The Muslims in Iraq and Iran generally consider the Mandaeans to be “unclean.” At the market, they couldn’t pick up any of the produce because their Muslim neighbors wouldn’t buy anything that had been touched by them. If Muslims saw Mandaeans performing their ritual baptisms in a river, they would throw rocks at them.
But none of that can compare to the periodic massacres. Over the centuries, the Mandaeans have survived by not being a threat to anyone. Dr. Wisam Breegi, a Mandaean activist, says that as long as they lived in remote areas and had small populations, they were left alone. But as soon as a community started to prosper and grow, they would be attacked. The survivors would disappear into the marshy areas in southern Iraq and Iran.
Breegi says there were four massacres in the nineteenth century but people in the Mandaean community don’t want to talk about those events. He sees it as a defense mechanism. Talking about the past would consume their community and incite animosity which goes against their pacifist beliefs. But the problem facing them today is that there is no place left to hide. They are being systematically tracked down and given the choice of either forced conversion or death.
When she opens the door to her apartment, Ilham’s children come out to greet us. She lives in three rooms with five children. The only heat comes from a kerosene heater that isn’t burning clean so the living room smells like the oil refineries that line the New Jersey Parkway.
She takes off her headscarf and explains that she hasn’t converted but in this neighborhood, she doesn’t feel safe walking around without one. The Muslim majority in Iraq tolerated the Mandaeans during the Saddam regime but only barely. After the Americans invasion, an Islamic government replaced the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Ilham says that there were announcements in the Mosques that now Iraq is a Muslim country and everyone should convert.
Ranaa is Ilham’s teenage daughter. Ranaa’s teacher brought a headscarf into school shortly after the invasion and told Ranaa that now she had to wear the scarf and convert to Islam. When the girl refused the teacher told the other students that it was okay to stone her. The other kids did as they were told and Ranaa still has a scar on her forehead from the stitches.
On Dec 13, 2003 Ilham’s brother was kidnapped. His mutilated body was thrown on their doorstep. She has no idea who did it or why. All she knew was that her family was a target. They had to leave but getting out of Iraq wasn’t either easy or cheap. It would mean leaving behind family and friends. They’d put up with a lot under the Saddam regime; surely the Americans would bring in something better.
In 2004 her teenage son was kidnapped. This time they didn’t kill him. They just wanted money. Fifteen thousand dollars bought his freedom but it nearly wiped out Ilham’s family financially. When they got their son back, Ilham and her husband went to the police station to report the crime. The police did nothing but they got another threat in form of gunshots aimed at their home. After that, they left Baghdad with nothing more than their clothes.
The five hundred mile drive from Baghdad to Amman was treacherous. At one point gangs that ruled the roads shot at them. Their driver managed to speed away from the gunmen but the car right behind them wasn’t as lucky. They couldn’t believe it when they made it to the border.
Once they were in Jordan they began applying to the UN for refugee status. They would go anywhere that would take them. All they wanted was someplace safe where they could get on with their lives. Although they were safe in Jordan, they couldn’t work. They got money from international organizations like Care and Caritas but they didn’t want to live on charity.
They applied three times for immigration to Australia, which has a large Mandaean population but they were turned down.
In 2006, Ilham’s cousin had saved enough money to get his family safely to Jordan but before they could leave he was killed. The tragedy hit Ilham and her husband very hard. Ilham’s husband decided to go back to Baghdad for the funeral. It was a decision they’ve come to regret.
There aren’t many Mandaeans left in the world. When the US invaded in 2003, there were probably 60,000 in Iraq but by the end of 2007, there were fewer than 5,000 according to Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of religion at Swarthmore College. Breegi, the activist in Massachusetts estimates that the number is closer to 3,000. Many have fled but many have been killed.
When Ilham and her family first came to Jordan in 2004, the border was still open to all Iraqis. By 2006 Jordan was being overwhelmed by the number of people seeking refuge. No one knows exactly how many Iraqis fled to Jordan. Most of them haven’t registered with any governmental agencies. International relief organizations put the number as high as one million. That’s about eight percent of the pre-war population of Jordan.
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