Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How much is a son's freedom worth? How can it be paid for?

Sundus and her husband, Nisan live in the impoverished Marka district of Amman with their three children - Steven (22), Oliver (20), and their only daughter, Eva - age 18. We visited them after Maha received a call from Sundus, begging for help. They are destitute and are getting threats because they owe a large amount of money and have no way to repay it.

This family is Assyrian Christian.

The violence in Iraq threatens one of the world's oldest Christian communities, dating back 2,000 years. The population includes Chaldean Assyrians (Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize the Pope's authority); Assyrians, who form an independent church; Syrian Catholics; and Armenian Catholics. Under Saddam, Christians coexisted more or less amicably with the Muslim majority. Easter services were broadcast on state television, and Christians were allowed to own and operate liquor stores.
source: http://www.christiansofiraq.com/sept20.html

Nisan had been a surveyor and played guitar and sang in a band in Baghdad called Venus. Nisan and Sundus met when she went to hear him play. We laughed about how young women everywhere fall in love with musicians. Nisan nods his head and sweetly smiles in agreement.

They fled to Jordan in 2007 after militants attempted to kidnap Eva as she and Oliver were walking to church. Oliver fought with them and was stabbed in his arm. Both he and Eva escaped but Oliver now has no sensation in that arm.

Not long after the attempted kidnapping, the family began to receive death threats. They say that Eva was in a photo taken at their church and there were US military members in the photo. A neighbor had seen the photo and they assume that they told someone.

It is like that in Iraq now; people often have no idea who is threatening them and who they should mistrust. It could be sectarian militia, perhaps they are threatened or attacked because they were in some way associated with Coalition troops; it could be common criminals, or, as it is for so many Christians in Iraq since the US-led invasion, it could be those who are targeting them or other minority groups. Petty disagreements and jealousies can result in neighbors turning other neighbors in to these groups - sometimes lying.

Nisan owned a washing machine repair shop in Baghdad. Militia took all of the washing machines he was keeping for repair and all of his tools and then set the shop on fire.

Despite this string of threats and losses, when the family came to Jordan, they thought that the situation in Iraq would improve within a few months and they would be able to return. Now they say that it has only deteriorated further and they have no hope that they will be able to return in the foreseeable future.

They arrived with very little. They sold what they still owned for very low prices and the money did not last long. Now they receive the monthly UNHCR cash grant of 140 JD. Their rent of 120 JD devours most of that. When we asked how they survive, they say that their church helps them now and then with relief items and through the kindness of neighbors.

But they face a problem now seems bigger than they can resolve. A few months after they entered Jordan, Oliver - then 18 - started working under the table as a house painter. Within the first week, he was caught by the police and imprisoned for five days. He would have probably been dumped over the border back into Iraq if his Jordanian employer not gone to the police and paid Oliver's fine of 550 JD. Oliver was returned to his family but they then were under obligation to repay the cost of the fine. Over the past two years they have been paying it off in small increments as sympathetic people hear their story and offer help. They still owe him 300 JD. The man has lost patience with them and is constantly calling to tell them he wants his money. He makes it sound like a threat.

Iraqis in Jordan are extremely vulnerable. If complaints about them are made by a citizen, Iraqis may be imprisoned or deported back to Iraq. The pressure of this obligation, their inability to meet it, and the fear of what may happen if they cannot weighs heavily on Nisan and Sundus.

Maha gives them 50JD to make a payment toward their debt. Hopefully this will temporarily satisfy the lender and they may perhaps have a few weeks of relief from the burden of this worry but there will be next month and the many that follow it until this debt is paid off.