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Way past their bedtime

16 July 2008

Preti Taneja, MRG’s Commissioning Editor and co-author of an upcoming MRG report on Iraqi minority refugees, reports back from a research trip to Jordan.

It’s nearly midnight, but Lavinia, 7, Naveen, 5 and Venetia, 3, are a long way from sleep. They wave hello as Father Khalil and I climb the steep stone stairs to the two rooms they share with their parents in downtown Amman. It’s a warm night after a baking hot day; there is no fan, so we leave the door open. Across the flat roof and on the other side of the hills, the lights of Jordan’s capital city twinkle invitingly. But these three little girls are Iraqi Christians, who fled the war in 2004. That means they rarely get to leave the house.

Their father only goes out early in the morning, before police are on the streets. He sends their mother to collect the rations available from various NGOs working in Amman. Both parents fear being arrested for having outstayed their permits. As the girls tuck into the warm shwarma Father Khalil has brought, their mother says her greatest fear is that the family will be sent back to Iraq.

For Iraqi Christians, the situation in their homeland is terrifying. Targeted for their religion since 2003, suffering threats, kidnappings and murders, more and more families are leaving. Many of them are now living in limbo in Jordan. Like the many other Iraqis who have sought temporary shelter in Amman, they are not officially known as refugees, but instead are ‘guests’ of the Kingdom. This means they cannot work, and once their temporary visas expire, they are vulnerable to arrests. Though the government says it does not forcibly deport Iraqis back to Iraq, many fear the Jordanian police and believe they will be sent back. For Christians including the family I am talking to, this is not a realistic option. ‘I would never go back, not even if I was the President,’ says the girls’ mother.

As their finances dwindle and until they can be resettled somewhere else, Iraqi families rely on the network of international aid agency services in Amman, and on locals such as Father Khalil. He provides support, food and advice to Iraqi families of all ethnicities and religions. His work to help them is funded through donations from individuals and from a small British based charity, Iraqi Christians in Need.

It is much needed help. With a small amount of financial support from NGOs and the 150 JD per month the family manages to earn, they are desperately short in this expensive city. It was only last year that Iraqi children displaced by the conflict were granted permission to attend Jordanian schools. Some have missed years already. Lavinia’s schooling alone costs 650 JD per year; she may not be able to go back when term begins again. Venetia, who was born in Jordan, has never been to kindergarten – by the time she is primary school age she may be too behind in her development to enrol. They do not go out in the day, their father says, because apart from his fear of being arrested, it is too hard to tell them they can’t have the food and toys they see around them. As we talk, I notice childish scribbles decorate the walls of the room we are in, framing the few family photos and religious pictures of Jesus and Mary with loops of pen and pencil. With nothing else to do and few toys, the girls draw on the walls.

They giggle together as they mimic their father and his friends shuffling, dealing and playing with a pack of cards. Sometimes their attention is caught by a lurid Turkish film dubbed into Arabic playing out on the small TV in the corner. Lavinia and Naveen, still hungry, come forward for another shwarma each. Their parents go without while the girls eat.

When I get the camera out, their curiosity brings them over to investigate. I take a picture of the family together, minus Naveen who is too shy to join the group. But one by one the girls are tempted into having a go on the camera, and the workings of the digital screen, as if they are all on TV, makes all three of them shake with laughter. They take a picture each: of their mother, of Father Khalil. Finally Naveen relaxes, and insists on posing with her sisters. Seeing them falling over with laughter as I show them the pictures they have taken brings home how ready they are to learn new things, how much they want to experience. And how little they get the chance. As I wish them goodnight they wave and shout goodbye until we drive away.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.