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AMMAN-CRUNCH Feb-28-2007 (890 words) With photos and map. xxxi

Church aid officials say influx of Iraqis puts burden on Jordan

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) -- The enormous influx of Iraqis over the past five years has put a large burden on Jordan, said church aid officials trying to help the refugees.

Though official estimates put the number of Iraqi refugees in Jordan at about 1 million, Catholic groups working with the refugees say that number is closer to 1.5 million.

"Overall the situation is very difficult," said Ra'ed Bahou, director of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in Amman. "Most of the refugees are very poor, and this country does not have the resources" to deal with the situation.

The arrival of the Iraqi refugees in this landlocked nation of some 5 million people -- more than half of whom are former Palestinian refugees -- has caused prices to skyrocket, making the cost of living for the average Jordanian almost prohibitive, said Hania Bsharat, assistant manager of the Extremely Vulnerable Individuals project of Caritas Jordan, the local church's charitable aid agency.

"Most Jordanians do not welcome the Iraqis," she said. "We are a poor country. We need a solution -- resettlement in Jordan or in a foreign country, and we hope that they will be allowed to work and send their children to school. There is no way they can go back to Iraq."

The only escape routes left open to Iraqis trying to flee their war-torn country lead to Syria or Jordan, but the regulations for entering those countries fluctuate, sometimes daily, leaving people bewildered and unsure of how to proceed, aid workers said.

For example, recently the minimum age for males permitted to enter Jordan was raised from 35 to 40 for "security reasons," and Syria also recently imposed a similar directive.

When they manage to cross into Jordan, the Iraqis arrive in Amman with no legal status and no rights, having escaped from threats of kidnapping, murder and daily bombings that leave hundreds of people dead every week. The refugees lack health care, employment and educational opportunities for their children.

Bsharat said the Extremely Vulnerable Individuals project, which provides funds for health care, food and humanitarian assistance, has seen an increase in the number of people turning to it for help in the past year; many have chronic diseases that went unchecked in Iraq.

"Most of the people who come seeking our help are (also) depressed," she said, sitting in the Caritas offices in downtown Amman. "They don't want just health care."

The elderly, young mothers with babies, women in wheelchairs -- their faces all darkened by the same grim resignation -- line the walls in the reception room as they wait for social workers to do the initial assessment. Later, they will sit with one of the seven caseworkers, who will then visit their homes to help determine the degree of need and amount of help Caritas can provide.

Each caseworker sees about seven families a day, said Bsharat.

Caritas also runs an informal school project and a community clinic for the Iraqi refugees.

"There is too much demand and too little resources, especially for the chronic disease cases which need treatment every month," Bsharat said.

Iraqi refugees also receive treatment, partially funded by the Pontifical Mission, in a hospital administered by the Comboni Sisters. The refugees hear about the hospital through word of mouth, said Sister Kudassti Tekle, the hospital administrator who is originally from Eritrea.

Patients are asked to pay a symbolic amount for their own treatment in order to maintain their dignity and self-respect, she said.

"We have many new refugees coming, and that is part of our mission. We as Christians can never refuse anyone," said Sister Kudassti. The hospital and its clinic are also open to Jordanians and other foreigners living in Jordan.

Five years ago the hospital had to expand the building for its outpatient clinics because of the substantial increase in patients, she said.

"Now more and more refugees are starting to come with more sick conditions. They are very depressed and have hypertension" due to their situation, she said.

Cathy Breen, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York and researcher on Iraqi issues for Voices for Creative Nonviolence, said the most basic need of Iraqis in Jordan is to have their legal status clarified so they can work, send their children to school and be free from fear of deportation.

Currently, she said, one of the requirements for becoming a legal resident is to have $100,000 frozen in the bank -- a clear impossibility for the majority of refugees who have had to leave almost all they own in Iraq.

Another less-publicized problem facing Iraqi refugees is the cancellation of the "S" series passports they were required to have as a travel document following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some 1 million Iraqis left the country with this document, said Breen, but since their departure it was determined that the passports were too easily forged, so the series was made invalid.

In order to receive new documents to be able to travel abroad, the refugees must return to Iraq, she said, because Iraqi embassies have not been authorized to issue the new passports. This leaves most refugees stranded, since returning to Iraq is not a viable option for them, she said.


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