10/20/2015 12:24:00 PM WATCH:'We need more help'
Iraqi Christian refugees seek not to be forgotten
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
A girl meanders in front of her parents during a community meeting of Iraqi refugees at St. George Church in Fuheis, Jordan. Refugees exiled from Iraq by ISIS have now been in Jordan for more than a year.
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Sami Jeries, an English teacher and Christian from near Mosul, tutors 14-year-old Mariam Bartala and other Iraqi children at the Pontifical Mission Library in Amman, Jordan. Jeries says refugees pushed out by ISIS need more help to return to their homes.
Catholic Sentinel reporter Ed Langlois is in Jordan. He is posting regular reports on catholicsentinel.com. The Jordan Tourism Board is paying for the trip, but has made no move to censor content. To see what other writers have said about Jordan, go to #HolyJordan on Twitter.
AMMAN, Jordan — While persecuted Syrian Christians are making the news as ISIS advances, Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan don’t want to be forgotten.
“We were subject to special harm when we lived in Iraq,” says Sami Jeries, who lived near Mosul until ISIS exiled him from his home more than a year ago. Muslim neighbors identified him for invading troops. The former English teacher now lives in Amman and spends much of his time tutoring young Iraqis at the Pontifical Mission Library, an initiative of the Vatican’s Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Jordan’s population has risen to more than 11 million from around 8 million two years ago, mostly because of refugees. The influx has stretched the desert nation, which is not as wealthy as its Arab neighbors because it lacks oil.
Jeries, 60, calls Jordan “a charming country,” but said government aid has been sparse, about $50 over a year. He thanks the local church for filling in gaps. Most of all, he wants to go home, as do most Iraqi refugees.
“They needed a base of refuge, of security and safety,” says Father Nabil Haddad, a Jordanian Melkite priest who founded of a center for religious coexistence. “As you can see, they have found what they need in Jordan. But what we want to see is for them to get back to their homeland.”
In Fuheis, a Christian town of 40,000 in piney hills near the capital, St. George Melkite Parish has accepted hundreds of displaced Iraqis. At a recent town hall meeting to speak with a team of U.S. journalists, dozens of refugees stepped forward to tell their stories.
“We lost everything — our houses, our furniture, our jobs,” said Nawal Gaggo Butrus, a 52-year-old PhD in education who fled Mosul with her husband and two children. A woman of some fame — the BBC aired a report on her as Iraq’s first woman skydiver — Butrus was warned by friends she could be targeted by ISIS.
Hazem, who lived near Mosul and prefers not to give his last name, once was wealthy. Now in his mid-50s and hundreds of miles from home, he eats one meal a day, provided by the Fuheis parish. But Hazem explains that food is not the real problem. He wants a solution to the exile. To a person, the refugees are angry at the U.S. government, saying it has failed to attack ISIS forcefully enough.
“The U.S. could get rid of ISIS if it wanted to,” said an agitated Bassam Ashaq A-Qannd, a 48-year-old Orthodox Christian from Mosul, who once worked at Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment. “Please know we love the American people. But what the government is doing we don’t understand.”
When Father Boulos Haddad, pastor of St. George’s, is not saying Mass, he is speaking with refugees or is on the phone trying to procure what they need.
“They say, ‘We have lost everything,’” says Elisa Estrada, a Filipino who has worked in Jordan since 1985 as lay member of the Teresiana Institute. “But with a smile they say we have our faith. It is very touching to see this Christian group who left everything but who are so proud that they did not lose their faith.”
In an Amman neighborhood, the Pontifical Mission Library these days serves as a community center and language school for refugees. Ra’Ed Bahou, director of the Pontifical Mission in Jordan, visited refugees displaced within Iraq and was horrified at the living conditions. He wants the library in Amman to sustain refugees’ high level of education. The Pontifical Mission also supports refugees with food, garden plots and healthcare.
“The Middle East is losing Christians; Jordan is absorbing Christians,” says Bahou, 50. He credits the nation’s royal family for its openness. The nightmare here is an ISIS incursion into Jordan, seen by many as Christianity’s final refuge in the Middle East.
“Hopefully this country will stay safe and hopefully Christians will be protected,” he says.
Bahou does worry that an increasing refugee population in Jordan might put pressure on unemployment, which has already risen from 17 percent to 25 percent in the past two years. He begs the west to provide business expertise, creating jobs so that young Jordanian men don’t feel tempted to extremism.