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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Finding Sanctuary in Jordan

Healing takes many forms for Iraqi Christian refugees

Two young refugees cradle their newborn baby girl, taking in the wonder of the new life they hold in their hands. Soft light pours in from a nearby window, enveloping the trio in its warmth. For a moment, the recovery room at the Italian Hospital in the Jordanian capital of Amman is filled with a sense of peace and tranquility.

Calm moments have been in short supply since the couple and other Iraqi Christians were brutally pushed out of their ancestral homeland by ISIS militants last August. As with most of the 8,000 others who have fled to neighboring Jordan, they now face a gnawing uncertainty about what the future holds for them and their families.

“We were forced out of our homes when ISIS invaded our area, took over and claimed it as its own,” says Samir Deshto, a tall, slender 29-year-old man, holding his newborn daughter.

“They did despicable things to people. I became wanted,” says the former Iraqi policeman, his voice lowering. “They were calling out our names from the mosques, demanding we be exterminated.”

Mr. Deshto, his wife, Nevine, and their oldest daughter, Sabine, now 16 months old, first escaped to the northern city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they sought shelter in a church.

But the sanctuary soon overflowed with displaced Christians from Mosul and the predominantly Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain that surround Iraq’s second largest city. Christians were given the choice of converting to Islam, paying a religious tax known as jizya, or death.

“We sold my wife’s jewelry to come to Jordan. And now I don’t have anything, except God and you,” says the man, his dark eyes filling with pain.

Authorities say the huge numbers of refugees now in Jordan are burdening the oil-poor desert kingdom’s already scarce water and energy supplies. About 200,000 Iraqis remain from the time of the 2003 U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein, and about a million Syrians have also taken shelter there since civil war began in Syria in 2011.

Although most of the 8,000 Iraqi Christians ultimately hope to travel onward to North America, Europe or Australia, those aiding them believe it could take at least three years, if at all, before Western countries accept them as refugees for resettlement.

In this desperate situation, Jordan’s Christian community does all it can to help.

The Italian Hospital is Amman’s oldest medical facility, dating to 1926. The 100-bed hospital maintains a longstanding charitable tradition, providing some of the best care at low prices — in some cases, as with Nevine’s delivery, for free.

The hospital offers checkups, intensive care, pediatric and maternity care and a variety of other services, making referrals only in the case of the most serious procedures, such as cardiac surgery.

“For many years, refugees have been coming to our hospital, starting with the Palestinians,” says Nassim Samawi, administrative director. Now, as many as 130 Iraqi Christians daily seek medical assistance at the white limestone facility in Amman’s bustling downtown. Refugees driven from neighboring countries and continents alike come for help, including people from Syria, Sudan, Somalia and even Iraqis still displaced from the 2003 war.

“The flow of refugees is great. We see the suffering they are going through and how we can support them,” says Sister Elizabeth Mary, one of the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Mary who staff the facility.

“Whatever funds we receive, they’re used because the people never stop coming. We are always looking for help,” adds the soft-spoken sister.

“It’s normal to see refugees here at the Italian Hospital, which is not the case with other hospitals in Amman. At every level, our staff is prepared to aid them, and the refugees also feel good about coming to our hospital,” Mr. Samawi says.

“Thousands of people are benefiting from our health care program handling mid-sized surgeries,” says Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq, which supports the Catholic hospital’s care for refugees and the poor. “Now, we are trying to help with larger surgeries — heart operations and some cancer and hernia treatments.”

Until recently, the U.N. High Council for Refugees also channeled assistance to the hospital through Caritas, but that aid has ended, straining the resources of the facility and its partner, CNEWA.

Those Iraqi Christians who fled ISIS come to the Italian Hospital primarily for the treatment of hypertension and diabetes, says medical director Dr. Khalid Shammas. Others suffer from chronic heart problems and strokes. Often, he says, the diseases are related to the enormous stress from the loss of homes, livelihoods and more.

“We listen to them. There is struggle, loss and disappointment. It’s no wonder the refugees are depressed,” says Sister Elizabeth.

“Their psychological condition directly affects their physical well-being.”

Rafael Oraha, 69, has been treated at the Italian Hospital for his prostate and herniated discs in his back. He is also one of 160 people of all ages benefiting from a psychosocial support program that began last October. It is one of the few initiatives in Jordan addressing the enormous trauma faced by the Iraqi Christians.

“I am sick, and we are all tired. ISIS took our home. We are asking God to grant us stability and comfort so we can adapt to our new situation and our life,” says the once-successful eyeglass shop owner from Mosul.

“We need to know where we are going,” the graying man implores during a group therapy session at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Amman’s Hashmi al Shamali district.

The area has been dubbed “the new Qaraqosh,” after one of the predominantly Christian villages in Iraq captured by ISIS militants. Many former residents now live in this low-income district of Amman.

“We are trying to help them to be aware of what they are passing through and to teach some techniques, such as relaxation and coping skills,” says Dr. Abeer El-Far, a counseling psychologist who heads the program.

She says some of the refugees are able to adjust because families or friends left together and provide support to one another. But their Christian faith has also played an important role, Dr. El-Far says.

“We have really suffered as Christians. Although we are safe here, living is very difficult due to high costs and being in exile,” Mr. Oraha says. “We must pray to live the remainder of our lives without injustice or threat. We ask God and those responsible to help us get the stability we need.”

