By Omar Fekeiki and Yasmine Mousa
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 5, 2006
AMMAN, Jordan -- For Edmond Arssen Eskendrian, life was hard in Baghdad. But it's harder in Amman.
Eskendrian said he left Iraq a year ago, locking up his house and driving with his family to Amman. He thought his connections with foreigners and his years of working with a foreign embassy in Baghdad would help him make a new life in a new city -- the city of dreams and opportunity, he imagined.
Now, with no job and his savings thinning, Eskendrian's hopes have faded. Baghdad is still too dangerous to return to, and Amman is becoming harder to stay in, he says. Iraqis here are blamed for inflation and climbing real estate prices and for the terrorist bombings that killed and wounded scores at three hotels in November.
"I don't feel alive," said Mustafa Alwan, a 29-year-old Iraqi who came to Amman about a year ago. "The present is barely livable, and the future is dark."
Long a haven for Iraqis fleeing repression, sanctions and the other deprivations of Saddam Hussein's rule, Jordan's capital has since become a primary destination for those fleeing the unrest of the past three years. With the increase in kidnappings and assassinations in Iraq and the onset of summer holidays, hundreds of Iraqis are arriving daily at the Iraqi-Jordanian border or at Queen Alia Airport, outside Amman.
The influx has changed Amman dramatically, especially its economy, Jordanians say. Abdullah Ayish, a Jordanian who runs a real estate office in Amman's upscale Abdoun neighborhood, said that since 2005, rents have quadrupled and it has become harder for Jordanians and Iraqis alike to find housing.
Iraqis are everywhere in the streets and in the coffee shops. Their distinctive dialect pops up in conversations from the Mecca Mall, a downtown shopping bonanza, to the lobbies of five-star hotels where business executives gather to chat.
In an apartment in the heart of Amman, Eskendrian, a 52-year-old Christian, recalled his life as a driver for the Italian Embassy in Baghdad. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, he said, he led an easy life, making $200 a month and surviving roadside bomb attacks and drive-by shootings while ferrying diplomats through Baghdad's shabby streets and to far-flung provinces.
A year ago, his family received a letter warning that he would be killed and his house burned if he didn't stop working with the "infidels." When a second threat arrived two weeks later, "I had to leave," he said. "It is not only my life. It's my family's, too."
"Although it is not easy to live here, at least I am not worried about my family," Eskendrian said, gazing happily at his wife and two daughters.
One of the girls, Telma, 18, was less content. "I accept the situation in Baghdad," she insisted. "It is okay to be threatened and surrounded by bombings or imprisoned in the house. At least I have friends there and I was among my people."
When Iraqis here get together to chat, many swap stories from home, tales of narrowly surviving attacks, car bombings, kidnappings and other violence. Yet despite their quiet, safe lives outside Iraq, they are quick to assert a longing to return.
"We hope we can go to Baghdad just to feel the feel of belonging," said Eskendrian's wife, Ida.
"But we hear the news from Iraq and see footage on TV and lose hope" of going back, she said.
Alwan understands. He worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq after the invasion. Dozens of his colleagues were either killed or threatened, he said, with some escaping assassination attempts. He had a computer shop in Baghdad, but he closed it and came to Jordan after a threatening letter was thrown in his back yard with a CD showing the slaughter of several Iraqis, whom the letter called spies.
When Alwan arrived here, he applied for a visa to go to the United States, but he was turned down -- "after I served them for months," he said bitterly. In Amman, he wore the gray U.S. Army T-shirt that he never could wear in Baghdad.
Because he holds a degree in software engineering, he managed to find a job at a telecommunications company in Amman. The job pays about $850 a month. Compared with other Iraqis, Alwan leads an easy life now. But "we don't have rights. We are Iraqis, after all," he said.
Getting legal residency status in Jordan is becoming more difficult, Iraqis here said. Few are granted even two weeks' residency. Most are given 72 hours to one week maximum, Iraqis said, and some are put on the next flight back to Baghdad.
Many, like Eskendrian's family, live here illegally, which subjects them to a fine of about $2 for each day they stay after their visas expire. Many prefer paying over returning.
Eskendrian said he recently had to pay more than $1,600 to the immigration office. He doesn't have a job and his savings are running out, he said. Even his daughters are "living in a cage now," Eskendrian said. "They cannot go out, because they would need money to spend -- a luxury we don't enjoy."
"We are living on the hope that the situation improves in Iraq and we could go back," he said, his eyes sparkling with shy tears. "I don't know how long we can endure this."