Inside the Refugee Crisis: Following Iraqis in Jordan

At the heart of the international refugee crisis are political realities we are so far unwilling to acknowledge. Iraqi refugees wait in Jordan, powerless and running out of money and options, holding on to the hope that passage to the US or Europe will somehow materialize.

A thousand Iraqi refugees stand together. In front of us, a security guard is checking for anyone that may have a bomb hidden in his or her coat. To our right stand priests and bishops of Jordan. To our left are Iraqi men crying out, desperately, for their lost children.

We are meeting in Fuheis, Jordan, for the first anniversary of the Iraqi Christians’ exodus following the occupation of northern Iraq by ISIS. Iraqi community leaders, who fled with their people when the city of Mosul was attacked and then occupied by ISIS, have counted those who have died—some 1,265. They estimate a total of 120,000 persons have been displaced from Mosul and the surrounding towns.

They have come to Jordan for refuge, one of the few countries accepting Christian refugees in the Middle East. But they are not allowed to work. Although the government clarified its policy in 2007 to allow Iraqi children into the public school system, in reality few Iraqi children have been able to attend school. Crowded classrooms, social stigma, and inability to afford registration costs have hindered enrollment. All the while, their parents are running out of money and hope.

A Country of Immigrants

Jordan has been a country of immigrants since its time occupying the West Bank from 1950 to 1967, during which it granted all Palestinians Jordanian citizenship. Those were years when Jordan was seeking to raise its international clout. Now, with refugees from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, Jordan is struggling to cope.

Each day in our local parish in Amman, the capital of Jordan, a lady called Sadika sings her morning prayer at the end of Mass in Arabic melisma, with long vowels stretching sorrowfully. When we talk later outside the church, she says that she, too, is from Iraq, but that this was not the first time she fled her home city of Mosul. Sadika originally left in 2004, following the fraught US-led regime change. She returned, but this move proved a mistake when ISIS militants invaded in June 2014.

Sadika describes how they were forced to pay exorbitant taxes, how their homes were marked with the Arabic letter “ن” denoting Christian homesteads, and how they were eventually given an ultimatum of conversion or death. One night, a bomb killed two of her neighbor’s children. Afraid for her own children, Sadika and her family escaped by car to Erbil, leaving everything behind. She kept repeating, “I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave.”

When they reached Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the refugees from Mosul only had school and church grounds to sleep in. Rumors were spreading that if you could just make it to Jordan and manage to stay for three to six months, the UNHCR would help you get to Europe. Sadika related how people were getting this idea from the news and the internet, but that blind hope also played a part in stirring up the idea: “When someone is drowning,” she explained, “they will look for anything to hang onto to give them hope.”

Her family paid for Jordanian visas, but after entering the country, she and her husband were barred from working in the country because they are refugees. Sadika says some of the refugee children seem to be suffering from serious psychological distress due to the violent events they have witnessed. The men, prevented from working, spend their time hovering around the compound, powerless and unable to help their children.

Making the Best of What Little They Have

In our church’s community center, sixty-seven Iraqis live in a rudimentary cardboard-partitioned hall, sharing just two toilets among them. There is no privacy, just thin partitions with open roofs. Still, they try to make do with what they have. As Sadika ushers us into the little square space she shares with her husband and four children, she says cheerily, “Welcome to my home.” In the evenings the refugees confine themselves to their cubicles so that they can turn the church compound into an outdoor restaurant to try to earn a living. A well-wisher gave them a projector to show soccer games, and they encourage passersby to stay for cheap food and shisha.

These are little attempts to eke out an existence. ISIS has left these people scarred and homeless; theirs is a search for stability in a world that quickly moves on to the next headline, a world that is now interested in Syrian refugees rather than Iraqis.

“Every evening a set of women do everything in terms of cleaning and cooking for everyone,” explains Karim, an American seminarian we met who is on leave to help the Jordanian parish. Karim has a Palestinian mother and a Jordanian father. While growing up in America, he used to come to Jordan for vacation every other year. As we sip Arabian coffee, he explains some of the dilemmas of knowing these two contrasting worlds so intimately.

“As a refugee, you can’t work legally,” he says. The lucky few are able to find informal employment, although in such arrangements they are often taken advantage of because of their illegal status, and at most they can expect to earn “about 100 to 140 Jordanian Dinar per month”—the equivalent of 170 American dollars. Karim describes the stark disparities between these refugees and his family back home in the United States. He recalls how an American friend recently admitted that he had just bought a $600 remote-control car because his son didn’t like the $400 one he had received at Christmas.

Hearing about these drastic inequalities gives the refugees the impression that success is, above all, a matter of location. Before fleeing, Noor was a medical student in Iraq, and says he would pick Iraq over any other place to live. But he adds, “there is no hope there.” Now he finds himself in Jordan waiting. He has been here for over a year, holding out for his refugee status to be determined. He hopes he can go to America to continue his medical studies; he does not see any other way out. Noor is just one among many who see their lives in limbo: They seek opportunities to be self-sufficient, to provide for themselves, but no such opportunities are forthcoming and so they start to look for ways to get to Europe and America.

Jordanian Resources Are Wearing Thin

In a recent interview with the BBC, King Abdullah of Jordan explained that his country had “gotten to a boiling point” and that “sooner or later, I think, the dam is going to burst.” Indeed, fully 25 percent of the Jordanian state budget is currently going toward helping refugees. The country is seeking further financial support from the international community, but while money changes hands, only one percent of Syrian refugees have been granted work permits, since the Jordanian government believes that competition for Jordanian jobs would cause domestic unrest. Jordan is not a resource-rich country (as it is one of the few in the region without oil) and, in fact, suffers scarcity of even the most common commodity—water. As such, the country is dependent on fostering positive international relations and promises of aid, and yet can suffer political volatility when citizens feel they are being left at the mercy of forces outside their control.

Some years ago, King Abdullah famously described his country as “between Iraq and a hard place.” While churches and charities are doing all they can to mitigate the conditions refugees face, there is no long-term plan from national governments of either the Middle East or the West on how to manage the refugee tide. There is even less of an idea on how to reconstitute effective governance in refugees’ countries of origin. Until a broader strategy is established, the heart of the refugee crisis will continue to bleed.

Names used in this article have been changed to protect identities.

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