A Loving Embrace

Iraqi Christians find sanctuary in Jordan

by Diane Handal

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As a bright orange sun rises over Amman, casting the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in a pinkish hue, a middle-aged Iraqi woman rises from her bed for her housekeeping job at an office building. Inam’s position, which is part-time, pays 100 JD (about $141) a month. And though grateful for work and income, Inam’s rent alone exceeds $200 a month. A widowed mother of five, she has a family to support.

As a “temporary visitor” to Jordan, Inam does not enjoy the right to work there. She owes her job – lifesaving no matter how meager the pay – to Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, a social worker who has been working with displaced Iraqis since the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Sister Wardeh and her community, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, have dedicated their lives to helping families secure food, housing, work and other basics. Six years ago, the sisters stepped up their efforts and forged a partnership with CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

Inam first heard about the Franciscan sisters from friends, when she and three of her children were evicted from their apartment after falling short on the rent. Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Sister Wardeh worked with a few dozen Iraqi women who lived alone in Amman. An energetic woman with large, round wire-rimmed spectacles, she counsels a growing number of Iraqi families, administers a convent school and teaches catechism classes.

“When they live the word of God, they strengthen their faith, helping them better handle the bad situations they have here,” Sister Wardeh said.

“I don’t know where my strength comes from,” Inam wondered. “Maybe prayer and faith in God?”

Inam’s husband died of a heart attack 10 years ago. She and her children fled to Jordan in 2005 after her cousin was kidnapped.

Muslim extremists began targeting Inam’s family – members of Iraq’s ancient Christian minority – demanding a $5,000 ransom for her cousin’s release. They also pressured Inam’s captive cousin to divulge the telephone numbers of other family members.

When released, he fled to Syria. Then Inam began to receive phone calls from the kidnappers, warning her that she was next.

Fearing for her family’s safety, in haste she sold her small house in Baghdad and her possessions and left for Amman with four of her five children. (A married daughter remained with her husband.)

As recently as May 2007, Norway’s Fafo Institute of Applied International Studies and Jordan’s Department of Statistics estimated that between 450,000 and 500,000 Iraqi refugees live in Jordan, a resource-poor nation of some six million people squeezed between Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Fast becoming Jordan’s new poor, many of these same refugees once formed the staple of Iraq’s professional middle class. But as their savings salvaged from Iraq run out, many are losing hope for a better future. And compounding their poverty, some refugees suffer symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and many are emotionally and psychologically scarred from the violence they experienced in Iraq.

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Tags: Iraq Refugees Middle East Iraqi Christians Jordan