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Jordan: Iraqi family mourns loss of daughter
20 April 2011

Wafi and Jinan Youssif holding up a photo of their daughter on her wedding day, only 40 days before her tragic death.
Startled by the presence of the gunmen and concerned for her safety, Raghda and 50 others took refuge in the church's sacristy, barricading themselves in the dark room.
Amman, 20 April 2011 – Wafi Youssif recalls asking his daughter Raghda not to go to church because they had become targets for bombing attacks. She told her dad: "If I have to die, I don't mind dying in church". Unfortunately, a few hours later she did.

Raghda bled to death in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church, 31 October 2010, only 40 days after her wedding. Armed gunmen stormed the church during mass, locked the doors, cut the electricity, and began their killing spree.

Wafi and Jinan Youssif, told me and the interpreter, Dr Luay Sarsam, the story of their 22 year-old daughter, Raghda, in their Amman apartment where they have lived since fleeing Baghdad.

They showed me documents of her near perfect grades while she earned her PhD in Chemical Engineering, her plaque from representing the Syriac Christian youth community at a National Eucharistic Congress, and mementos from other prolific moments in her life.

Wafi reminisced how his daughter, Raghda, rode daily to the Baghdad Technical University where she received her degree, and where he worked maintaining electrical services. Jinan, his wife, worked on campus as a CAD [Computer Aided Design] operator. Tears formed in all of our eyes as Wafi showed us pictures of Raghda crowning the statue of Mary in May 2008, and of her wedding photographs.

Wafi asked if Luay and I could look at some "awful pictures". We said yes, not quite sure what he meant. Wafi proceeded to show us photos of his daughter's body in the church, a place where she was actively involved in parish life.

Startled by the presence of the gunmen and concerned for her safety, Raghda and 50 others took refuge in the church's sacristy, barricading themselves in the dark room. She called her father from her cell phone around 5:30 pm and stayed on the phone until 8:30 pm. In the course of that conversation she told Wafi that his sister, who was also at mass, had been shot in the leg. Later, Wafi learned that his sister had survived the massacre.

When the gunmen discovered their hiding place, they threw three to four stun grenades into the room, one which exploded under Raghda's legs, consequently breaking them. The damage done to her limbs caused her to bleed to death, also taking the life of the child she had only recently discovered she was carrying in her womb.

Heart wrenching as it was, Wafi, Jinan, and their son Yousif stayed on the phone with Raghda until she died.

When security forces finally broke into the church, the attackers set off their suicide bomb vests, killing 58 people. Only two other elderly persons hiding in the sacristy died; one from a heart attack, and another of a stroke. Wafi and Jinan were able to retrieve Raghda's body after midnight.

Traditionally, when a death occurs in an Iraqi family, a notice is posted on the front gate or door. Their neighbours warned them to take it down, and in January 2011 Wafi and Jinan left Baghdad, fearing for the safety of themselves and their 20 year-old son. It saddens Wafi and Jinan that their new son-in-law who also fled to Amman has never contacted them to see how they are doing.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Jordan has gained the reputation of being a safe haven for many displaced persons, hosting as many as 500,000 Iraqis in the country. Although they are welcomed and allowed to live in safety, the government recognises the Iraqis on its territory as guests without a clear legal status or the right to work. Consequently, a growing number of them face difficult living conditions.

Wafi and Jinan are in similar circumstances. They live off their savings and wait for the approval of UNHCR on their application for resettlement to Toronto, Canada where they have relatives. Jinan's mother and her brother are there; Wafi has two sisters there, one a doctor, and the sister who was also a victim of the same attack as Raghda.

Dr Luay, at the young age of 26, leads the home-visit team for JRS in Amman. He is also an Iraqi refugee and has been waiting years for the US Department of Homeland Security to approve his resettlement to San Diego, where his parents live. Luay left Iraq five days after he graduated from Baghdad's medical school.

Luay added that he too quit going to church because it was too dangerous. He is in the same situation as other Iraqi refugees, not being able to work. Luay has a brother in dental school in San Francisco, and a sister applying for her pharmacy license in Los Angeles.

Don Doll SJ
Holder of the Heider Endowed Jesuit Chair
Creighton University
Omaha, NE 68178

Don Doll SJ met Wafi and Jinan while I was on assignment in the Middle East for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which works with refugees in more than 50 countries. Many Iraqis who have been victims of sectarian strife now reside in Jordan and Syria.

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Amman offers classes in English, French and computer skills to about 400 Iraqi refugees. These services are made available to refugees regardless of their religious beliefs.