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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Waiting for the Future

Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics seek refuge from conflict in their homeland

Thousands of Iraqi refugees have already fled their homeland for the relative safety of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – ahead of what seems to be the inevitable start of war. Most are in the country illegally as they wait patiently, if not endlessly, for approval of immigration papers to Western countries that they hope will grant them permanent safe haven.

The Jordanian capital, Amman, has become a transit point for these refugees who, for 12 years, have steadily fled Iraq. However, in contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when 1.2 million refugees flooded into Jordan, authorities there say its border with Iraq will be closed as soon as hostilities start.

The current conflict with Iraq has the most modern of causes – the West wants to ensure that the country has no weapons of mass destruction. Yet, its internal conflicts date to antiquity.

Iraq as we know it today is a nation that was carved out of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, European victors drew new national boarders with little regard to the interests of distinct ethnic and religious groups that made up Mesopotamia – an ancient region located in the valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

And while Chaldean Catholics there have a long history of remaining politically neutral, the community has seen about 400 of its villages destroyed under Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein.

Persecution or freedom? More than 95 percent of Iraqis follow Islam; 4 percent are Christian and a small number belong to other religious groups. Estimates place the number of Christians now residing in Iraq at no more than 300,000, in a nation of 24 million. Thirty years ago their numbers stood at 1.8 million, 80 percent of whom were Chaldean Catholics.

According to Father Raymond Mousalli, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan, Chaldean refugees there have recently topped the 10,000 mark. This number fluctuates greatly as they enter and leave the kingdom.

A smaller number of Chaldean refugees, estimated at 4,000, have also fled from Iraq to Lebanon in the past five years. But with Lebanon’s high cost of living and the tight grip the government keeps on illegal immigrants, Beirut’s Chaldean Bishop, Michel Kassarji, advises them to return.

“Although they don’t want to hear it, I tell them to head back home as they are living here in destitution and continuous fear of being caught by the police for their illegal status,” Bishop Kassarji said.

But according to a current report by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, “The return of the Chaldeans to Iraq [if they have left illegally] would no doubt be a death sentence or worse, if possible.”

It is this incessant wave of migration, which has increased in the past decade, that threatens to empty Iraq of one of its most ancient peoples.

Society divided. The family is the nucleus of Iraqi society. It is being split as members of the same family emigrate to any country that will take them.

One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, moved to Amman four years ago to follow up on her “green card” application. Three of her sons, all in their early 20’s, illegally live and work in Greece as carpenters and gas station attendants.

“I gave birth to my youngest daughter shortly after I submitted my papers, she is 12 years old today,” said the 47-year-old mother of six.

She and her family live on money from the sale of their house in Baghdad.

On average, an Iraqi refugee living in Jordan needs around $700 a month for expenses. This figure does not include the fines Iraqis pay upon leaving the country if they have exceeded their residency. Work is illegal and those who manage to find a job are usually underpaid.

Yet, the refugees carry on with their lives as best as possible. Father Mousalli celebrates baptisms, eucharistic liturgies, marriages and eventually funerals for his refugee flock.

Churches in Amman and Beirut have organized informal schools for children to make up for time lost out of school. The church has also enrolled university students in English and computer courses.

Longing for home. But despite their great belief in God, Chaldean refugees are filled with despair. They did not want to leave their beloved homeland and nearly all want to return if the political situation changes.

“Sanctions are our number-one enemy, they make our lives impossible,” a 50-year-old refugee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

He and his wife decided to move to the U.S. last December. The couple, who are waiting for visas, now live in a shabby apartment in Jabal Lweibdeh, an area of Amman that attracts Iraqi refugees because rents are low.

Most of the families who come to Jordan and Lebanon have siblings who are well established abroad, sending them regular financial help, but this is not enough, according to Bishop Kassarji.

“The church becomes responsible for any refugee who knocks on its door, but we are not a rich church, we have little to offer financially. We count on donations and the generosity of others,” he said.

But worse is yet to come. The Lebanese Chaldean Bishopric alone is preparing for an influx of some 30,000 Iraqi Chaldeans.

Bishop Kassarji has a plan in place in cooperation with humanitarian and international aid agencies working in Lebanon, such as CNEWA.

“Our main concern is providing food and shelter for the expected refugees,” Bishop Kassarji said.

As the world holds its breath fearing an outbreak of war in Iraq, Iraqi Chaldeans sitting in the pews of their temporary church pray for the miracle of peace.

“What good can come out of this war, out of any war?” one refugee said.

“We’ve been through two wars so far. We know how it feels when bombs fall for 45 days. Death and despair are what come from war, not freedom. “Ask us, we know.”

Pockets of faith. Today, clusters of Iraqi Chaldean communities may still be found in most cities, including Mosul and Basra.

Raphael I, whose title is Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, resides in Baghdad.

Syria and Lebanon also have a Chaldean population. Many originally emigrated from Turkey and Iraq after World War I. Syrian Chaldeans today inhabit villages in the Upper Jazira area in northeast Syria on the Iraqi-Turkish border, with some also living in Damascus and Aleppo.

The Chaldean Church has around 10,000 faithful in Lebanon; most live in Beirut.

Farming was the main occupation of the early Chaldeans residing in the Iraqi countryside, but during the 1920’s city life became more attractive to villagers who sought to better their lives by moving to cities like Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.

Many of those early immigrants took on menial jobs, those that were looked down upon and rejected by city folk, particularly in the service industries, such as restaurants, hotels or hospitals.

As a result, the Chaldeans were socially discriminated against although they were always an integral part of society.

Chaldeans living in Iraq remain a valuable part of the social fabric. They are represented today in all socioeconomic classes, with some reaching top positions in government like Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, whose family originates from the villages near Mosul.

Identity survives migration. In addition to resettling throughout the Middle East, some Chaldeans chose to immigrate to North and South America during the 1920’s.

Brazil was their destination in South America and Michigan in the United States, where the largest Chaldean community outside Iraq, numbering about 100,000 persons, may be found today.

Three generations later, the Chaldean American community retains its traditions – language, festivities and ultimately their identity. They remain a close-knit community; they are highly protective of their families and enjoy close relations with their church.

“Traditions were never lost and the Chaldean identity is very much alive,” Adnan Habbo, one of the very few Chaldeans residing permanently in Jordan since the 1970’s, said.

Mr. Habbo comes from a family of hoteliers; he himself is an authority on tourism and hospitality and serves as a consultant to many governments.

“When Iraqi Chaldeans left for the U.S., they were freed from the social discrimination and poverty they suffered,” Mr. Habbo’s wife, Ayssar, added.

Intercommunity marriages are favored among immigrant Chaldean communities as a means to preserve their identity. Their cuisine has also been preserved as part of their heritage.

But cuisine is the least of Chaldean refugees’ worries as they spend their days anticipating another war in their homeland while waiting for either visa approval or money transfers from relatives abroad.

Based in Amman, Sahar Aloul is a staff writer for The Jordan Times.

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