By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan
I vividly remember the cold. The weather would drop dramatically without notice. I was constantly shivering, lifting my shoulders towards my ears and looking down at my knees, trying to block the wind from my face. The refugees would kindly smile and offer me some tea. With steam rising from the cup, they looked at me intrigued. In broken English, they often asked: Why are you here? I just smiled back. I couldn’t begin to respond, especially when I didn’t really know the answer myself. It was December 2015. I would have a month to figure it out.
I lived with roughly 100 Christian refugees who left their native Iraq under death threats from ISIS. They found temporary asylum in neighboring Jordan. They now lived in Madaba, about 20 miles from the country’s capital of Amman. I ate with them, laughed with them and most importantly, I listened to their stories. They were no longer images on a television screen or statistics. They were refugees with heart breaking stories of pain and resilience. I was merely the American foreigner who was living amongst them. A reporter on sabbatical, who flew out there and decided to listen first, and grab a pen later.
While aimlessly walking along the property, a woman in her late 50’s approached me.
“You eat?” she asked. I stared at her, as she scurried along the camp’s kitchen, her sandals rubbing against the floor. She followed with a “come, come” before I could even answer. Her home was a white container box. One of dozens that lined what was once the garden of the city’s Greek Orthodox church. It’s here that the refugees literally set up camp.
She shared the unit with her 20 year old daughter. There was barely enough space for two beds, but somehow they managed to add a makeshift kitchen to store pots, pans, cups and plates. A beauty section was marked by a toilet paper roll that hung from the wall, a mirror, some vaseline and nail polish.
Her name was Hayfaa Toma Matloob. After introducing herself, she said “I need to learn English. Can you teach me English?” Every single refugee there; men, women, children and the elderly were waiting for their asylum request to go through. They were hoping to go to Germany, Australia, Canada or the U.S. The applications had been submitted over a year ago. Some were approved. Others denied. Mostly the cases were still pending.
With the help of Hayfaa’s daughter, we managed to communicate with one another. I would tell her how to pronounce words like ‘bus, visa, refugee, fruit, water, cold, hot.’ She would teach me the same in Arabic; that was the easy part. It wasn’t long before she told me she had three more daughters. They all took different routes when they fled from Iraq. Now they were separated and had not seen each other in years. One was in Jordan with her, the other in Turkey, a third in Germany and the fourth, in the U.S, in San Diego, California, my hometown. I promised her I would reach out to her daughter…I kept that promise. Her daughter’s name is Lydya Mosees.
On July 22, 2013, Lydya became one of 60,000 Chaldeans who live in San Diego County, in the city of El Cajon. Getting there though, took years.
The 24 year old Iraqi from Mosul had recently gotten married in Iraq, when her husband received a phone call from ISIS. The threat was chillingly clear: the newlywed couple could pay a fine for being Christian, or die.
“My husband and I left behind our lives in Iraq and immediately went to Turkey,” says Lydya in broken English. “We left in such a hurry that I completely forgot to take any documents with me. The United Nations interviewed me to see if my story was real. After living in Turkey for one year and eight months, we were given asylum in San Diego.”
Her mother and sisters eventually fled from Iraq as well. Lydya says that even though she has now settled into her El Cajon home with her husband and three-year-old twins, seeing her mom and sisters is simply not an option, at least not for now.
“I have a green card, so I can go anywhere,” explains Lydya. “I want to see my sisters and my mother, but they are all in different countries now and I don’t have money for all that traveling. When you start out here in the U.S. you don’t know the language or the city. I have to work to pay the bills.”
The terrorists attacks in Paris and San Bernardino complicated the refugee crisis even further. American legislators, weighing in on a valid security concern, have stalled the process. That includes cases dealing with the reunification of refugees who already have family members in the U.S who are willing and able to take them in.
“We have over 70,000 Christians that we have vetted, and are ready to come to America with sponsor families we have identified,” says Mark Arabo, founder of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, which is based in San Diego. “But, we keep facing roadblocks with our elected officials who seem to side with radical sentiment over compassion.”
The issue isn’t new, but it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. With the high number of refugee families, the foundation runs what it describes as an “underground railroad” which has brought in Iraqi refugees to San Diego. When faced with too much red tape, Arabo started asking other countries for help.
“We have helped in relocating hundreds of families out of Iraq and Syria,” says Arabo. “While some make their final destination in the United States, other have decided to make countries like Mexico or Germany their new home. The Minority Humanitarian Foundation is not doing this because it wants to, but because it has to. This wasn’t our first option, it was our last.”
Legitimate concerns have been raised by critics. Some ask, why aren’t wealthy Middle Eastern countries helping to counteract the refugee crisis? Will refugees be able to assimilate to Western culture successfully?
In Jordan some of the refugees from Iraq expressed frustration with the process itself. Christian refugees, they argued, should have relocation priority for facing religious persecution. But while these issues are analyzed by governments and experts, the humanitarian crisis persists. Homes are reduced to rubble, families are displaced and ultimately many lives are destroyed. There is no easy answer or solution.
This is the reality refugees know all too well. Especially those who live in refugee camps. Sitting on her bed with her plate of food at her side, Hayfaa, the mother of four, showed me pictures of the life she had back in Iraq. Photographs of family, parties, feasts, celebrations and flashy clothes. “Living in Jordan is ok,” she adds. “It’s not great, but it’s obviously better than being killed in Iraq.”
When she stops talking and looks down, I know it’s time for me to stop asking questions. She’s trying to hold back tears and it’s not my place to force them out.
“Please go see my daughter Lydya when you’re in San Diego,” she asks. That’s when it clicked…At that point I understood why I, an outsider, was living in the refugee camp. The whole purpose was for me to see, offer support and simply to listen.
When I tell Lydya, in San Diego, that her mother and sister really miss her, she says, “I miss them too. It’s hard. We talk on the phone sometimes, but it’s not the same. The war and ISIS have changed everything.”