Between Mesopotamia and the West: The hopelessness of Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian refugees in Jordan

“Yes, really forever. Because when you are in your home, in your country, and no one there wants you, it's very hard. So we took a final decision that we will not ever go back there.” — Suraya refuge in Jordan to NPR reporter Jane Arraf

Life seems hopeless for the thousands of Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian refugees living in Jordan, which has hosted forced migrants from Iraq since the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein. The savage occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS) of large swaths of northern Iraq from 2014 to 2017 saw a massive influx in refugees.

Most of the Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian refugees live in urban centers and major refugee camps in Amman and Irbid. Most have been there for years. Not allowed to officially work in Jordan, their financial situation is dire. They scrape by through working illegally and on assistance provided by the United Nations, Jordanian authorities, and charitable organizations.

As Iraq struggles to emerge from the quagmire of foreign influence, violence, corruption, sectarianism, and disorder plaguing the country, the prospects for Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian refugees to return to their homeland seems distant. Many have set their eyes on establishing a new life in the West. Northern Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia are tempting locations to establish a safe and prosperous life for their families and children, something their home country of Iraq has not been able to provide. Mesopotamia has been the ancestral home of the Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian people for thousands of years. But, if granted visas, many of those externally or internally displaced will most probably follow in the footsteps of relatives who have settled in the West in recent decades. Over the past century, due to massacres and systemic oppression and disenfranchisement, there has been an unprecedented stream of Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian emigration from Mesopotamia; an exodus, primarily to the West.

The Suraye (Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians) fled their villages, cities, and heartlands of Mosul, the Nineveh Plain, Ankawa, Nohadra (Dohuk), and Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Suraye lived in pre-2003 Baghdad. Before the ISIS occupation of 2014-2017, the Suraye population in the Nineveh Plain was between 125-150 thousand. The pre-ISIS vibrant Christian community in the city of Mosul has totally disappeared with many living internally displaced in camps in northern Iraq, the Kurdish Region in Iraq, Baghdad or have moved on to the West. The population of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian town of Ankawa, now a suburb of Erbil, doubled to about 50 thousand with the post-ISIS inflow of Suraye refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain.

Almost two-thirds of Christian Suraye have left Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Refugee agency United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on October 15, 2020 reported a number of 750 thousand registered refugees and asylum seekers in Jordan. Almost two-third (65%) arrived in Jordan between 2012-2014; 88% is from Syria, 9% (67 thousand) is from Iraq, and 2% is from Yemen. The United Nations and Jordanian authorities provide shelter and food in major camps in Amman and Irbid. How many Suraye have already used Jordan as transit to the West is not known. How many Suraye refugees now taking refuge in Jordan is also not known as many are UN-unregistered, but their number runs in the tens of thousands. Many more Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians have arrived as forced migrants in Jordan from Syria.

Jordan: Statistics for Registered Persons of Concern (as of 15 October 2020). Source UNHCR

In an article for NPR, reporter Jane Arraf visited the Latin rite Mar Joseph Church in Amman. Arraf talked to Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian refugees with telling stories. To illustrate the drama that Suraye had to go through, we give the testimonies collected by Jane Arraf in her NPR article:

Parish priest Mario Cornioli tells Arraf that, ”… he found thousands of Christians who took refuge here after being driven from their homes in the north of Iraq. They are waiting to leave for mainly Australia, after Canada and the United States. So they are waiting here two, three, four, five, seven years. It’s not easy for them.”

Leden Toma, who has relatives in California and Australia, came to Jordan with his family 3 years ago from what had been one of the biggest Christian villages in northern Iraq; “There’s no place for us there. Even our neighbors, they became against us. They wanted to kill us. So we had to get out of there as fast as we could.”

Alin Kando (39) tells Arraf that “at school in Iraq, teachers tried to persuade his daughter to become Muslim. He came to Jordan hoping to join his sisters and brother in Australia.” Kando left Ankawa 2 years ago with his wife and young son and daughter “because there is no future, there is no life, there is no healthy, nothing for your children.”

Behnam Gebrita (27) remembers Iraqis cheering when a bus full of Christians was attacked near his hometown. Gebrita fled in 2014 for the safer Kurdish Region for what he though would only be a couple of days and then return to his home; “So we wait, like, one year, two years and hope that we will come back there again. But this dream didn’t came true, so we take a decision that we will leave Iraq once and forever” … “Yes, really forever because when you are at your home, at your country and no one there wants you, it’s very hard. So we take a final decision that we will not – never come back there.”

How to stop the Iraqi Suraye exodus and return refugees?

Nineveh Plain

A safe and prosperous Iraq where Suraye can live their culture, language, and Christianity in peace and security is unlikely in the short term. And the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people cannot afford to wait for geopolitical powers to agree on how to “fix” Iraq. This can take years and nothing is certain. Muddling through the current way is definitely not an option. Emigration keeps emptying Iraq from its indigenous Suraye. Almost two-thirds of the Christian Suraye of 1.4-1.6 million have left Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. So far only an estimated one-third of the pre-ISIS Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian population of 120-150 thousand has returned to their homes in the Nineveh Plain.

A 2017 proposal from Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political parties to create a Nineveh Plain Governate in the combined unified area of the districts of Baghdede (Hamdaniya), Tel Kaif and a part of Shekhan, must therefore be seriously examined.

For there to be “any real hope for the rebuilding of the Nineveh Plain and the return of its people,” in June 2017, seven Iraqi Suraye political parties with the endorsement of some of the Syriac churches, demanded a Nineveh Plain Governate “leading to an autonomous region” based on Resolution no. 16 which contains an approval in principle issued by the Iraqi Council of Ministers on January 21, 2014. The political parties in their Proposal claim that Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious indigenous components of the area need political empowerment and that only a reasonable degree of self-representation and self-defense can return its original persecuted Suraye residents.

An autonomous Nineveh Plain region will create new political and security dimensions. It would need “clear political support to the principles of self-governance and self-defense of Nineveh Plain” by the U.S. and the EU. The U.S. and EU would need to negotiate the demanded degree and terms of self-representation and self-defense with the Iraqi central government and the Barzani family-led Kurdish Regional Government. The empowerment of Suraye and Yazidis is supported by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which in its 2020 Annual Report calls on the U.S. government to empower Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities in attaining self-governance and a representational security framework in the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar regions of northern Iraq.

A high degree of US and EU-backed self-representation and self-defense may be the last chance to help the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people stay in their ancient homeland and avoid the total elimination of their culture and faith. And it it may be the only alternative for the Suraye refugees in Jordan to opt for a return.