Amid long waits for placement, Christian Iraqi refugees in Amman fear being separated as children "age-out"
When people think of America, they think of “success” – we are the country where it is understood that opportunities are available, and that “success” comes with hard work. Everyone has a different idea of what success means to them, though: a young musician might count himself successful if he can simply make a living off his craft, while a single mother may feel that paying the bills with enough left over for a family treat is achievement enough for a day. For doctors, lawyers, educators and others, recognition by peers might feel like the brass ring, finally grasped.
But what if the musician, good enough to earn his way, were forbidden to play? What if the mother had no chance to work and the teacher were unable to share her gift? What if a doctor, or a lawyer, were told to lay down his tools? Without the environment to thrive, can we maintain our sense of purpose – our sense of ourselves?
What does “success” begin to look like, then?
Recently, I was able to join a number of Christian journalists and bloggers on a visit to the beautiful country of Jordan, as a guest of the Jordanian Tourism Bureau. In Amman, we met Christian refugees from Iraq, and among them were doctors, and lawyers, and highly-trained professionals who, afforded a safe place to live, had discovered that a refugee’s reality is one stripped of a sense of purpose. To be together with their families, away from the threats of the murderous Islamic State is a blessing, to be sure, but the days can hang heavy, and you can lose sight of yourself – and of hope — when you have no way to work at your life’s calling.
On our first day in Jordan, we awoke early in order to visit the Greco-Roman ruin of Umm Qais, and ended up arriving late to our meeting with the Christian Iraqi refugees waiting to talk to us. All of us regretted it. How do you show up late to people who already feel forgotten by most of the world?
The meeting was held in the Pontifical Mission Library, a small resource space that serves the needs of refugees by offering books, videos, internet access, educational games, English and music lessons, prayer groups, and various seminars. It is run by a few gentle nuns who take real joy in helping these people, who have lost everything.
Joy was noticeable in the children there. “Kids bounce,” as the saying goes, and these Iraqi children laughed and played, cracking jokes and practicing the English they had acquired through this CNEWA-sponsored program. In excellent English, they proudly led the gathering through the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, while the older people followed along, struggling with the foreign tongue. When they finished, several wanted to show us their artwork, which was uniformly hopeful.
10-year-old Nichole seemed to be thriving in her new location. She spoke of how she has been learning to play the guitar. The instrument was the pride of her life and more than anything, she told us, she wanted to play in church one day, “For Jesus.”
It was in the young adults that you started to see signs of trauma. A young man of about 20 sat with his arms folded across his chest, wearing the kind of thousand-yard gaze one sees on the faces of military veterans who have “seen some things.” He could not emphasize enough to us how little the Iraqi government could do to protect its Christian citizens from brutality.
One by one people began to stand up; they formed lines and we got a sense of what it must be like for priests in the confessional — each time the line would shrink to one or two people, more would stand and join their ranks. Everyone was anxious to tell their story, and each tale was more heart-rending than the last.
The most commonly shared problem these refugees face is inaction. Jordan has taken in 1.5 million refugees from Syria and 500,000 from Iraq – a huge undertaking for a country of just 8 million. Many of these people were admitted years ago, with no idea when they may get permanently placed. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) interviews each family twice, asking practical questions about illnesses, needs, and skills. When the second interview is complete, however, no further word is sent to these people until they are placed. Until then they cannot work – the effect could be ruinous to Jordanian citizens – so they can only wait.
Nahla is a hair dresser. She could not get work in Iraq — every time she applied to a shop and the owners found out she was Christian, she was turned away. In Jordan, she is able to give haircuts within the Iraqi refugee community, but she is not allowed to take a job in a shop. How much harder is it to move on from the trauma of fleeing your home when you can’t even take a job, earn a little money, and develop a sense of your ability to self-support?
By far the most unsettling story came from an older gentleman named Ahmed. Fearing his three daughters might be assaulted in the streets, he arrived in Jordan in 2014. At that time, the girls were all young enough to be considered dependents, but his eldest daughter has just turned 21, and is no longer considered part of their family placement case. Suddenly this girl is all alone. She has to open her own immigration file, and begin a new wait, and if the rest of her family is placed in another country tomorrow, she will be stuck in Jordan until her own case is settled. There is no guarantee that she will be placed anywhere near her family.
We listened for almost four hours. As we prepared to leave, an older woman — who had been silent in the back of the room the whole time — stood up and made her way over to us. She spoke no English, but one of the nuns translated, “She wants to know if there is any hope that what you write will help.”
It was all I could do not to cry. Yes, we would tell their stories — we promised to! — but what would be the measure of our success? Will the telling help?