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Iraqi Refugees Find Relief at Jordan Center

By David Snyder

Muntaha Shamon bears the memories of her recent past like a physical weight. Like all Iraqi refugees in Jordan, she has a story. And like most, recounting that story opens wounds she fears may never close.

"One day my husband went to work," Muntaha says. "Someone called from my husband's mobile and says we would never see him again and they were going to kill us."

Muntaha Shamon receives a medical exam at the Caritas Community Center for Refugees and Migrant Workers

A doctor at the Caritas Jordan Community Center for Refugees and Migrant Workers in Amman examines Muntaha Shamon, a 45-year-old refugee from Iraq. The center provides medical and dental care to migrant workers and refugees for free or at greatly reduced rates. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

As Christians in Iraq, Muntaha and her family became targets. Worried sick and alone with her 17-year-old son Yousif, Muntaha says she did not know what to do.

"In the morning, my son went outside and found an envelope with two bullets and a letter in it that says, 'This is your destiny if you don't leave Iraq,' " she says.

Fleeing to a friend's house in fear for her and Yousif's safety, she left her husband's passport with a neighbor and fled Iraq for Jordan. That was in December 2010, and her life since has been filled with uncertainty and sleeplessness.

Although physically safe in Jordan, she and Yousif are caught in a complicated legal bind. Recognized not as refugees but as "guests" of the Jordanian government, all of the estimated 450,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan are legally entitled to education and health care, an extraordinary gesture for a country of just 6 million people. But both are difficult to access.

The systems, strained by the influx of refugees that began in 2003, are unable to cope with the number of Iraqi refugees now in Jordan. And refugees are not legally allowed to work in Jordan, leaving them impoverished and vulnerable. Muntaha, her son and many others await resettlement to any of the shrinking list of countries willing to take them in.

'My Whole Life Has Flipped'

Fortunately for Muntaha, help is available. Established in 2002, the Caritas Jordan Community Center for Refugees and Migrant Workers in Amman is a beacon of hope for many who have nowhere else to turn.

Through the center, which is supported by Catholic Relief Services, refugees and migrant workers can access a range of social and humanitarian services. Medical and dental care, educational support and food assistance are offered free of charge or at greatly reduced costs. Suffering recently from back pain, Muntaha says she did not have the money to go to the hospital, but she knew where to turn.

"I had heard of Caritas from other Iraqis," Muntaha says. "They said that Caritas gives you quality health services and they treat you very nicely, but you don't have to pay much."

A full-time Caritas doctor delivers health care services to 50 to 80 refugees and foreign migrant workers each day. The center also offers help with fees for school or vocational classes, and access to legal or social services.

Gathering the names of needy refugee families and foreign migrant workers through a network of churches, the Caritas Jordan Community Center provides food staples as well as kits of essential nonfood items such as shampoo, soap and bath towels. In the first 6 months of 2011 alone, the center reached more than 1,000 families with such distributions.

"We got tea, sugar, rice, oil and some cans of tuna," Muntaha says. "Thank God. It was very helpful."

Waiting now on word of a resettlement application to Australia, where her older son lives with his fiancée, Muntaha and Yousif cling to the possibility of reuniting as a family, even as the dark cloud of her husband's disappearance haunts them. Like all Iraqi refugees in Jordan, their lives hang now between what they once lived and the open question of their future.

With few friends in Jordan, Muntaha say she turns to her religion to find comfort amid the uncertainty.

"I go to church and talk with some people there," Muntaha says. "But my whole life has flipped 180 degrees."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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