By SUSAN DENNIN
The room at the community center in Amman was full of refugee families waiting to talk to my cohort of Catholic journalists. They represented a fraction of the more than 125,000 Iraqis who have been forced to leave their homes. In their eyes, I could see weariness but also hope.
The experience of meeting these refugees face to face and hearing their stories was both the most beautiful and heart-wrenching experience of my trip. They recounted their fears, the persecution they had faced, and the threats to their lives. While individual histories of education, jobs held and family circumstances varied, what remained constant was the exodus from their homeland of Mosul, a place considered to be one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. The persecution from the Islamic State, or Daesh, forced them to leave in the dark of night, leaving behind all their worldly goods. These people arrived destitute but hold fast to their Christian faith despite overwhelming odds. Their efforts to emigrate to Australia, Canada or the United States are met with bureaucratic red tape at the United Nations, and there is a feeling of deep despair. They beseeched us to spread the word of their plight, feeling forgotten and in limbo as they seek a new life.
While the refugees spoke of the difficulties of their current existence, they are grateful for the safety and security that Jordan has provided. Here at the community center they receive support from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Pontifical Mission, which provides emergency relief to refugees, including access to health care, education for school-age children and housing. Twice a week there are English language programs for the Iraqi refugees.
Amabel Sibug, the director, beamed when she said, “You could see when they came they were filled with fears, but now their faces are filled with smiles.”
Looking into the faces of the people in this room was like looking at my loved own ones. These “strangers” are you and me. They need our prayers and they need action.
The Kingdom of Jordan is doing what it can to help in this crisis. Through support of churches, schools and Christian outreach organizations, the presence of Christianity endures and thrives. Additionally, Christians play roles in the Jordanian government and are well integrated into Jordanian society. King Abdullah notes that “Arab Christians are a part of my region’s past, present and future.” Although the country’s resources are stretched, this is still a safe haven in the midst of conflict.
While in Jordan, our group had the opportunity to attend Mass at many different churches and see Christianity in its fullest expression. A Latin Rite parish in Fuheis, a predominantly Christian village of about 40,000 people, serves many refugees. Prior to Mass, we spoke with Father Imad Alamat, who said that education is a critical part of their mission. “The mission of the Church is the mission of the pope, to be aware and be close to people,” he said. The parish helps provide for 250 families from Iraq while teaching about 100 students in their school. Likewise, at Saints Peter and Paul Melkite Church, Father Nabil Haddad works to establish ongoing dialogue. As the founder of The Jordan Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, he says his calling is “to be a Christian witness in a Muslim community.” He recently opened the Pope Francis Center in Amman with plans to take the lead in fighting extremism. He said he wants to reach out to those in the community with a message of love and cooperation.
At CNEWA’s Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zarqa, located near a Palestinian refugee camp, we witnessed Dominican sisters and Muslim medical professionals reaching out to an influx of Iraqi and Syrian refugee families. Their work brings much-needed health and wellness services to those most in need. Dr. Hanin Mohammed, a general practitioner, sees on average 75 to 100 patients a day during clinic hours. Sister Miriam, one of the three Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena who run the clinic, told us of the respect that the wider community has for the work they do. Refugees come from far away because “each feels treated like a person,” she said.
Alongside the ancient biblical sites, it is apparent that Christianity is a living faith in this part of the Holy Land. The spirit of interfaith coexistence makes Jordan unique and a model for others in the region. The opportunity to encounter those practicing their faith, through testimony and service, showed me the deep personal commitment they have to their Christianity, one that has lasted hundreds of generations.
In response to the plea from the refugees, please pray and advocate for peace. Most importantly, the Year of Mercy reminds us to welcome and support these strangers, for they are truly a reflection of ourselves.