(Iraqi refugees in Amman learning English)
By Oliver Maksan
ACN News: JORDAN
“No future in Jordan”
ACN visited Iraqi Christians in Amman. The Jesuits are working to prepare the refugees for emigration to the West.
“I never want to go back to Iraq, ever,” declares Lina, 34 (all names have been changed at the request of the respondents), a Chaldean Catholic from Baghdad, articulating the opinion of most Iraqi refugees in Jordan. For many of them, their experiences were just too horrible. “I was very nearly killed as well in October 2010.” Lina had left the Syrian Catholic cathedral of Baghdad just shortly before Islamic terrorists stormed it, murdering 52 people. Lina’s nephew died that day. Today, Lina, a trained secretary, lives with her husband in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Representatives from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) met her in East Amman, the poor quarter of this megalopolis where many Iraqi Christians have settled.
The neighbouring Kingdom of Jordan has become a safe refuge for tens of thousands of Iraqis – many Christians, but primarily Moslems caught between the Islamic fronts – since the American invasion in 2003. Most of them came after 2006, when terrorist violence exploded. According to government sources, 450,000 Iraqis are currently living in Jordan. The Kingdom is interested in keeping this figure as high as possible in order to build an international reputation as a humanitarian country. However, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) casts doubt on this analysis and considers 150,000 Iraqis to be a more accurate figure. Raed Bahou, Regional Director of the Pontifical Mission in Amman, estimates that 20,000 of them are Christians. In speaking with ACN, however, he emphasises that there are no exact figures. At the peak of the refugee wave before 2008, experts believe, around 60-80,000 Christians had fled to the neighbouring country. Certainly a lot for a nation of just 6.4 million inhabitants.
But Jordan’s welcome of the refugees is not merely a matter of political gamesmanship, but Arab solidarity and traditional hospitality as well. However, the refugees have no legal status. The Kingdom never signed the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore considers the refugees as “guests”. This has consequences. “I’d like to work, but I’m not allowed to,” says Lina. “Our savings are gradually running out.” In fact, the refugees often live from what they brought with them. As many Iraqi Christians belonged to the upper middle class at home, working as doctors, engineers, lawyers or entrepreneurs, that was frequently substantial. They have helped to up real estate prices in Amman, in some cases drastically. But many are running out of savings after years in exile. And not all refugees were prosperous. Thus, many live from working off the books or remittances from relatives in the West. The government provides no assistance, and the United Nations has cut its funding. So Lina’s mind is made up: “I’ll go anywhere: America, Australia, Europe, just as long as I can get away from here. There’s no future here in Jordan.”
Young people in particular are convinced of this. Fadi, 24, left Iraq in December 2011. He is a Chaldean Christian from Bagdad. “I was kidnapped once in 2009,” he recounts. “This BMW suddenly drove up to me in my neighbourhood in broad daylight. It stopped right next to me and a couple of bearded guys threw me in the car. We drove to a mosque. There they warned me, ‘If you don’t cut your long hair and dress decently, something’s going to happen.’” The Islamic moral vigilantes then let him go. Fadi cut his hair. But after that incident the western-oriented young man no longer saw a future in Iraq, as painful as the loss of his homeland is for him. “I want to go to America and study computer science.” (His friend Emanuel, 23, also wants to go to the US. “We can’t do anything here in Jordan. But I want to study pharmacy and build a life for myself.”)
In order to facilitate the integration of the refugees in the West, with the US the primary destination, the Jesuit Refugee Service is organising private English lessons in Amman. 14 volunteer teachers provide language and computer instruction free of charge. Around 2000 persons enrol every year. Buses operated by the Jesuits organise transportation to and from the school of the Greek Catholic parish in East Amman. The classrooms are lively. Small children shout “big!” and raise their hands. These preschool-age children, the Iraqi refugee generation mostly born in Jordan, is already learning English. Youths and adults are also crowding the classrooms. The Jesuits have a policy of accepting refugees in the programme regardless of their religion or ethnic origin. Particularly since many Syrians have started attending, Moslems are in the majority. But refugees from Somalia and Sudan may also be found. Starting this year, the Jesuits also want to offer online courses. Young refugees can now earn a degree from Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver, Colorado: preparation for their new lives far from their old home of Iraq.
(Children from Iraqi refugees attending class run by the Jesuit Refugee Service)
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