akin to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. Although their union with the Catholic Church was disrupted by the cultural, linguistic and political controversies of the fifth century, many of them later sought to restore full communion with the Church of Rome and achieved it in 1553.

The 680,000 Christians in union with Rome constitute the Chaldean Catholic Church. Another 50,000 Christians belong to the Assyrian Church of the East. Together they make up five percent of the population of Iraq.

None of the Christian refugees from Iraq whom I met spoke of religious persecution. Father George Issa, pastor of Amman’s Syrian Orthodox church and himself an Iraqi by birth, told me that the Iraqi government has treated Christians with tolerance and has even given some assistance – for example, providing land for the building of churches. Before he was ordained a priest, an Iraqi government scholarship allowed Father Issa to earn a doctorate in geology and do his seminary studies in England. Ironically, it is easier to live a Christian life in Iraq than in Saudi Arabia, which restricts conversions and public displays of the Christian faith.

Life in Iraq has become unbearable for most Iraqis, Christian or Muslim. Some need medicines that are no longer available because of the embargo. Some owned or worked for businesses that failed when the embargo and hyperinflation devastated the economy. A few told me their houses or property had been seized by those who had connections in the Iraqi government and could steal with impunity. Some refugees feared conditions would get even worse and decided to get out while they could. No refugee I spoke with had any desire to return to Iraq; all expressed the hope of settling in a new land where they and their children could lead a normal life.

For most, this appears to be a vain hope. The U.N. cares for those who have fled their country for political and other reasons, but it has no programs for those wishing to relocate because of economic hardship. Some refugees from Iraq are able to demonstrate political persecution or violation of their human rights, but most – 90 percent according to Father Issa – have left out of economic desperation. There is “no food, no work, no medicine,” he said.

Many countries will accept political but not economic refugees. One Chaldean Catholic family showed me a letter they had received in response to their application for asylum in Australia. Their request was denied because they could not supply “compelling evidence” that there had been a “gross violation” of their human rights.

Stranded in Jordan, Christian refugees first turn to the church for pastoral services, said Bishop Selim Sayegh, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan. Before the Gulf War there was no Chaldean Catholic parish. Today there are thousands of Chaldean Catholics sojourning indefinitely in Jordan and they are in need of the sacraments. Bishop Selim worked out an arrangement with the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch in Baghdad, Raphael I Bidawid, and the Holy See for Latin Catholic priests to celebrate the sacraments, following Chaldean rites.

As the Jordanian sojourn of Iraqi refugees lengthens, the church has begun to assist them materially as well as spiritually. One project has grown considerably. Although Iraqi refugees cannot legally hold regular jobs, they can work in their homes – for instance, making rosaries.

This project began about three years ago when a number of young Catholic women, eager to teach a skill to handicapped people, learned how to make rosaries. They then involved mothers from poor Jordanian Catholic families. From there the tiny enterprise blossomed into a project to assist Iraqi refugees like Joseph and his family. Now Bishop Selim helps support about 70 refugee families by paying them to make rosaries. He hopes to be able to help more than 200 families, provided he can find additional markets.

These rosaries deserve a broad market; the refugees produce a very fine product. The olive-wood beads are fashioned in Bethlehem and Jerusalem; the crucifixes and medals are imported from Italy. The day I visited Bishop Selim I found his office filled with Iraqi refugees bagging an order of 8,000 rosaries for CNEWA, which supports the rosary-making project.

That is where I met Joseph. After telling me about his past and why he and his family had fled Iraq he told me, “Now we are suffering even more than we suffered in Iraq, and my sons have been out of school for three years. Our biggest problem is affording food. No one helps us here in Jordan except CNEWA and Bishop Selim. I will never forget him the rest of my life.”

I visited another family in their home. Abu Imad had owned a photography studio in Iraq, but now he and his wife and two grown sons live in a rented room located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Amman. A smaller windowless room down the hall functions as their kitchen and bathroom. Two cots and two sleeping mats on the floor take up most of their room. I sat on one cot and Abu Imad and his son Nihad sat on the other. I watched as they skillfully fashioned rosaries from coils of wire and bags of beads. This work provided them with enough income to pay their rent – about $85 a month – and buy groceries.

