From ONE Magazine

Jordan: A Land of Refuge

Squeezed between Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian frontier, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan maintains a quiet stability that contradicts its tenuous state. Always relegated to the back burner, Jordan is rarely isolated from the consequences of Middle Eastern politics. For 50 years, hundreds of thousands of refugees – Palestinian, Iraqi, even Bangladeshi – have sought security within Jordans borders. Jordan is a land of refuge.

Since its foundation, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine has attended to the needs of these refugees, particularly in matters of childcare, education and health care. After the establishment of the Pontifical Missions Amman office in 1971, human development projects were also initiated, particularly among the bedouin, the nomadic peoples native to Jordan. Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the Amman office of the Pontifical Mission has also assumed responsibilities for activities in Iraq.

Though unassuming, the work of the Pontifical Mission in Jordan is significant: it expresses the concern of the Catholic Church for all peoples of Jordan, refugee and bedouin, Christian and Muslim.

The needs of Jordans youth have preoccupied the Pontifical Mission since the first wave of Palestinian refugees arrived in the kingdom in 1949. The Pontifical Mission immediately founded and subsidized emergency schools for more than 2,000 Palestinian refugee children scattered throughout Jordan. These schools, which were integrated with the countrys school system in 1951, also provided positions for a number of qualified yet unemployed refugee teachers and aides.

Since the early 1970s, the Needy Child Sponsorship Program has provided support for tens of thousands of children and their families in refugee camps, villages and in the capital city of Amman.

The program in Jordan is unique. The 1,664 children enrolled live at home with their families. Pontifical Missions partners in the field, such as the Franciscan Sisters of Divine Motherhood, the Sisters of St. Dorothy, parish priests and representatives of the YMCA, supervise these programs on a regular basis and provide feedback for the Pontifical Missions staff in Amman.

Four times a year, Mrs. Suhad Haddad, the Needy Child Program Coordinator in the Amman office, visits refugee camps lying within the shadows of the impressive Roman ruins of Jarash. These camps resemble those erected for Palestinians throughout the Middle East: cinder houses roofed with corrugated metal line unpaved roads littered with rubbish and stones. Open sewers filled with untreated waste wind through camp streets.

Anxiously anticipating Suhads arrival, the mothers gather their children, brew tea and wait. The sponsorship funds, which help the parents feed and clothe their children, are in many cases the only form of income for the family. Regular financial support from the United Nations, on which most families relied, has been significantly reduced and may be eliminated.

“Though these refugees are legal residents of Jordan,” explains Raed Bahou, Director of the Amman office, “most men cannot find work.” For some inexplicable reason, those refugees who reside in the Gaza camp near Jerash are not granted work permits at all.

“Those who live in Gaza camp,” Raed continues, “fled from the Gaza Strip to Jordan. Unfortunately, they have two choices: remain unemployed in Jordan or return to the Gaza Strip.” Very few have chosen to return to Gaza and almost none receive visas to settle in other nations.

Suhad knows each waiting mother and, while distributing the support that comes principally from generous North American donors, she inquires after the children and their siblings. Between sips of tea she hears requests for increases of support, the woes of a sickly parent or a report on the health of a baby stricken with fever. She rarely hears good news.

A heavyhearted Suhad reports that even after 10 years of this emotionally exhausting work she still “leaves Gaza and Souf camps upset. I wish Pontifical Mission could enroll more children in the program,” she adds, “but we need more sponsors.”

From Zerqa, a sprawling city of more than 625,000 people located near Amman, the Franciscan Sisters of Divine Motherhood have brought more than 285 children into the Needy Child Sponsorship Program. In addition to this outreach, these Franciscan sisters administer the Pontifical Missions Mother of Mercy Clinic, a maternity clinic visited annually by more than 30,000 patients. Located near a large settlement of Palestinian refugees, the pre- and post-natal care practiced at the clinic is considered among the best of its kind in Jordan.

While waiting to see the doctor or nurses, young women with infants and toddlers line the colorful halls. They watch videos demonstrating proper hygiene, nursing, proper diet and the creation of sanitary living environments.

“Most of the children we see here have the sicknesses usually associated with childhood,” says Sister Mary Burke, F.M.D.M., an Irish-born sister who has worked at the Zerqa clinic for more than eight years. “We are fortunate that we have not seen underweight or undernourished children like those now seen in the Gaza Strip,” she adds with some relief. “That visit to Gaza [which she took with the Pontifical Missions Jerusalem staff in December 1998] was shattering.”

