AMMAN: Charities were already stressed before Syria's refugee explosion

by - 10th August 2012

Syrian refugees in Jordan - Photo: Matthew Bell

The ‘Fingernail Factory’ is not the name of the latest salon to set up in Amman, but the place where Jordan’s secret police allegedly re-arrange your cuticles if they think it might improve the story you’re telling them.

The ludicrous nickname given by Iraqis to the Mukhabarat [General Intelligence Directorate] belies the terror of a sudden summons.

One young Christian described how he was kept for two days in a windowless concrete hole in temperatures above 40 degrees, and nearly died of asphyxiation.  His crime was to be born to a Lebanese Christian mother and a Muslim father from the A------ tribe.

An unexpected invitation also arrived two years ago for Lila – not her real name - who runs Hope and Trust, a small Anglican-founded refugee charity.

‘They play with your mind,’ she says as we drive past the building where her interrogation happened. They have very clever ways of making you give them what they think they want.’

Extreme insecurity is growing for refugees who already comprise half the population, and whose numbers are now being fed drastically from Syria.

The Archbishop of Canterbury drew attention in a recent speech on the Middle East’s Christians to the ‘rule by security agencies that are free to bully and torture’, and ‘the culture of impunity’.

This is at root what has provoked the Arab Spring and the refugees are the most vulnerable to it.

The secret police were already monitoring the churches that have increased as desperate people seek shelter.

Even before the Syrian uprising, of the total 1,323,250 total refugee, internally displaced and even more worryingly stateless Iraqis in the world, 13 per cent are Christian, according to the UN’s latest forecast.  [Source

Palestinian shepherdess - Photo: S’ra DeSantisEarlier waves of refugees to Jordan stayed.  A Palestinian shepherdess tends a small flock of goats, having been born here after her parents fled Palestine in 1948.  Abandoned by her husband for failing to produce children, she and her mother wander the stony hills with their sheepdog, reeking of wood smoke from the cooking fire, making a pretty picture for the increasingly threatened tourism industry – but condemned by political circumstance to extreme poverty. 

The tiny old woman sitting quietly in threadbare clothes with other ex-patriates at a church dinner listening to a Bible quiz fled Sudan. 

But the Archbishop of Canterbury drew particular attention in the same debate to the Assyrians – Iraq’s indigenous people.  Even their treatment in Britain he described as ‘ludicrous and insulting’:

‘Syrian Orthodox children - this is a real instance - were told by teachers in a British school that they should not attend a Christian assembly because they must be Muslim if they are Syrians’, he told peers.

If it is bad for the indigenous believers who have existed in the region since the very beginning, it is worse for converts of whom there are a growing number fleeing violent religious sectarianism.  The Mukhabarat ‘discourages’ baptism which is viewed as especially provocative, on top of the country’s existing problems which include power struggles among the local tribes, water scarcity and a massive black economy. 

The Arab founder of a church and school for Iraqis was held for four days, accused of baptising new believers.  They blindfolded him and held a gun to his head according to Lila. It so shattered him that he left the country.

The government sends mixed messages.  Churches are allowed, but a school for 400 refugee children run by a church was closed by the government after a piece was published on it by a Saudi journalist.  

Lila suspects there is a mole in the UN, since the pastor’s detention happened after two Iraqis they knew who were of Muslim background requested religious asylum as newly baptised believers.

This kind of treatment is as arbitrary as the secret police occasionally sending out their trucks and rounding up from the shops the illegal workforce of refugees, who though registered with the UN have no official livelihood.  This country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not allow for minimum wage-earning by refugees.

‘They have recently been deporting secretly,’ says Lila who is herself a mixed-race migrant originally from the Far East.  ‘Our families go missing, and we can’t locate where they are.  The wife gets a call sometime later and discovers her husband is back in Iraq.’

Lila is 54, and has been a Christian charity-worker for 17 years, supported by an Anglican church. 

‘I am equipped to help build up these people in order for them one day to go back to Iraq and build up the suffering church there.

‘But it is still not safe for Christians and Sabaeans [followers of John the Baptist] there.  And on top of it we are getting Iraqi families who are fleeing again from Syria.’

Lila runs a variety of programmes for different age groups, and receives a small amount of funds from an English charity, the Hope Fund, set up by the former chaplain here, Malcolm White of the Church Mission Society.  With the money, she has been able to help get 15 families out of the country to the US, Canada and Australia since 2008, by working with the embassies that offer emigration services. 

It is a teaspoon in the ocean, and she wants to encourage more prayer, interest, volunteers and money to speed up the service, assist at the clinic attached to an Arab church, and help with UN form filling.  That call cannot go ignored.

Forms needing translating are charged per page.  Couriering papers from country to country is another cost. 

‘We had a family that had applied 13 times for re-settlement and were rejected.  We were able to sit down and work through with them their forms and today they are in Australia,’ says Lila.


GREETING us energetically in a pool of sunlight in the front yard of their tiny concrete home, Georgis [not his real name] has a horrendous story.

Assyrian woman prays in a Jordanian church - Photo: ASSIST News ServiceOriginally from Kirkuk in Northern Iraq, he tells of identity problems for Assyrians (the original name for the indigenous non-Arab people of Iraq, many of whom worship in the Syrian Orthodox Church) in Saddam’s Iraq; of being forced to sign documents in the mid-1980s saying they were ‘Kurdish’ – and unwanted aliens; of being forced into the military for three years; of fleeing in lorries to Ankara, being turned back at the border – and of fleeing once again during the first Gulf War.

Once in Jordan they had to rent a roofless concrete shack covered with nylon.  There was water for one cup of tea a day; and husband and wife shared their mattress with their small daughter for two years. 

They fled Kirkuk in 1991 and managed to register with the UN in 1996, but the UN closed their file without reason in 1999.  They re-opened it again in 2007 after the second Gulf War: ‘The UN was more pro-active then’ says Lila.

While the family waits for their case to be processed – seemingly for ever – Georgis who is now 50, volunteers as he has done for the past six years at Lila’s church, networking the staple food distribution service to 200 families, and improving his English.  A tall, vigorous former electrical engineer and welder, he surprises me by his energy and warmth. 

He has created a garden with a makeshift swing hung from the olive tree in the concrete front yard.  The house with its worn furniture, recycled from other resettled Iraqi families, is cheerful with pictures painted by a gifted Iraqi friend.

‘I have accepted this is my life for now.  I pray a lot and fast,’ he says in explanation.

Fazaneh his wife says, through Lila’s translation, that it is difficult for her to see her husband without proper work.  ‘The children have no rights here, no right even to friendships,’ she adds.

They describe their feelings for Lila and the link she’s providing.  ‘She is like big sister.  She is very very good woman,’ Georgis manages to say directly to me in very broken English, and gives me the thumbs up – a sign that needs no translation.

Identities and locations have been disguised.