Finding Sanctuary in Jordan

Healing takes many forms for Jordan’s Iraqi Christian refugees

by Dale Gavlak with photographs by Nader Daoud

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Two young refugees cradle their newborn baby girl, taking in the wonder of the new life they hold in their hands. Soft light pours in from a nearby window, enveloping the trio in its warmth. For a moment, the recovery room at the Italian Hospital in the Jordanian capital of Amman is filled with a sense of peace and tranquility.

Calm moments have been in short supply since the couple and other Iraqi Christians were brutally pushed out of their ancestral homeland by ISIS militants last August. As with most of the 8,000 others who have fled to neighboring Jordan, they now face a gnawing uncertainty about what the future holds for them and their families.

“We were forced out of our homes when ISIS invaded our area, took over and claimed it as its own,” says Samir Deshto, a tall, slender 29-year-old man, holding his newborn daughter.

“They did despicable things to people. I became wanted,” says the former Iraqi policeman, his voice lowering. “They were calling out our names from the mosques, demanding we be exterminated.”

Mr. Deshto, his wife, Nevine, and their oldest daughter, Sabine, now 16 months old, first escaped to the northern city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they sought shelter in a church.

But the sanctuary soon overflowed with displaced Christians from Mosul and the predominantly Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain that surround Iraq’s second largest city. Christians were given the choice of converting to Islam, paying a religious tax known as jizya, or death.

“We sold my wife’s jewelry to come to Jordan. And now I don’t have anything, except God and you,” says the man, his dark eyes filling with pain.

Authorities say the huge numbers of refugees now in Jordan are burdening the oil-poor desert kingdom’s already scarce water and energy supplies. About 200,000 Iraqis remain from the time of the 2003 U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein, and about a million Syrians have also taken shelter there since civil war began in Syria in 2011.

Although most of the 8,000 Iraqi Christians ultimately hope to travel onward to North America, Europe or Australia, those aiding them believe it could take at least three years, if at all, before Western countries accept them as refugees for resettlement.

In this desperate situation, Jordan’s Christian community does all it can to help.

The Italian Hospital is Amman’s oldest medical facility, dating to 1926. The 100-bed hospital maintains a longstanding charitable tradition, providing some of the best care at low prices — in some cases, as with Nevine’s delivery, for free.

The hospital offers checkups, intensive care, pediatric and maternity care and a variety of other services, making referrals only in the case of the most serious procedures, such as cardiac surgery.

“For many years, refugees have been coming to our hospital, starting with the Palestinians,” says Nassim Samawi, administrative director. Now, as many as 130 Iraqi Christians daily seek medical assistance at the white limestone facility in Amman’s bustling downtown. Refugees driven from neighboring countries and continents alike come for help, including people from Syria, Sudan, Somalia and even Iraqis still displaced from the 2003 war.

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