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Iraq's Christian Assyrians: Living in Fear
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Mary Josef lives in hiding. Worse, her son, just 8 years old, does too, and has for as long as he can remember.

The 30-year-old Iraqi woman is an Assyrian Christian who fled Baghdad six years ago after her husband was imprisoned and her family threatened. They surrendered all their money and valuables to one of Saddam Hussein's soldiers to make it across the border into Jordan, a country they planned to stay in temporarily before heading to the United States to reunite with family.

Six years later, Josef and her son still hide in a one-room apartment in Jordan, their lives in limbo. They wait for word from their family in Warminster that a door to a life in the United States will open and they will be able to pass through. Josef lives in fear that she will be discovered and sent back to Iraq, where her husband is feared dead and only more persecution of minority Christians await. Mary is not her real name; Josef's family worries that using her real name would jeopardize her safety.

"We are only two people, me and my little boy," said Josef, on a recent call from Jordan. "We have no family, no future here. I don't understand why it has to be so hard."

But living a threatened existence as an Iraqi Assyrian Christian in a Muslim world is not enough to grant her passage to the United States. Too many other Iraqi asylum-seekers like Josef wait.

A United Nations survey reports that more than 200,000 Assyrian Christians -- members of an ancient form of Christianity born in the Holy Land of the Mesopotamia -- have fled Iraq since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, leaving only 20,000 remaining in the country, according to the U.S. State Department. Their exodus sped up in August 2004, after the start of the terrorist bombing campaign against Christian churches and a hike in kidnappings and assassinations.

Hanna Josef, Mary's 74-year-old mother, made it to Warminster in 2004, expecting her daughter and grandson to follow shortly after. She took a job as a housekeeper, applied for U.S. citizenship and completed the paperwork to bring her daughter here. Then she learned Josef's visa could take eight more years to clear. Hanna Josef's sister and Mary's aunt, Deanna Tamraz, have been firing off letters each week to politicians, churches and nonprofits, appealing for help in bringing Josef and her son to safety.

"I should have never left her," said Hanna Josef. "Here I thought I could help; now, I feel helpless, and she's all alone with an 8-year-old boy trying to protect her."

Each day, the family gathers in the living room of their Warminster home to call Mary Josef and update her on their efforts. The pain in the room is hard to conceal. Hanna Josef, wailing in a mix of English and Arabic, can't hold a steady voice as she speaks of her grandson who kneels by a picture of Jesus each night and prays for his mother's protection. He doesn't go to school. He doesn't play outside. He doesn't know freedom, she said.

"He should be playing, acting his age, and doing what little boys do, but instead he's sick with fear, afraid that someone will come take him or his mother away."

From her room in Jordan, Mary Josef says they have no life there, since local authorities won't allow her to work or her son to attend school. She survives on the money her mother and aunt send from Warminster. This pays for rent and groceries. They rarely venture outside for walks or entertainment for fear they will be discovered and sent back to Iraq, where she no longer has family or a home.

Going back is as good as a death sentence, she said. Getting out once was hard enough, she said.

Leaving home

Mary grew up in an Assyrian Christian neighborhood north of Baghdad. Her mother worked for the railroad, and her father was an office clerk. Life was never easy for Assyrian Christians in Baghdad. Jobs were restricted. So was health care. When her father was diagnosed with diabetes, he could not get medication, and he eventually died. Education was limited, and people were shunned because of their beliefs. Still, life was tolerable, since it was home. They could put up with public jabs at their Western clothes and their Christian names. The family survived, Tamraz said, "by keeping to themselves and minding their own business."

In the late 1990s, anti-American sentiment intensified with newly imposed sanctions aimed at enforcing weapons inspections. The 1999 bombings that followed worsened already strained conditions for Assyrian Christians, viewed as "America-lovers" and "spies," Tamraz said.

It was shortly after Mary Josef's son was born when she confronted the first sign of trouble. Saddam's guards began to harass her at the local market. She would dismiss their approaches, concealing them from her husband. Eventually, her husband found out and confronted the men.

"A few days later, the soldiers took him and put him in prison. We tried to get him out, but he told Mary to sell the house, take their son and leave the country," said Tamraz, adding that Mary Josef's husband had to sign a document allowing them to leave Iraq.

Mary Josef has not heard from him since. The family believes he is dead.

Hanna Josef was with them when they crossed the border. She recalls having to bribe their way out of Iraq, giving up everything but the clothes they wore and their passports to gain entry into Jordan. In Jordan, they hoped, they could seek asylum through the U.S. Embassy and reunite with family in Warminster. Hanna Josef had already qualified for a U.S. visa, which she hoped would be enough to qualify her daughter and grandson.

It wasn't. Hanna Josef was allowed into the United States, but her daughter and grandson would have to wait -- a few months, she thought. But not years.

No future in Jordan

Conditions for Iraqi Christians in Jordan are poor. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has documented the Assyrian Christians' plight in Jordan as among the worst in the country: Refugees can't work, get educated or receive any other public benefit.

"Iraqi forced migrants have created inside Jordan a group of deprived, invisible migrants," the 2002 reports states. "And the country is unwilling to target any international aid for Iraq refugees," adding that, "they probably fear a relief program would improve the migrants' social condition, attracting other Iraqis."

Jordan, acting against the policy of the United Nations, "offers Iraqis no potential for long-term residency, forbids them to work and returns some back to Iraq, against their will."

This is what Hanna Josef fears will happen to her daughter.

"If she returns, we'll never see her again," said Hanna Josef, adding that Iraqi women need a male family member's permission to leave the country. "She has no one left in Iraq. She doesn't stand a chance."

Hope for a home

Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, a Philadelphia-area advocate for Iraqi Christians, said Josef's situation is dire. However, U.S. immigration officials have put her on the list behind other asylum-seekers who are living in safe environments.

"This means that under uniquely good circumstances she would "only' have to hide illegally in Jordan with her 8-year-old son for eight years, but it is much more likely that she would be stuck in Jordan for 12 years plus."

The Christian population is particularly vulnerable because they are viewed as being pro-West, she said. Thomas said they don't have the protection of any embassy or consulate and they don't have visas to exit the country and escape.

Governments and U.N. organizations are hesitant about granting any refugee status because there is no country willing to accept them, Thomas said.

"Then you have governments saying they would take them in if they had refugee status; it's a no-win situation," she said.

Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick and his staff are working to get Mary's immigration status changed, so she can qualify for a humanitarian visa, granted to asylum-seekers whose lives are in danger.

"We will continue to try to convince the U.S. State Department that they should be entitled to that exception," said Michael Conallen, Fitzpatrick's chief of staff. "The Congressman and our staff definitely appreciate the seriousness of this particular case, and we are working really diligently to try to assist them."

Meanwhile, Tamraz continues to mail handwritten letters, to politicians, newspapers and talk shows, hoping one will make difference.

"But over here, no one has heard of them; no one knows of Assyrian Christians," she said. "And they are suffering, even worse because of the war. For Assyrians, America is like a security blanket, a place they want to be. For my niece and her son, America is the only thing keeping them going."

By Marion Callahan
The Intelligencer

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