Dispatch

A Refugee Without a River

Two years after fleeing Iraq, one woman’s plans for resettlement are still on hold. A minority among refugees in Jordan, is her plight being overlooked?

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian border on May 31. (Photo Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian border on May 31. (Photo Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

AMMAN, Jordan — Tagreed Daftar’s thick black hair falls past her shoulders, stark against her bright floral blouse. She is fidgety in the crisply lit conference room at the CARE relief agency’s east Amman center, where refugees come for counseling, therapy workshops, and financial assistance.

It’s a controlled setting, in which journalists on trips organized by CARE are taken on tours and given the chance to interview some of the refugees they assist with a provided translator, central air to ward off the searing heat, and bottled water.

In many ways, Daftar’s story departs from the refugee narrative that has become so familiar — women fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs with toddlers in tow or being forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State.

Originally from Baghdad, she is not Muslim and has never been married or had children. She comes from a family of practicing Mandeans — members of a religion that dates back to at least the third century. Its practitioners revere John the Baptist and hew to their own conception of events described in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures, along with many distinct beliefs. In the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mandeans, like other minority groups, faced increasing persecution, prompting tens of thousands of them to flee the country.

At 51, Daftar is the survivor of two separate kidnappings. The first occurred in 2007, when masked men grabbed her from her car, assaulted her, and returned her to her family three days later, after they paid a $5,000 ransom.

“I was feeling very depressed and emotionally broken,” she says.

With the help of her brother, she moved first to Syria, before eventually returning to Iraq in 2009. But in 2015 she was kidnapped again, and again her family — known to be non-Muslim and wealthy — was extorted for her release. The assailants, she says, were Shiite militants known to target non-Muslim women who do not cover their heads, and she believes one of the men involved was a neighbor.

“They told [my family and me] that we were infidels and that our loyalty was to America,” she says.

After the second attack, Daftar’s family fled Iraq to Jordan and applied for asylum in October 2015. Amman, however, was not an ideal place to end up. Baptism in rivers is essential to the Mandean religion; the nearest one, the Jordan River, is a two-hour drive away, and Daftar doesn’t own a car. Also, she adds, there aren’t any Mandean priests or temples in the city.

There are other reasons life here has been difficult: As an asylum-seeker registered with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, Daftar cannot work and so subsists on a handout of 80 Jordanian dinars a month — an insufficient sum that often leaves only enough for bread after housing expenses. And though she has been enrolled in the U.N. resettlement program since last year, she still has to undergo multiple interviews before even being considered for resettlement.

She has called UNHCR multiple times, but, she says, “They just say, ‘Wait and we’ll call you.’”

Jordan currently hosts more than 730,000 registered refugees, some 660,000 of whom are Syrian, who get the bulk of the attention over those from Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq, among other places. Last year, the country launched a program to give work permits to some Syrians and has taken steps to provide Syrian children with free public education. But non-Syrian refugees cannot work legally, and their children have an even harder time getting access to education.

Aid workers in the region are aware of this tendency to prioritize Syrians as well. “So much of the international world is focused on Syrians,” says one international NGO employee working in Amman. “A lot of large-scale NGOs don’t program for non-Syrian refugees.”

To be sure, the Syrian refugee community is no small burden on the Jordanian economy. The World Bank estimates that the influx of Syrians has cost Jordan more than $2.5 billion a year, about a quarter of the government’s annual revenues. But with short attention spans and the constant need to capture crucial funding, refugees like Daftar have slipped through the cracks.

“Iraqi refugees are already forgotten,” says Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. “Today, it’s Syrian refugees,” he adds. “It’s the flavor of the year.”

Later that afternoon, Daftar invites me (and two NGO employees) to her apartment, just a 10-minute drive from the CARE center in Amman’s Hashmi al-Shamali neighborhood. We walk into the living room that houses Daftar, her brother, two sisters, and nephew. The apartment is furnished but decorated with an air of impermanence. Matching floral brown couches form a semblance of a living room, but the floor remains uncarpeted. The furniture, she says, was given to them by neighbors who recently resettled in Europe. Her 6-year-old nephew plays a Miami Vice video game on a tablet given to them by another family that was resettled.

After almost two years in Amman, watching other families move on to life beyond Jordan is something Daftar seems to have begrudgingly accepted. Earlier, as we were about to leave the center for her apartment, I asked her where she would like to live. The air-conditioner hummed in the silence that followed. She said she didn’t care where she would be resettled, just so long as there was a river nearby.

This reporting was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and made possible by CARE. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of the FP magazine.

Sept. 13: This piece has been updated. 

Ruby Mellen is a fellow at Foreign Policy. @RubyMellen

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