Between Iraq and a Hard Place

text and photographs by George Martin

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I will call him Joseph. He was nervous about my using his real name or taking his picture since he still had relatives in Iraq. We met in the house of the Latin Patriarchal Vicar in Amman, Jordan. Joseph and his older sons were helping count and bag rosaries for shipment, while his wife held their infant daughter. They were refugees from Iraq – a Chaldean Catholic family eking out survival in Jordan while waiting for asylum in any country that would accept them. Their prospects, and the prospects of many other Iraqi refugees, are bleak.

Joseph is 39, his wife, 33. Their sons are 10, 9, 7 and 6; their daughter was born three months ago.

They enjoyed a fairly good life in Iraq before the Gulf War in 1991. Joseph owned a small supermarket and a house. He was drafted into the army but survived the war. The life he and his family had previously lived, however, did not. His supermarket was looted while he was in the army; their house was destroyed when Saddam Hussein suppressed one of the uprisings that followed the war. Their life deteriorated further as the U.N. trade embargo led to severe shortages of food and medicine. In 1994, gathering what money and possessions they could, Joseph and his family fled Iraq, hoping to begin a new life in another land.

The Western world saw televised coverage of Allied smart bombs destroying targets during the Gulf War. What they did not see was the impact of the war and the embargo on the lives of the Iraqi people. Likewise, they hear about Gulf War syndrome afflicting Allied veterans of the war; they hear less about the profound effects of this war on the health of Iraqi citizens. Much of the country lacks functioning water purification and sewage systems. The infant mortality rate remains very high: one human rights monitoring group estimates that every month 4,500 Iraqi children under the age of five die from lack of food or medicine.

Understandably, many Iraqis wish to move to another land, but where? Jordan is the only friendly country bordering Iraq and, in the hopes of the refugees, a way station to Western countries. Jordan grants a refugee such as Joseph a six-month-visitor’s visa while he applies for permission to emigrate to another country. To discourage the refugees from remaining indefinitely, those who remain longer than six months are charged one Jordanian dinar (about $1.40) per person each day. Jordan does not grant work permits to Iraqis like Joseph: Jordan is poor in natural resources and about 30 percent of its population lives in poverty. Sources indicated that granting Iraqis work permits in Jordan would swell the number of refugees from hundreds of thousands into millions, exacerbating an already desperate situation.

Joseph has been unable to find another country willing to accept his family as immigrants. He paid an intermediary for an entry visa to the Netherlands but was turned back when he tried to travel there: refugees like Joseph are sometimes victimized by unscrupulous operators who falsely promise visas in exchange for money.

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Tags: Iraq Refugees Jordan Health Care Chaldean Church