Thirty-year-old Laith Azza says the only way forward for him and his young family is to go abroad.

“We have no more trust in the Iraqi government, even if we were able to return to Mosul,” he says.

Mr. Azza, a Christian religion teacher, says although minority Christians are technically protected by Iraq’s laws, in the end, neither the government security forces nor Kurdish fighters shielded them from the extremists.

“In an instant we lost everything,” says Tania Akram, a middle-aged woman. “Thank God, we saved our lives and those of our daughters,” she adds, a reference to the many young women abducted by the militants and forced into sexual slavery.

In another part of the church, a group of about 20 children play games and draw colorful pictures to help them to express their feelings.

A tiny girl with a long brown braid, dressed in a pink polka dot jacket, says she helps her friends when she sees they are angry or frightened.

Dr. El-Far also coaches the teenagers who express frustration. “They say it’s horrible. There’s no structure, no schools. They sleep very late and get up just as late in the daytime,” the petite doctor commented. “They need educational and vocational programs.”

“I was supposed to finish my last year of school, but I can’t now because we had to escape,” says 18-year-old Raneen from Qaraqosh, her dark eyes welling up with tears.

To this end, CNEWA recently instituted an English language program for the Iraqi Christians at its Pontifical Mission Community Center in the Amman neighborhood of Jebel al Hussein.

“We see it as another aspect of psychosocial help being offered to the refugees,” says Amabel Sibug, one of the program’s teachers and a member of the Teresian Association, an international Catholic community of men and women called to service who have long staffed the community center.

“Classes not only help the refugees cope with boredom and hopelessness, but guide them in dealing with some of the emotional difficulties they face.”

Ms. Sibug and her colleagues also bring spiritual encouragement into the language classes.

“We pray with the refugees. We tell them that, although there will be problems in life, you are here because God has a good plan for you,” says Elisa Estrada, a Filipina also with the Teresian Association.

“ ‘No one can take God from us,’ I tell them, and then I see their eyes shine.”

Zerqa is a densely populated city just northeast of the Jordanian capital of Amman, home to more than 800,000 people, many of them descendants of Palestinian refugees. For more than 30 years, CNEWA’s Mother of Mercy Clinic has provided quality maternity care to the city’s poor, almost all of whom live in the neighboring refugee camp. But for the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who have administered and staffed the clinic since 2001, recent events in the region have added a new dimension to their work — the sisters hail from the same area in and around Mosul and personally understand the suffering of the Iraqi refugees who now come to the clinic for care.

“ISIS took over our convent in Qaraqosh,” says Sister Najma Habash, who heads the clinic’s work. Ten of her community’s sisters have since died. Her own mother, she says, seems to have aged five years in the past five months from escaping the brutal ISIS takeover.

Although the clinic specializes in prenatal and postnatal care for mothers and children, it offers a wide range of health care services to some 30,000 patients annually.

Sister Najma says many Iraqi Christians are struggling with depression, feeling that their “liberty and dignity have been taken away from them.”

Those who fled, she says, had homes and enjoyed financially independence. “Now they find it hard to buy bread, food and basic necessities for their families.”

Often, even finding a place to sleep is difficult, she says. “In the beginning of the crisis, there was a lot of aid, but now that has diminished. Even some Christians have been forced to return to northern Iraq because they cannot afford the costs of staying here.”

Housing is one of the major challenges refugees face in Jordan. The country is inundated with refugees, and more arrivals are driving up housing costs and other prices.

Jamil, who once owned a restaurant in Qaraqosh, says he and his 24 relatives now share one dingy apartment because they do not know how long their money will last.

Others, such as Samir Deshto, the father of the newborn baby at the Italian Hospital in Amman, describe how some are forced to live in unhealthy conditions.

“We live in a single, tiny basement room,” the young man says, describing it as stuffy and unsanitary. “There is a hole in the ground that serves as a toilet and there is a small sink, but not much else.”

To bathe, Mr. Deshto and his family must go to his father-in-law’s cramped, two-room apartment packed with eight people.

Thanks to its benefactors, CNEWA provides funds and practical assistance to some 17 hosting centers — mainly located in parish churches — that shelter those Iraqi Christians unable to pay rent or find alternative housing.

“The help we are giving to the centers is not enough,” says regional director Ra’ed Bahou. “We need more. We also assist when other organizations cannot meet their obligations.”

The abandoned St. Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Church perched high on Ashrafiyeh, one of Amman’s many steep hills, is one such place sheltering Iraqi Christians.

Dark wooden partitions divide space in one of the church halls to provide a modicum of privacy to individuals and families, but there is never a quiet moment as people snore, babies cry and others shout or converse loudly.

Some, such as Nour Hassib, 28, go outdoors to play backgammon in the sunshine to get away from it all.

“I’m at an age when a person starts planning and building for the future,” says the former telecommunications employee from Mosul. “Everything I started to build has been left behind.

“At times, I don’t feel like I have a future. I want to be somewhere safe and stable.”

Mr. Bahou says fellow Christians in the Middle East would also regret seeing them leave their historic homeland for the West.

“We want Christians to stay here, but how can we convince them to stay? We need the Christians to remain, as they are the ‘salt’ of the Middle East. But what can we do?”

Based in the Middle East, Dale Gavlak has reported for CNEWA from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

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