Iraqi refugees in Jordan are ‘guests’ with few privileges

14289basma20aleas20toma.jpgAMMAN, Jordan (CNS): Slwan Kehedeer Antoon was his own boss in Mosul, Iraq. He owned a liquor store and a car-rental agency.
Then, four years ago, Muslim hard-liners bombed his liquor store. Afterward, Antoon started driving his children to and from school because he felt he could not trust their safety to others.

Ultimately Antoon, 46, a Chaldean Catholic, and his family fled to the safety and security of Jordan. They are refugees in every sense of the word, except by Jordan’s definition.

Jordan confers refugee status only upon Palestinians in their midst. It is now estimated that 60 percent of Jordan’s residents have some Palestinian ethnic background.

As for the Chaldean Iraqis? Even though they number 500,000 — more than 8 percent of Jordan’s 6 million population — it’s more like a matter of don’t ask, don’t tell.

Jordan considers them guests. The Jordanian-Iraqi border is open. But Antoon cannot reopen his liquor store or car-rental business in Amman, because Jordan forbids Iraqis who have fled their homeland to work. If they are caught working, they are deported back to Iraq.

Iraqis in Jordan have six months to find another country to take them in. If they cannot, they have to pay the equivalent of a few dollars a day for each person in the family for the privilege of staying in Jordan. But without work, they have a hard time paying the fees.

Until this fall, Iraqi children were not allowed to attend Jordanian schools; Jordanian education officials believed that their lack of schooling in a topsy-turvy Iraq would place them far behind their Jordanian counterparts.

Because the Jordanian government does not recognize them as refugees, their hopes of leaving Jordan and joining kin in the United States, Australia, Germany, or some other nation are at the mercy of the United Nations’ International Organization on Migration, which passes judgment on the emigration applications of Iraqis in Jordan.

For Antoon, his wife and their three children, the four years in Jordan have hurt.

“This is a testing from God. This is what I believe,” Antoon said. Since he cannot work, he and his family go to church — a lot. After talking with a Catholic News Service reporter, they were planning to attend a Saturday evening Mass at a Jesuit-run parish in Amman, then go to another church the next day.

“The IOM, which is here, refused me and my family, and I don’t know what is the reason,” Antoon told CNS in the chapel of Sacred Heart Church, founded in 2002 to provide pastoral care to Jordan’s Chaldean Catholics.

“I make an appeal, and they refused again. They don’t tell me why,” Antoon added. Antoon’s mother and brothers all successfully left Iraq and live in the Detroit suburbs; so do his wife’s parents and siblings.

Because they cannot work in Jordan, they depend on gifts of money from Antoon’s mother, sent every few months or so, to help them get by.

There are other forms of help available to them.

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary operate a help center for Iraqi refugees in Amman from their convent. They depend on church donations and private donors to provide assistance for the 160 or so Iraqis they see each week.

The five sisters’ help takes the form of food, counseling, schooling and religious instruction for the refugees’ children. In a safe country, the convent is a safe harbor for Iraqis to ponder their future.

Virtually all Iraqis visiting the center have kin living outside the Arab world. Many mention Detroit. Father Raymond Moussalli, the Chaldean vicar in Jordan for the Baghdad-based Chaldean Patriarchate, said there may be more Chaldeans living in the Detroit area than in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.