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Christian Refugees From Iraq On Their New Lives In Jordan

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

A look now at the culinary scene in Amman, Jordan, or at least one place that serves up both authentic Italian dishes and skills. It's inside of a church that tends to Christian refugees from Iraq who are waiting to resettle somewhere else. And while they're in limbo in Jordan, they're learning how to cook. NPR's Jane Arraf went for a taste.

(CROSSTALK)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In a kitchen just off the courtyard of St. Joseph's Church in downtown Amman, fettuccini hangs from a wooden rack to dry. The chefs chopping vegetables and clanging pots and pans are Iraqi, but the food - authentic Italian. This is Mar Yusef's Pizza, Arabic for St. Joseph, and the kitchen is part of a training project for Iraqi refugees started by parish priest Mario Cornioli. Father Mario is from Tuscany, and you can tell from the way he describes what he's eating that he loves food.

MARIO CORNIOLI: This is focaccia with mortadella. Oh, my God - remember me when I was young in Italy I close my eyes. I saw my friends, my mom and my dad.

ARRAF: When he came to Jordan five years ago, he found thousands of Christians who took refuge here after being driven from their homes in the north of Iraq.

CORNIOLI: They are waiting to leave for mainly Australia, after Canada and the states. So they are waiting here two, three, four, five, seven years. It's not easy for them.

ARRAF: Jordan, a poor country with high unemployment, allowed them in on condition they didn't work here. So Father Mario came up with projects in which the Iraqis get paid expenses while learning a trade. For dozens of Iraqis, it's the chance to learn how to cook and serve some of the best Italian food in the region.

LEDEN TOMA: I recommend the parmigiana and the ravioli (laughter). These are the tops.

ARRAF: That's Leden Toma, who's 19. He holds a menu listing more than a dozen different pasta dishes and pizza, along with homemade wine, cheese and gelato. Toma and his family came to Jordan three years ago from what had been one of the biggest Christian villages in northern Iraq.

TOMA: There's no place for us there. Even our neighbors, they became against us. They wanted to kill us. So we had to get out of there as fast as we could.

ARRAF: He has relatives in California and Australia. If he ever gets out of here, he dreams of studying pharmacy. Here, he's safe but in limbo. The restaurant, technically a social club, gives the trainees skills they could use in other countries. Behind the high walls of the church, covered with Italian mosaics, there are widely spaced tables in the courtyard and a patio strung with fairy lights. Because of the pandemic, the servers wear face shields. Guests have temperatures checked at the door. Father Mario calls over one of the chefs.

CORNIOLI: Hello, chef Alin. Come. Come here.

ARRAF: Alin Kando has learned to make authentic Italian ravioli and lasagna. Kando, who's 39, left the Christian suburb of Ankawa in the Kurdish city of Irbil two years ago with his wife and young son and daughter.

ALIN KANDO: Because there is no future, there is no life, there is no healthy, nothing for your children.

ARRAF: He says at school in Iraq, teachers tried to persuade his daughter to become Muslim. He came to Jordan hoping to join his sisters and brother in Australia. Most Iraqis of all religions have lived in peace for centuries with each other. But ISIS and its ideology stoked hostility and attacks against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities. Behnam Gebrita is 27. He remembers Iraqis cheering when a bus full of Christians was attacked near his hometown. When he and his family left in 2014 for the safer Kurdistan region of Iraq, they thought they'd be gone only a few days.

BEHNAM GEBRITA: So we wait, like, one year, two years and hope that we will come back there again. But this dream didn't came true, so we take a decision that we will leave Iraq once and forever.

ARRAF: Forever, I ask him.

GEBRITA: Yes, really forever because when you are at your home, at your country and no one there wants you, it's very hard. So we take a final decision that we will not - never come back there.

ARRAF: But it's hard here, too. Gebrita is one of four brothers, all college educated. None can work or afford to get married. Gebrita has a degree in accounting, but if he's caught working here, he'll be deported back to Iraq. He came to Jordan hoping to follow his sister, who managed to get to Australia. But Gebrita has just received his sixth refusal for asylum. He says he doesn't know why they keep being rejected. Father Mario sees the toll it takes.

CORNIOLI: For one week, they are very sad after. They start again and they start again, the paper to present another request, but is very difficult. So sometimes also for me is very difficult.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: For now, the Iraqi workers are immersed in a world of Italian cuisine that Father Mario and his network of Italian volunteer artisans have created.

CORNIOLI: I brought one cheesemaker. We start to dream to make pecorino ricotta because for the kitchen we need the ricotta for the ravioli. So the ricotta coming from Italy was terrible. So we start to dream to make a good ricotta.

ARRAF: They got a U.S. government grant to start a women's cooperative in a Jordanian village that ages cheese in a grotto in the village church courtyard. The gelato, including mango, pistachio and tiramisu, is made with fresh milk and fresh fruit from recipes from an Italian ice cream maker who came to impart his 40 years of experience to the Iraqis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS TOLLING)

ARRAF: As dusk falls, the church bells ring. It's Thursday night before the weekend coronavirus lockdown, and people are gathering on the steps of the stone church for mass.

CORNIOLI: This is beautiful music, our bells.

ARRAF: Others have come for dinner with their children.

CORNIOLI: Musa - hi, Musa. Hello, Musa.

ARRAF: Father Mario says at the end of the day, Mar Yousef's Pizza isn't really a restaurant or a pizzeria. It's a pastoral center meant to serve the congregation where they happen to serve the best Italian food in the country.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.