Catholic leaders have expressed concern for tens of thousands of
Iraqi Christian refugees sheltering in Jordan as access to international
aid tightens with crises deepening in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"The situation of Iraqi Christians refugees is critical and
dangerous," Father Khalil Jaar told Catholic News Service on the
sidelines of a conference hosted by the Vatican Embassy in Amman and the
Catholic charity, Caritas Jordan.
Meeting at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined
outskirts of the Jordanian capital, the leaders sought better
cooperation and were exploring income-generation projects for the
refugees badly in need of funds.
"They have finished their money and they aren't allowed to work. How
can they live in human dignity?" asked Father Jaar, who has devoted his
ministry to aiding Iraqi and Syrian refugees flooding into Jordan from
neighboring conflicts for more than a decade.
Daniela Cicchella of the Jordanian offices of the U.N. refugee
agency, UNHCR, told the gathering that 700,000 refugees of 42
nationalities are registered with the agency in the country. The
Jordanian government says it hosts 1.5 million refugees and its budget,
water, electricity and other services are overburdened by the numbers.
"We are doing our best to preserve and protect the dignity of the
refugees in Jordan. It's our country where we can feel free to work
under the umbrella of our government. I hope we can do something better
in the future," said Father Jaar, who grew up as a Palestinian refugee
from Bethlehem, West Bank.
But the priest has experienced his own challenges trying to provide
200 Iraqi Christian pupils with an education when they were unable to
enroll in Jordanian schools after fleeing the so-called Islamic State
invasion of their homeland in August 2014.
"At any month we might have to close the school, because we don't
have the money to run it. Everything is gratis for the children:
transportation, uniforms, school supplies," he said, explaining that
their parents cannot afford such expenses when just feeding the family
is a struggle. "I hope our good friends can help."
"This is now the third year of displacement for the Iraqi Christians.
It's very tough. Donations are becoming less, while global attention is
waning," Ra'ed Bahou, regional director of the Pontifical Mission, told
"That means that more problems will be created for these Iraqis. We
are trying our best to help them with health care, education, housing
and logistics. But the problem is bigger than us," he warned.
Bahou estimates that about 1,000 Iraqi Christian families who came to
Jordan after escaping the horrors of the Islamic State takeover of
Mosul and the surrounding villages have now resettled in Australia,
Canada and elsewhere.
"But another 1,000 or more have come from Iraq. We are trying to
coordinate between different organizations, especially Catholic, to cope
with these people and their needs," Bahou said.
Only 61,000 of the 140,000 Iraqis sheltering in Jordan are registered
with the U.N. refugee agency, said Caritas Jordan program manager Omar
Abawi. "Many of the Iraqi refugees are facing increased vulnerability in
their living conditions," he told the gathering.
Abawi mentioned some of the challenges. The majority of the refugees
are women and children who experience high cost of living expenses.
While Syrian refugees have now been granted the right to work legally in
Jordan, Iraqi refugees and those from other countries, such as Yemen,
Sudan and Somalia, do not have that right. Most refugee children lose
out on at least one year of schooling. Basic health services, once
provided to Syrian refugees free of charge or for a nominal fee, were
never accessible to Iraqi refugees.
"I am always struck by their desperate words about losing hope and
the miserable conditions they live under," said Wael Suleiman, Caritas
Jordan general director. They experience "frustration, loneliness,
isolation, despair and sadness over their forced exodus from their
country, families, history, current situation and future."
"We are here to heal the wounds, lift the morales, help to restore
hope, enhance human relationships and reflect the concept of living as
one human family," Suleiman said.
"Pope Francis' message for the Easter fast urges us to work and deal
with others, as they are grace. Today's call is to open our heart for
others, especially strangers," he said.
The Vatican is funding a job-creation program for Iraqi refugees in
Jordan. More than a dozen will have full-time work cultivating,
producing and selling vegetables and oil, while another 200 Iraqi
refugees are expected to receive training in carpentry, agriculture and
the food industry. An additional 500 will be given seasonal employment.
UNHCR's Cicchella said a pilot project employing Iraqi engineers and
IT specialists outside of Jordan on a short-term basis is being
explored, as are educational scholarships.