In Jordan, Iraqi 'refugees' have rights, but 'guests' don't
Written by W. Evan Golder
February - March 2008

At Caritas Jordan, a Catholic relief agency in Amman, Jordan, an Iraqi "guest" (name withheld) tells her story to volunteer Zuhair J. Mansour from the Chaldeans Catholic Church. W. Evan Golder photo.
UCC contributions to aid refugees could exceed $150,000

Question: When are Iraqi refugees not "refugees?"

Answer: When they are considered "guests" by Jordan, Iraq's neighbor to the west.

The issue is more than semantic, explains Wafa Goussous.

"Generally speaking, a refugee is a person who is forced to leave his home and his country," she says. "And as he is forced, he will go across his border to seek refuge in another country where security is available.

"On the other hand, the Iraqis who flee the Iraq War are not refugees because they are not forced to leave Iraq. They are allowed to come inside Jordan, and if they have the means they rent houses, start buying land, putting their children in schools, etc.

"That's why we don't call them refugees," she says. "We call them guests. And guests arrive for a temporary period of time until there is a solution for them." Goussous, a Jordanian Christian, has been director since 2003 of the Middle East Council of Churches office in Amman, Jordan's capital. The MECC is a partner of Global Ministries, the common mission program of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Legal distinction has consequences

The distinction between "refugees" and "guests" is also a legal question, Goussous says.

"According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees," she says, "refugees have rights. They are entitled to medical assistance, daily bread, clean water, etc. Governments are responsible for refugees, to resettle them somewhere.

"But guests? No. They don't have any legal status inside this country. They are allowed here, but our government does not provide work permits for any Iraqis or any residency rights."

"If you are a rich guest, then you have no problem to survive," she adds. "But if you are a poor guest, then you need somebody to support you."

According to the U.N., more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country. However, the United States admitted only 1,608 Iraqi refugees in fiscal year 2007.

Estimates vary from 200,000 to 800,000 as to how many Iraqi "guests" have taken refuge in Jordan, but increasingly they are poor rather than rich. And the rich are running out of money and rapidly becoming poor.

"Iraqi Christians, especially the poorer ones, first seek aid from their churches," she says. "But the churches don't have all that much money, so they turned to the MECC for help."

The MECC then turned to Action by Churches Together (ACT), which launched a world-wide appeal. In response, the UCC asked members and churches to contribute $100,000 in emergency aid before Jan. 6 (Christmas Eve for Orthodox Christians and Epiphany for western Christians).

The UCC more than met its goal by raising $141,594, as of Jan. 7, from Advent through Epiphany. The UCC's funds will be dispersed by ACT to support the Middle East Council of Churches' refugee work.

At press time, donations still were being received at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland and the tally is expected to climb above $150,000.

Meeting with Iraqi 'guests'

The MECC's 28 member churches represent 14-16 million Christians in the Middle East.

As such, MECC advocates for the rights of displaced Iraqis and coordinates relief efforts on their behalf, working through churches, church agencies and institutions.

On a hot November afternoon, my wife, Deborah, and I met some Iraqi "guests" at Caritas Jordan, a relief agency, and at Italian Hospital, both in Amman.

At Caritas, one 17-year-old mother with an Iraqi husband was seeking milk and diapers for her 7-month-old son. She was Jordanian and therefore ineligible for aid under that program, so her son became the client. Since she had received a heater, blankets and a food package from another agency and 15 JD (Jordanian dinars — approximately $US22) from a private organization, she was given a chit to take to Italian Hospital for milk and diapers.

As a church volunteer translated, another Iraqi "guest" wanted to tell me her story, complete with passport, family photos, etc.

She said that she and her husband had lived in Baghdad and had four kids. One day when he went out with their 5-year-old daughter to buy bread, shots erupted. American soldiers returned fire. In the exchange her daughter was killed and her husband hit. U.S. soldiers took her husband to a hospital and gave him great care but he lost both legs and now lives in a wheelchair. Later they moved to Amman.

Recognizing a different reality

After the interview, I wasn't quite sure of the spelling of the woman's name, so I went back to talk with her case worker — and her story began to unravel. She had given me her mother-in-law's name, different from the name she gave the case worker. The case worker's story involved an automobile accident, not a shooting.

The journalist in me was ticked off that the facts didn't jibe and the story was unreliable. Gradually, though, the pastor in me took over and I could see how desperate these people are for food and assistance, desperate enough to vary the basic story so the description might elicit more help from the person hearing the story.

Her story also reflected how insecure, confused, and unstable Baghdad really is—the reason her family left in the first place. Shootings and bombings are a reality. While the details of her story were not accurate, the reality she described is in fact accurate and affects many persons daily.

At first, stories such as these bothered Wafa Goussous (see story). But gradually she began to carry these people in her heart.

"There was joy in my heart, but at first I didn't feel it," she says. "But now I know we should receive these people with love, with an open heart."

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. In November, he and his wife, Deborah, participated in a media tour of Jordan sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board. 

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