CWS FEATURE STORY: FAITH COMMUNITY AIDS IRAQI REFUGEES

Written by Matt Hackworth/CWS
August 9, 2007

One Iraqi family's journey of 500 heartbreaking miles began with a simple gift from an American soldier. A U.S. patrol in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mansur stopped to see why so many cars were parked by the family's house, a fairly common inspection in a city plagued by security problems. Once the patrol's leader learned there was no cause for alarm, he even offered the family's daughter a birthday present.

The small present brought major problems.

Militants accused the family, who wish not to be named, of associating with Americans, and threatened them with violence.  The threats grew so pronounced the family fled their native home as refugees to Amman, joining a growing number of people seeking security, or even sustenance, beyond Iraq's borders.

"Families inside Iraq do not have anything to live on," International Orthodox Christian Charities regional director George Antoun said. "They are stuck in Iraq, with no relatives abroad to help and support them.

Iraq's escalating sectarian violence is pushing whole families out of their homes. Fleeing men, women and children will pay steep fees for undercover, safe transport out of the country. Iraq's neighboring states are trying to seal off common escape routes but the tide is still rising. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates as many as 2.2 million Iraqi refugees have fled since the latest war began.

Home away from home

From his pulpit in St. Ephraim's Syrian Orthodox Church in Amman, Fr. Emmanuel Al Bana has watched his congregation grow significantly since U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003. The church has about 5,000 members, the core of  whom at one time were native Jordanians. Now, around 3,000 Iraqi Christians have joined St. Ephraim's, many within the last two years.

Church World Service staff member Steve Weaver recently visited St. Ephraim's as part of a delegation examining how the faith community should respond to the Iraqi refugee crisis. CWS is working with other Action by Churches Together members, the Middle East Council of Churches, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Christian Aid and Norwegian Church Aid to coordinate a broader response supporting displaced Iraqis.

In Amman, St. Ephraim's is helping refugees as it is able, distributing blankets, clothing and kits to help families with small children. "Iraqis here are not allowed to work," said MECC-Jordan director Wafa S. Goussous. "Ninety percent of Iraqi refugees are poor and only depend on our donations, and relatives abroad."

Pushed beyond the fringe

The poorest refugees are frequently female, widowed by violence and excluded by a patriarchal society. Such is the story of Brenita, a 42 year-old mother of four. Her husband left Iraq six years ago, seeking asylum in Sweden, hoping to bring the rest of his family along later. The last Brenita heard from him, her husband was detained in Nepal. The war forced Brenita to leave her Baghdad home.

"I sold all my furniture, all my belongings to leave Iraq," Brenita said. The proceeds paid for her family's passage on a 24 hour-long bus ride to Amman.

Brenita, her children and her sister, Berita, survive on the little money Brenita earns cleaning and working in a glass factory, illegally. Berita once worked as a nurse but was forced to quit due to medical problems.

"Life is miserable here in Jordan but I prefer living in Jordan than being dead in Iraq," Berita said.

Jordanian law prohibits Brenita's children and other displaced youngsters from attending public schools. Private schools are an option for those who can afford $450 per year tuition.

Such a price was most likely not a problem for Waadallih, a displaced contractor from Baghdad. Militants kidnapped Waadallih's cousin and business partner six months ago, and later sought ransom for his family's safety. With just his life savings, Waadallih and his family fled for Jordan.

Waadillah's daughters have not been to school since the family left, with most of the family's savings paying for US$220 a month to rent a small apartment and US$100 a month to cover medicines for a chronic illness. Jordanian law prohibits Waadillah from practicing his craftsman trade, and he is searching for any other way to survive in the coming months.

"Only God knows," Waadillah said.

No end in sight, little welcome within reach

 "The larger story for Iraqi families is that there is no foreseeable resolution to this situation," CWS's Weaver said.  "Iraqis routinely say it will take five to ten years for this to play out.  So the two million Iraqis living in neighboring countries will not be returning home, voluntarily, anytime soon."

Seeking refuge in neighboring states is about the only option for Iraqis in peril. Jordan and Syria are determining the best legal means to accept refugees through their borders. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is constructing a US$7 million high-tech fence to keep Iraqis from wandering into its territory. 

The U.S. State Department plans to resettle officially only around 7,000 Iraqis by September. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been officially welcomed by Scandinavian nations.

Yet processing official requests is not keeping pace with the demand for resettlement. For the first time in five years, the United Nations High Commission on refugees reports an increase in the number of refugees worldwide, largely a result of the Iraq crisis.

For more information on Iraqi refugees, or higher resolution photos please visit www.churchworldservice.org.

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