ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Out of Place

For Fleeing Iraqis, Jordan has become a limbo

Up until seven months ago, 27-year-old S.D. Duraid, an Iraqi Chaldean, had a lucrative job repairing air-conditioners for U.S. troops in Iraq.“ If I stayed, I could have made a lot of money with all the rebuilding contracts, but the price might have been my life,” said Mr. Duraid, who declined to give his first name. “I already escaped death twice – two bombs had exploded a few meters from me on different occasions. So I decided to leave and never go back.”

Mr. Duraid fled to neighboring Jordan, sharing an apartment with three other Iraqis in a poor section of Amman, the kingdom’s capital. Lacking a work permit, he volunteers at the Chaldean parish and depends on money from family who settled in Michigan eight years ago. His American relatives introduced Mr. Duraid, via the internet, to an American woman, whom he recently married.“Marriage was a means for me to get out of Iraq,” said Mr. Duraid, who hopes to resettle in the United States soon.

But not all Iraqis in Jordan have been as fortunate as he.

The transit hub of the Middle East. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is sandwiched between two of the most volatile areas in the world: Israel/Palestine and Iraq.

Though lacking water, oil, minerals and other natural resources, Jordan has offered asylum to hundreds of thousands of refugees, remaining remarkably stable yet irrevocably altered by the turbulent events that have rocked the region since the middle of the 20th century.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooded Jordan after the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967; most became Jordanian nationals and are now completely integrated into Jordanian society. Perhaps half of Jordan’s estimated population of 5.7 million people are Palestinian. But some 1.7 million Palestinians are still cared for by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and live in 11 camps around the country.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War forced another wave of refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as many as 2 million people of different nationalities fled to Jordan from Kuwait and Iraq during and after the war. Among them were some 360,000 Jordanian expatriates, most of them of Palestinian origin, significant numbers of Iraqi Shiites who fled after the failed Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1992 as well as middle- class Iraqis desperately seeking relief from the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Jordanian officials estimate that some 350,000 Iraqis now live there, the vast majority of whom entered the country between the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The number of Iraqis “fluctuates according to a number of factors, [particularly] the level of violence in Iraq, but we haven’t seen a mass movement across the Iraqi borders recently,” said Faisal Qadi, a Jordanian Interior Ministry spokesman. “Many Iraqis wait here for their immigration applications to other countries to come through.”

Though the numbers may not be staggering, another wave of Iraqis is seeking safety in the kingdom.

“We are seeing more and more Iraqis leave their country in fear for their lives,” said Father Raymond Mousalli, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan. More than 2,000 Chaldeans alone fled to Jordan following the August 2004 church bombings in Baghdad and Mosul, Father Raymond added. Thousands more have sought refuge in Syria.

Residency status coveted. Jordan has adopted a policy toward all migrants, including Iraqi refugees, admitting them without entry visas but not awarding permanent residency status. This encourages them to resettle elsewhere.

For the most part, Western countries have adopted a reverse policy, limiting Iraqis’ access to their territories but granting liberal asylum to those who have managed to enter.

This immigration policy has allowed Jordanian authorities to control the flow of foreign migrants into the country, including Iraqis.

Most Iraqi refugees in Jordan, therefore, do not hold the coveted yearly residence card (which can be renewed annually).

Instead, they are issued a three-month permit, which must be renewed by leaving and then re-entering Jordan. The three-month permit does not grant the same privileges as long-term residency, such as access to work, public schooling and health care.“It’s a nightmare,” said one Iraqi father of eight, who requested anonymity.

“Every three months, I cross the border with my family, either to Syria or Iraq, stay a few days and then come back to extend our residency.”The man fled Iraq eight months ago.

Iraqi refugees without savings or family funds take unskilled jobs off the books, making less than native Jordanian workers.

“My shop in Dora, in western Baghdad, was bombed three times,” he said. “The situation is so bad over there that I sold everything I owned and left with my family. Now, I am here [in Amman], but can’t work, my children can’t go to school and I have no idea what I am going to do when my savings run out.”

Jordan’s fragile economy. For wealthier Iraqis, as well as those from its middle classes, Jordan offers not only a refuge from the hostilities, but a place where they can live comfortably and, if they desire, try to move on to Europe, the Gulf or other regions.

The movement of wealthier Iraqis to Jordan has helped the country’s economy, particularly its real estate sector. Last year the economy achieved the highest increase in real gross domestic product (5 percent) since 1992, a banner year that also saw large numbers of Iraqi arrivals.

Affluent Iraqis who have left their country recently, as well as those who have lived abroad for years, are buying second homes in order to be closer to Iraq, maintaining a “wait and see” strategy.

But Jordan’s growing economy is a fragile one: Per capita income lingers around $4,500, 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and more than a third of the work force is unemployed.

Those Iraqi refugees without savings or family contributions must do something to earn a living, which is why many take unskilled jobs off the books, such as in construction or food service, where they can be hired for less money than native Jordanian workers.

Just as affluent Iraqis buying homes in Jordan have driven up real estate prices, upsetting Jordanian home buyers, Iraqi day laborers have driven down wages, angering Jordanian workers. If caught, these day laborers are detained for a week and then deported to a country of their choosing. Most go to Yemen, which like Jordan has a tolerant entry policy.

International assistance. “At least $700 a month is necessary for a family of five to live in Amman,” said Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq. “Many Iraqi families cannot scrape together the money, so it is not uncommon for two or even three families to live together to share expenses.”

Many of those who do not secure the yearly residence permit (which also entitles them to some form of assistance from the Jordanian government) turn to the UNHCR or international and local charities to supplement the money they receive from their families.

“We conduct an investigation into all claims asking for assistance and for Refugee Status Determination,” said a UNHCR official in Amman. “Iraqis who approach us in Jordan are classified into two categories: those who came before the war erupted in 2003 and those who came afterward. The latter [who are officially identified as refugees] number some 15,000 and receive limited financial assistance.”

CNEWA, through its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, has been actively engaged in caring for Jordan’s Iraqi refugees since the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War.

What began in the mid-90’s as a free weekly health care referral service has evolved into a full-fledged clinic administered by the Comboni Sisters at Amman’s Italian Hospital. In the late 90’s, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar in Amman, Bishop Selim Sayegh, began an income-generating project – subsidized by CNEWA – that benefited hundreds of Iraqi families in need.

“In addition to health care grants,” said Mr. Bahou, “we offer educational programs for Iraqis, including computer and vocational training courses at the Al-Wasifiyeh and Cardinal vocational centers in Amman.

“We also administer a program, run by the Franciscan Sisters, by which we finance the first three months of rent for refugee families.” The sisters find the families (who are referred to them by their pastors back in Iraq) a place to stay, provide rent, food, medicines and pocket money to help them get back on their feet.

“What we need now is a transitional home for families,” said Franciscan Sister Wardeh, a social worker who has been with CNEWA for more than three years. “That way we don’t have to put them up in hotels while we locate apartments to rent.” Father

Raymond said he is particularly concerned about the 7,000 Iraqi Chaldeans “Seven thousand people are not an easy number to deal with,” he said. “Most are not well-to-do and can barely make ends meet.”But for many Iraqis, the challenge of eking out a living in Jordan is a more attractive option than remaining in war-ravaged Iraq.“I have yet to meet one Iraqi who wants to go back,” Father Raymond concluded.

Journalist Sahar Aloul lives in Amman.

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