The church assists Iraqi refugees in other ways as well. Until the last school year, children of refugees were unable to attend public schools. Bishop Selim began a program in the Catholic schools, providing basic courses in Arabic, English and catechism.

Father George Issa’s Syrian Orthodox parish serves Iraqi Assyrian Christians. He puts his parish’s educational and cultural center (funded in part by CNEWA) at the disposal of refugees on Saturday afternoons. They now make up about 40 percent of his Sunday congregation.

Health care is a pressing need for those with no money and no possibility of medical insurance. Several church institutions cooperate to provide medical services for Iraqi refugees and poor Jordanians. Some of the care is given at what is locally called “the Italian Hospital.”

The Italian missionary association ANSMI built this hospital in 1927; it was Jordan’s first hospital. The Comboni Missionary Sisters assumed operation of the hospital in 1939. They run it with financial assistance from CNEWA, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem (a Swiss Catholic organization), Caritas and others. Some of the doctors working at the hospital volunteer their services or charge minimal fees.

The hospital is located in an old section of Amman and is known as “the hospital of the poor.” It provides medical services at little or no charge and has a hospice section for the dying. Despite the age of the building, it is spotless – a point of pride for its staff. Long of assistance to poor Jordanians, the Italian Hospital now helps Iraqi refugees as well; here Joseph’s wife gave birth to their daughter.

With the assistance of CNEWA, a mother and child clinic was opened at the Italian Hospital in February, 1997. Mazin Smeinat administers the clinic, screening those who come for help and arranging for appropriate medical treatment. Often it is a matter of helping a poor couple like Joseph and his wife afford the delivery of their baby. They are usually asked to pay about $50 as half of the doctor’s fee, with CNEWA paying the other half; the Italian Hospital provides the delivery room at no charge.

I sat in the clinic one morning and watched as a parade of patients patiently awaited their turn. Many were new or expectant mothers, but there were a variety of other needs. An Iraqi woman came in needing medicine for Hodgkin’s Disease; such medicine was not available to her in Iraq. An Iraqi mother, accompanied by her blind sister, brought in her deaf son. He needed an operation to have a tube implanted in his ear. Mazin Smeinat conferred with Sister Aldagnese, a veteran of 35 years of service with the hospital. CNEWA helped pay for the operation. Others came for insulin, for x-rays, for physical therapy, for all sorts of needs. About half were Iraqi refugees, half poor Jordanians.

There is another mother and child clinic in Zerqa, a town northeast of Amman, which is funded entirely by Kinderhilfe Bethlehem. Zerqa is Jordan’s second largest city; it is noticeably poorer than Amman. Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood manage the Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa, providing prenatal and baby care as well as general medical services. Sister Caroline Granil, F.M.D.M., originally from the Philippines, took me on a tour. She told me the clinic serves a hundred or more people a day, five days a week. Palestinians living in the nearby Zerqa refugee camp come for help; they have been joined in recent years by Iraqi refugees.

Also using the clinic were Bangladeshi refugees who came to Jordan years ago; about 20,000 of them live in a nearby settlement. Palestinian refugees in Jordan receive assistance from the U.N. but, for whatever historical reasons, the Bangladeshi refugees do not. CNEWA’s Amman office has assisted them, helping bring water and electricity into their settlement and enrolling their children in CNEWA’s Needy Child Program. I hoped that the Iraqi refugees would not end up like the Bangladeshi refugees, living in impoverished exile decade after decade.

I returned to Amman and spoke with Bishop Selim about the plight of the Iraqi refugees. He was critical of the U.N. embargo, which has wreaked havoc on the lives of ordinary people, especially the poor:

“The embargo affects the whole society,” Bishop Selim told me, “including its morality. People will turn to theft and even prostitution to get bread to feed their children. The embargo is inhuman – a great injustice toward the poor.”

I heard similar judgments from others. Father George Issa’s message was blunt: “Please do not kill the innocent children of Iraq – for that is what you are doing. Lift the sanctions.” Pope John Paul II has likewise expressed concern abut the embargo that strikes the weakest members of Iraqi society the hardest.

Meanwhile Joseph, and others like him, sit in their cramped rooms, making rosaries, hoping some country will allow them a new life.

George Martin is a regular contributor to this publication.

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