“We don’t help people because they are Christian; we help people because we are Christian.” According to one Catholic sister, that is the unofficial motto of the Pontifical Mission in Amman, Jordan. And indeed, this papal agency for Middle East relief has scores of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Muslim and Christian alike, to help in Jordan.
While the West is increasingly closing its doors to desperate families who are fleeing violence with nowhere to go, there’s simply no denying there are untold numbers of decent people in dire need. I know because I met them. And I met remarkable people doing something about it.
The Pontifical Mission, along with many religious orders and local Catholic and Orthodox parishes, are working to address the crush of needs in Jordan, which has borne the brunt of this humanitarian crisis.
Jordan’s population has risen to more than 11 million from around 8 million in the last two years, largely because of refugees, taxing this poor nation, which lacks oil, and pushing its unemployment rate up to 25 percent. This predominantly Muslim country, a model of stability and religious tolerance in the region, has offered safe haven to refugees of all faiths. “For Jordanians, caring for those in need is a moral duty and part of our national character,” King Abdullah II of Jordan wrote in an op-ed piece in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. “However, today’s refugee burden is pushing us to the limits of our resources.”
I recently had the unique opportunity to visit Jordan on a media trip. One of my objectives was to bear witness to the suffering of refugees there.
I met the dedicated regional director of the Pontifical Mission, Ra’ed Bahou, the son of refugees himself. I met the women who help run the center, Amabel Sibug and Elisa Estrada, lay Teresians from the Philippines who have given decades of their lives to this place.
I met brave, scared parents. They're educated, middle-class professionals, just like me. Their talents and ability to contribute to society are squandered while they wait to resume their lives.
People such as Dr. Nawal Gaggo Butrus, 52, who happens to be the first woman skydiver in Iraq. She left her home with one of her children, "with nothing but the clothes on our backs,” she said. Her husband was able to join her later in Jordan with their other child. “I just want to work and live in peace,” she said. But she doesn’t have much hope of getting to Europe or the United States. “I haven’t heard of anyone who has left here,” she said.
And Bassam Ashaq A-Qannd, 48, who used to work for Iraq’s ministry of the environment in Mosul. With his young son by his side, he said, “I’m not worried about me, just my kids.”
All those bright, beautiful kids look just like the friends of my own little niece and nephews.
These refugees have lost everything. They can never go home and they can’t stay in Jordan because they can’t legally work there. Their only chance is to get to the West and that’s a very slim chance.
For those stuck in this terrible limbo, the programs being run in Jordan by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), which operates through the Pontifical Mission, are:
Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman - Provides trauma counseling, tutorial services, and English classes to marginalized populations, especially Syrian and Iraqi families. The center is administered by the Teresians, an international Catholic lay association.
Food and milk assistance - Administered with local partners and coordinated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Amman, food coupons and nursing formula and milk for children up to 3 years of age are provided to displaced families.
Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa - Administered and staffed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Mother of Mercy maternity clinic serves impoverished refugee expectant mothers.
Italian Hospital in Amman - Administered by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, the hospital provides outreach to the poor, including a clinic offering free medical care to all in need.
Social assistance to parishes hosting Iraqi families - Many Catholic and Orthodox parishes in Jordan are hosting refugee families, housing them in their parish centers and providing bedding, clothing, and food.
One of those latter churches is St. George Melkite Parish in the predominantly Christian town of Fuheis, population 20,000, about 20 kilometers northwest of Amman. Father Boulos Haddad, pastor of St. George’s, has spearheaded the effort to shelter 500 Iraqis. An estimated 2,000 more are living in similar church-sponsored shelters.
In mutually caring for people of all religions, the country of Jordan and Catholic groups there are doing what King Abdullah II has called crucial defense against religious extremism. Of the refugee crisis, Jordan’s king wrote, “We must act as one because it is a battle for our humanity.”
"Religious life ought to promote growth in the Church by way of attraction. The Church must be attractive. Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in this world.” -- Pope Francis