Refugees Seek Haven in Jordan

AMMAN, JORDAN–Since September 2000, when fighting between Israelis and Palestinians erupted, more than 40,000 Palestinians have fled to neighboring Jordan. Threat of war between the United States and Iraq has provoked another wave of Iraqi refugees, some 12,000, to seek refuge as well in the desert kingdom.

“The refugee camps [there are 13] cannot take in any more refugees,” states Ra’ed Bahou, Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq. “Some stay with relatives or friends, a few rent rooms or furnished apartments.”

Since 1948, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has absorbed an estimated 1.57 million Palestinians refugees (UNRWA, 2000). More than half of Jordan’s population, including the present queen, is Palestinian. Since the United Nations-imposed embargo of Iraq in 1990, an estimated 700,000 Iraqis have also sought refuge in Jordan.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) “provides refugees with education, medicines, emergency food relief and other social services,” reports Mr. Bahou, but the system is already overburdened with the original refugees and budget cuts. Iraqi refugees seek support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The Jordanian government provides some support to bolster the infrastructure, as well as activities for the youth,” he adds, but the government is strapped for cash.

Noted for its stability in a sea of political unrest, Jordan is a poor country with few natural resources. High unemployment–and the government’s unwillingness to issue work permits to refugees–precludes legal employment for refugees. Many men, therefore, find work as day laborers, while the women earn much-needed cash as domestics or as child care providers. Most Palestinians and Iraqis see their exile in Jordan as temporary; they flee there to apply for visas to join relatives and friends in Europe, North America or Oceania. But visas these days are rarely issued.

The large number of impoverished–and often sickly–refugees has compelled the Italian Hospital in Amman to increase its free clinic from one to three days a week.“Refugees do not have health insurance,” comments Mr. Bahou. “Government hospitals provide medical care for legal residents only, and private hospitals are very expensive, even for Jordanian citizens.”

Hundreds of men, women and children, mostly refugees, converge on the Italian Hospital in one of the poorest areas of Amman. There, they are evaluated by a nursing sister–the hospital is administered by the Comboni Missionary Sisters–then referred to a physician, who prescribes medicines or schedules appointments with specialists.

Funds from CNEWA and two European Catholic aid agencies have provided additional funds to pay for the clinic, but rising health care costs demand more funding.

Founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926, CNEWA is a special agency of the Vatican, providing support to the churches and peoples of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Last year, more than $1.2 million were allocated for programs in Jordan and Iraq.

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