Counting their blessings

By Justin Martin, Special to the Times

AMMAN, JORDAN—Behind a stack of envelopes containing a total of $22,000 in cash, Ammar quietly prepares his payout documents. Before him sit several hundred Iraqi Christian refugees packed in a small community center. The room is quiet as all wait for Ammar to begin. With the requisite documents ready, Ammar, himself a 32-year-old Iraqi refugee who has lived in Amman for six years, calls out for family No. 1. An elderly man steps forward.

I’m surrounded by Iraqi Christian refugees waiting for the money that will feed their families for the next month.

One by one, representatives of 200 families come forward. A teenage girl sitting next to me is No. 138. She would wait the better part of three hours for her family’s assistance.

Far more Christian refugees have fled Iraq than Ammar’s organization, the Chaldean Federation of America, can help. But he isn’t deterred. He works hard to find American groups and individuals willing to donate $125 per month for a year to help one family of Christian refugees.

By some of the more conservative estimates, more than 250,000 Christians have fled Iraq since 2003, mostly for Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Many cannot find work in their host countries, though, and so they wait to move yet again. The hope of many Christian refugees in Jordan is to immigrate to Europe or the United States to rebuild what they can of their lives. Most cannot return to Iraq, and many of them have waited for years in Jordan for other alternatives.

The refugees around me waiting to hear their numbers are a diverse bunch. There are young parents playing with their children to keep them from fidgeting, teenage boys punching messages on worn cell phones, and older generations of Iraqis whose faces show the strain of spending near lifetimes in a broken country.

Many look like they are doing all right, as though they could be Iraqis living in Arab-American enclaves in Chicago or Southern California. But there is exhaustion apparent in the eyes of many others.

The Iraq war has been hard on many Christians in Iraq. Some have seen relatives killed by gunfire, or their churches blown up. Others were told in very clear Arabic that if they stayed in Iraq they would die, maybe because their family owned a wine store or simply because they were openly non-Muslim.

They all hurried to Jordan, though, because there were no survivable alternatives. One teenage girl Ammar’s organization is trying to help recently fled Baghdad after watching her father shot to death by al-Qaida gunmen in her family’s garage. She was shot in the arm but survived.

Iraqi Christians don’t endure these same horrors in Jordan, but life here isn’t easy. The $125 the Chaldean Federation provides to some Christian refugees isn’t enough for a family to live on in Amman, but it’s the main source of income for many of them.

Most Iraqi refugees cannot legally work in Jordan, and while many are highly trained engineers or craftsmen who perform black market labor, a gift of $125 may be all some families see in a given month.

Ammar gets calls every day from Christian refugees he cannot help, pleading to be added to his list. (We would later have dinner at a restaurant in his neighborhood, during which time he was contacted by two more families asking for help.)

Ammar is lucky. He is being relocated to San Diego by a U.N. refugee program in just a few months. He is young, unmarried, and very optimistic about his future in America. Many other Christian refugees in Jordan won’t be as fortunate. The United States, for example, has welcomed only several thousand of the more than 2 million total refugees forced from Iraq since 2003. Many Iraqi Christians in Jordan are scraping by in an adoptive country that will become their permanent one.

But still they have hope.

Baraka is an Arabic word for “blessing.” It is also the word for a pond of water. The logic here is that blessings are drinks from God that slake a dry thirst. Iraqi Christian refugees like those around me are grateful for life’s barakas, such as the monthly servings of water from Ammar’s organization and peaceful neighbors like Jordan. But they hope to lead their families to a place where they can draw a bit more water, and on their own.

Justin Martin, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, is writing his dissertation on news consumption and political opinion in Jordan. Contact him at