Ameel Saeed’s children sit by a small Christmas tree at the home in Jordan. (Photo: AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)AMMAN: Saad Polus Qiryaqoz bitterly remembers the festive Christmas season in his Iraqi hometown of Bartella before he was forced to flee to neighbouring Jordan when extremists took it over.
Up until 2014, when the Islamic State group swept the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq, Christians like Qiryaqoz had pulled out the stops over Christmas with celebrations lasting a whole month, he said.
“Our life was beautiful and we were happy before the jihadists seized our town and destroyed everything,” said the engineer and father of three in his modest apartment in the eastern Amman suburb of Marka.
“Our life has now changed forever,” he added, surrounded by his wife, his son and one of his daughters, a small Christmas tree standing in a corner of the living room.
Saad Polus Qiryaqoz and his family prepare to celebrate Christmas in Jordan away from his native Iraq. (Photo: AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)
“Back home, Christmas lasted a whole month and there would be a 15m high Christmas tree in the square near the church. We would gather there with family and friends to pray and sing hymns … Now all that is over.”
More than 66,000 Iraqis live in Jordan, the United Nations says.
They were forced out in waves by conflict, starting with the 1990 first Gulf War, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the 2014 emergence of IS.
Of those, between 12,000 and 18,000 are Christians, according to Wael Suleiman, who heads the Catholic charity Caritas in Jordan.
Most of the refugees in Jordan are there awaiting clearance to emigrate to a third country and build a new life, mostly because Jordanian law forbids them from holding jobs.
Father Khalil Jaar, parish priest of the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary Mother of the Church in Marka east of Amman, says when he seeks help from aid groups he is told “the war in Iraq has ended and that the refugees should be going back home”. (Photo: AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)
In 2016, two years after IS was driven out of Bartella and most of the Christian heartland in northern Iraq by Iraqi forces, Qiryaqoz, who had sought refuge in nearby Arbil, returned for a visit.
It was a shock, said the 56-year-old, “and there was no other option but to flee and find a safe haven for my family”, so in the spring of 2017, they moved to Jordan.
“So far, we have submitted four requests to emigrate to Australia, but they all have been turned down, even though we are English speakers and have family there,” said Qiryaqoz.
Ameel Saeed, 53, also a father of three, is spending another Christmas in self-exile in Jordan and, like Qiryaqoz, he misses the festive celebrations they used to have in Iraq.
“Christmas here is sad and different from the celebrations back home,” he said.
“There we had plenty to eat and drink, while here, we are on our own. No one visits us and we don’t visit with other Iraqis because most of us are in need and we don’t want to embarrass anyone,” he added.
Life in Jordan “is very difficult and expensive”, said Saeed. “Most of us are unemployed … and there is very little aid” handed out to refugees.
Dalia Youssef and her son Haval are hoping to start a new life in Australia after being granted the right to emigrate following a long five-year wait. (Photo: AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)
His family is hoping to move to the United States where they have relatives.
Until then, they have put on a brave face and placed a small decorated Christmas tree in the centre of their modest home.
Father Khalil Jaar, a priest at St Mary Mother of the Church in the working-class district of Marka, knows too well the plight of refugees from Iraq.
He has been catering to their needs since 2014, setting up in the church complex a school and a clinic, as well as sewing and computer workshops.
“GO BACK HOME”
Since 2015, Jaar has helped around 2,500 families process their documents to emigrate to a third country but, he said, “500 Iraqi Christian families are still waiting” for the green light.
“Unfortunately, when we seek out help from international and local aid organisations, they tell us that the war in Iraq has ended and that the refugees should be going back home,” he added.
This Christmas, thanks to a donation from a wealthy Iraqi family that lives in Amman, Jaar is preparing to hand out coupons worth 50 Jordanian dinars (about US$70) to families so that they can buy new clothes for their children.
Between 12,000 and 18,000 Iraqi Christians live in Jordan, according to the Catholic charity Caritas, most of them awaiting clearance to emigrate to a third country. (Photo: AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)
“Children should be able to be rejoice. They should not pay the price for what is happening,” said the priest.
Suleiman, the Caritas local head, said his charity has been helping Iraqi refugees since 1990 but financial restrictions mean it can only cover the needs of 10 per cent of those in Jordan.
“The world thinks that the problems of the Iraqi people are over and that they should go back home,” he lamented.
One person who is not going back is Dalia Youssef, who was widowed in 1997 while pregnant when her husband was killed in Iraq.
Five years after applying to emigrate with her son to Australia, the good news arrived.
“We can’t wait to start a new life. For us, nothing good ever came out from Iraq,” she said.