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Six years after Iraq invasion, Jordan still playing host to thousands of Iraqi refugees

Jordan struggles to absorb Iraqis who are still coming in, despite improved conditions at home.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2009

An Iraqi waiter served tea at an Iraqi restaurant in Amman, Jordan. Six years after Saddam Hussein was ousted by the United States, Iraqis are still present in large numbers in Jordan and Syria, which have struggled with the influx.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images/NEWSCOM/FILE

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Amman, Jordan

Raida Ali was holding out hope for things to get better in Baghdad. But when her family was directly threatened, they decided it was time to get out. Raida is Shiite and her husband, Mohamed, is Sunni – which was, once upon a time, a common enough situation for a family living in Dora, a mixed neighborhood of Baghdad which turned into a front-line battleground. Kidnappings, murders, suicide bombings, and ongoing offensives pitting the US Army against insurgents were the norm.

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"We received a letter threatening us. They slipped it under the door. It said, 'Leave Iraq or you will all be killed, including your children,'" she recalls as her kids ogle a television tuned to the Cartoon Network. Her sister's husband had disregarded a similar letter. He was kidnapped and never heard from again.

So Mrs. Ali, her husband, Mohammed, and their four children arrived here in the Jordanian capital just over a year ago, having endured unrelenting violence since the US toppled the Iraqi regime six years ago this week.

Since they left, a US troop surge and heightened counterinsurgency efforts have led to a substantial drop in violence – and a drop in front-page news stories covering the side-effects of the Iraq war. But here in Jordan, where only 300 of as many as half-a-million refugees have returned home, Iraqis are still trickling across the border.

"An interesting trend is that there are still new arrivals from Iraq," says Rafiq Tschannen, the chief of mission in Amman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). "And contrary to the first arrivals, we see people going to live in villages instead of Amman, where the cost of living is high. These refugees have less money and they look to the cheapest villages they can find."

While the couple have stuck to Amman, they live – albeit illegally – in a quiet, working-poor neighborhood of the capital called Mahata. They are hardly able to come up with the rent of about $150 a month because neither of them is permitted to work. Mohammed, Raida's husband, sleeps by day and works by night in whatever menial labor he can find. But at least the oldest two of their four children – 10-year-old Qusay and 9-year-old Latifa – are in school. No explosions, no disappearances, no menacing notes under the door.

Jordan is first stop for refugees

The UNHCR says that 4.7 million Iraqis have left their homes since the war began, up from 3.8 million two years ago. Iraqis are the leading nationality seeking asylum in Europe. And whatever their dreams – making a new life in the West or waiting out the worst until Iraq becomes livable again – Iraqi refugees generally land first on Jordan's doorstep.

It is almost impossible to estimate how many Iraqis are now living in Jordan, immigration officials say, because the vast majority of them are undocumented. FAFO, a Norwegian group, gave the estimate of a half-a-million Iraqis living in Jordan in its last study, but others say that number was has receded, due to acceptance for resettlement in other countries. The UNHCR says in its most recent report that more than 54,000 Iraqis are registered with them as refugees in Jordan, compared with more than 221,000 in neighboring Syria.

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