Situation for Iraqi refugees in Jordan 'critical and dangerous'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jamal Nasrallah, EPA

By Dale Gavlak

(CNS) — Catholic leaders have expressed concern for tens of thousands of Iraqi
Christian refugees sheltering in Jordan as access to international aid tightens
with crises deepening in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“The situation of
Iraqi Christians refugees is critical and dangerous,” Father Khalil Jaar
told Catholic News Service on the sidelines of a conference hosted by the
Vatican Embassy in Amman and the Catholic charity, Caritas Jordan.

Meeting at Our Lady of
Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital, the
leaders sought better cooperation and were exploring income-generation projects
for the refugees badly in need of funds.

“They have
finished their money and they aren’t allowed to work. How can they live in
human dignity?” asked Father Jaar, who has devoted his ministry to aiding
Iraqi and Syrian refugees flooding into Jordan from neighboring conflicts for
more than a decade.

Daniela Cicchella of the
Jordanian offices of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, told the gathering that
700,000 refugees of 42 nationalities are registered with the agency in the
country. The Jordanian government says it hosts 1.5 million refugees and its
budget, water, electricity and other services are overburdened by the numbers.

“We are doing our
best to preserve and protect the dignity of the refugees in Jordan. It’s our
country where we can feel free to work under the umbrella of our government. I
hope we can do something better in the future,” said Father Jaar, who grew
up as a Palestinian refugee from Bethlehem, West Bank.

But the priest has
experienced his own challenges trying to provide 200 Iraqi Christian pupils
with an education when they were unable to enroll in Jordanian schools after fleeing
the so-called Islamic State invasion of their homeland in August 2014.

“At any month we
might have to close the school, because we don’t have the money to run it.
Everything is gratis for the children: transportation, uniforms, school
supplies,” he said, explaining that their parents cannot afford such
expenses when just feeding the family is a struggle. “I hope our good
friends can help.”

“This is now the
third year of displacement for the Iraqi Christians. It’s very tough. Donations
are becoming less, while global attention is waning,” Ra’ed Bahou, regional director
of the Pontifical Mission,
told CNS.

“That means that
more problems will be created for these Iraqis. We are trying our best to help
them with health care, education, housing and logistics. But the problem is
bigger than us,” he warned.

Bahou estimates that
about 1,000 Iraqi Christian families who came to Jordan after escaping the
horrors of the Islamic State takeover
of Mosul and the surrounding villages have now resettled in Australia, Canada
and elsewhere.

“But another
1,000 or more have come from Iraq. We are trying to coordinate between
different organizations, especially Catholic, to cope with these people and
their needs,” Bahou said.

Only 61,000 of the
140,000 Iraqis sheltering in Jordan are registered with the U.N. refugee
agency, said Caritas Jordan program manager Omar Abawi. “Many of the Iraqi refugees are
facing increased vulnerability in their living conditions,” he told the

Abawi mentioned some
of the challenges. The majority of the refugees are women and children who
experience high cost of living expenses. While Syrian refugees have now been
granted the right to work legally in Jordan, Iraqi refugees and those from
other countries, such as Yemen, Sudan and Somalia, do not have that right. Most
refugee children lose out on at least one year of schooling. Basic health
services, once provided to Syrian refugees free of charge or for a nominal fee,
were never accessible to Iraqi refugees.

“I am always
struck by their desperate words about losing hope and the miserable conditions
they live under,” said Wael
Suleiman, Caritas Jordan general director. They experience
“frustration, loneliness, isolation, despair and sadness over their forced
exodus from their country, families, history, current situation and

“We are here to
heal the wounds, lift the morales, help to restore hope, enhance human
relationships and reflect the concept of living as one human family,”
Suleiman said.

“Pope Francis’
message for the Easter fast urges us to work and deal with others, as they are
grace. Today’s call is to open our heart for others, especially
strangers,” he said.

The Vatican is funding
a job-creation program for Iraqi refugees in Jordan. More than a dozen will
have full-time work cultivating, producing and selling vegetables and oil, while
another 200 Iraqi refugees are expected to receive training in carpentry,
agriculture and the food industry. An additional 500 will be given seasonal

UNHCR’s Cicchella said
a pilot project employing Iraqi engineers and IT specialists outside of Jordan
on a short-term basis is being explored, as are educational scholarships.

Many church leaders
believe it would take time, iron-clad security guarantees and rebuilt
infrastructure before Iraqi Christians would consider returning home, but even
then many Iraqi Christians now say they can only see their future in the West.

“We need to be optimistic that they can go
back to their villages,” Bahou said. “They were there 2,000 years and
we need them to be back there.”

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