By BRIAN KAYLOR
Welcoming refugees is a traditional act of hospitality for the nation of Jordan.
An estimated 1.4 million Syrians fled south to Jordan over the past few years, a number equivalent to about 20 percent of Jordan’s population.
Only Turkey and Lebanon currently host more Syrian refugees. But for Jordan, the current refugee stream from Syria is hardly the first.
Aqel Biltaji, mayor of Amman, noted during a meeting earlier this month in Amman that Jordan welcomes many refugees. He referred to refugees as “non-Jordanian guests.”
Biltaji came to Jordan in 1948 at the age of 7 as a refugee from Palestine. He recounted walking at night and hiding during the day for the three-day trip to find safety. As the mayor of the nation’s capital and largest city, he now advocates for a new generation of refugees.
The city of Amman, more than 9,000 years old, was known as “Rabbath Ammon” during Old Testament times and served as the capital of the Ammonites.
In New Testament times, it was known as “Philadelphia” (but not the city by that name mentioned in Revelation) and was among the cities of the Decapolis.
A growing and modernizing city, people from around the world settle in Amman today.
Biltaji’s story remains fairly unremarkable in Jordan. He told of a recent incident with the hosting of the FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament this month.
He and some dignitaries were taking photos with the large cup trophy when he decided to invite some Jordanian people over for photos since the citizens of Amman paid for the tournament.
“Bring the guys from across the street,” he recalled saying. “There’s a nice bakery. I get my fresh bread every day.”
Biltaji described the man coming over “with his apron, flour all over him” and posing for photos with the cup.
Biltaji asked the man where he was from and the man responded, “Oh, I’m Syrian.” The mayor then joked that Syrians were now not only taking jobs, but also photo-ops.
“This is how accommodating we are,” he quickly added on a more serious note. “And we don’t mind because we still believe they are our guests.”
Jordan welcomed Palestinian refugees in 1948 following the creation of the state of Israel and again in 1967 after Jordan lost control of the West Bank in a war with Israel.
Today, almost half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent, including Queen Rania.
Jordan also welcomed refugees from Kuwait and Iraq after the wars in 1990 and 2003, and more Iraqis in recent years fleeing ISIS.
At one point, more than 1.5 million Iraqis sought refuge in Jordan, though the number now is about 300,000 as many have resettled elsewhere. Many refugees from Somalia, Sudan and other countries have also fled to Jordan.
About 20 percent of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live in camps, with around 80,000 living in one camp (Za’atari). Many refugees have spent years living in camps with no sign that they will be able to return home.
Christians in Jordan are ministering to refugees regardless of faith or ethnicity.
Wafa Goussous, director of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) office in Amman, echoed Biltaji’s language about refugees as guests.
In a meeting at the MECC offices, she said she prefers the term “guests” to describe them “because they are our guests.” She sees serving them as “a Christian moral duty.”
“Our work here is biblical,” Goussous said. “It’s Matthew 25. Sick, you visited me. Naked, you clothed me. This is the basis.”
Goussous noted that the MECC remains heavily involved in assisting the needs of refugees in camps, ranging from meeting physical needs for food and shelter to offering educational opportunities for children, vocational training for adults and creating times for family celebrations.
However, she said they require more infrastructure and support to fully meet the needs.
“The world is becoming a vast refugee camp,” she said. “We’re taking very good care of the women, the children – as much as our capacity. But, at the same time, we do hope that more people will step in.”
Seeing refugees as guests, Goussous insists on giving quality items as one would a family member. She criticized the idea of giving away clothes or other items that are not in good shape any longer.
“If you give something, you feel great, but really you’ve just de-cluttered your house,” she remarked. “Whatever you bring for your child, bring for the children [in a refugee camp].”
Nabil Haddad, a Melkite Greek Catholic Church priest and director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, also talked about the importance of Christians living out love by welcoming refugees.
Meeting next to the Dead Sea, he noted that many churches have opened up their doors to allow refugees from Iraq and elsewhere to sleep in the buildings.
“My church is open for all, and the reason we do this is because we are a Christian church,” he explained. “When we open our doors that means we are opening our hearts. And what we are doing for refugees is not a service; I think what we are doing for them is love. We are welcoming them. This is what the churches are doing.”