Out of Iraq

Fleeing war, families struggle to redefine home in Jordan

by Cory Eldridge

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When news came to the Armenian Club in Baghdad that a U.S.-hosted basketball camp would be held for the city’s elite high school players, there was no doubt Joseph Najarian would represent the club. He was considered to be one of only two quality players on the high school squad — “the other guys were there to fill spots,” he says — and at 16, he was the youngest member of the club’s premier team.

Like the NBA players he watches obsessively, Joseph moves with a graceful lope. He is not particularly tall, but he is long, with stretched arms and legs and lithe fingers. Even his eyelashes are long. His skill comes from practicing four days a week for four hours on the rubber floor at the club’s gymnasium. To explain Joseph’s obsession with the sport, his father and coach, Daron, says simply: “Basketball is in the blood.” (Like nearly all refugee families from Baghdad, they requested their real names not be used.)

At the camp, for five days in the heat of an Iraqi July, he faced new opponents and a new, very regimented, very American style of drills. Competing against the 50 best teenagers in the city was a joy.

At the end, he received two certificates for his participation. One was signed by the camp directors. The other bore not one but two seals of the American eagle and the words “United States of America” arching over the top, similar to the design on a diploma. It also carried the signature of the U.S. ambassador.

A month later, a text message came to Joseph from an unknown number. In Arabic it said: “We know you are working with the Americans. If you don’t stop, we are going to kill you.”

“I thought they were just kidding with me,” he says. “That it was nothing. That it was a joke.” The reaction from his father told him otherwise. A month later another message arrived. Joseph stopped going to school and, worse, playing ball at the club. Then his father found a threatening letter left at their apartment.

Joseph is 18 now, living in Amman, Jordan, with his family, working at a sandwich shop for a kind-hearted Muslim man willing to pay him and his brother under the table. He does not go to school and he does not play much basketball.

“It’s strange here,” he says. “No friends, no family.”

His mother puts it bluntly. “We lost everything. Our friends, our jobs, our schools, our relatives.”

All the family wants now is to immigrate to the United States, ironically the country the Najarians hold responsible for destroying their country, but a place where Mr. Najarian has family. Like nearly all Christian refugees in Jordan, they never expect to return.

The exodus of Iraqis has slowed since the difficult days of 2004 to 2008. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says a total of about 30,000 Iraqis are registered in Jordan. In 2011, 7,000 new arrivals registered with the agency. Last year it was half that.

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