The Gaza Strip may be bleak, but the needs of Zerqa are just as unrelenting. More than a quarter of the citys population is unemployed; three quarters of those unemployed are healthy males under the age of 30. Sociological problems normally linked with chronic unemployment and economic stagnation – domestic abuse, drug use and poverty, to name a few – threaten to break down the already weakened family.

To strengthen Zerqas families, the Sisters of St. Dorothy operate a nursery school and a training institute for women. While their children sleep or play downstairs, hundreds of women, most of whom are Muslim, learn how to type, embroider and sew. These skills, though modest, enable them to earn money for the household, thereby lightening their financial burdens. And to provide income-generating opportunities for those graduates of the institute who are unable to work outside the home, the Pontifical Mission has distributed commercial sewing machines.

“Were proud of this program,” states Raed Bahou. “Its modest, but the program bolsters the self-esteem of these women – some of whom are divorced or widowed – and enables them to contribute financially.”

Whereas Zerqa is burdened with unemployment and poverty, Jordans capital of Amman appears quite wealthy. Modern hotels compete for customers and air space. Elegant minarets and church belfries dot the skyline. Huge limestone mansions and apartment buildings line the citys wide boulevards. But looks can be deceiving:

“In many cases these buildings are just facades,” says Elisa Estrada, a member of the Teresians, an international association whose members staff the Pontifical Mission libraries in Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. “Many of these people cannot even afford bread,” she adds.

Much of the money used to build these structures came from the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, where Jordanians once found employment. Most of this money has dried up since the Gulf War in 1991.

The Teresians, who work to better society through various cultural and educational endeavors, offer a variety of family programs for the membership of the Amman Pontifical Mission Library. The Teresians meet with teenagers in small groups to help them build healthy personal relationships. Groups of parents meet regularly to discuss family issues. Elisa meets with Filipino women who work throughout the Middle East as nurses and domestics. The library itself provides a space where Christians and Muslims study together, thereby strengthening Christian-Muslim bonds.

While groups of students work in hushed circles, Elisa cites some interesting statistics released by the Jordanian government: conservative estimates reveal that more than a quarter of Jordans families live below the poverty line. Ten percent of these families live in abject poverty.

These numbers do not include the thousands of Iraqis who, fleeing their crippled homeland, enter Jordan each day in search of food and medicine. All seek European, American or Australian immigration visas as well. Few receive them.

“Jordans Iraqi refugees,” explains Raed Bahou, “are economic refugees, not political refugees. They do not receive support from the United Nations, their stay here is limited to six months and they are not granted work permits.

“If the Jordanian government were to issue work permits to Iraqis,” he concludes, “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would rush to Jordan. But where would they work?”

The 1991 United Nations embargo of Iraq, which “affects the whole society,” states Bishop Selim Sayegh, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan, has strengthened Iraqs ruling regime, destroyed its middle class and crippled the Iraqi-linked Jordanian economy. Lifting the embargo will loosen the rope around the necks of middle-class Iraqis and bolster Jordans economy.

“People will turn to theft and even prostitution to get bread to feed their children,” Bishop Selim asserts. “The embargo is inhuman. Its an injustice toward the poor.”

Food and health care are the needs pressing most Iraqi refugees. Their savings have dried up, there are no opportunities to earn a living and they have no medical insurance. In February 1997, in concert with the Comboni Missionary Sisters, the Pontifical Mission opened a clinic for the needy at the Italian Hospital.

Established in 1927 by an Italian missionary association, the hospital – known locally as the “hospital of the poor” – provides medical services at little or no charge and a hospice for the infirm and dying.

Every Wednesday morning, more than a hundred people patiently wait near the emergency room to see a social worker, a nursing sister and a doctor. Many are Iraqi refugees: expectant mothers, sick children, diabetics and the physically handicapped. The patients are asked to pay half the doctors nominal fee, while the Pontifical Mission takes care of the additional expenses, including medicines.

Bishop Selim, a compassionate man with tremendous drive, started a modest income-generating project several years ago. With olive wood beads from Bethlehem and medals and crucifixes from Italy, Iraqi refugee families make rosaries, which are sent to Catholics in the United States. About a hundred destitute Iraqi families now earn enough money to buy groceries and pay rent.

Ironically, Jordans Christian bedouin village life is threatened by the temptations of the economic and social opportunities found in Amman. The Pontifical Mission has responded by supporting village projects, such as the creation of an experimental olive orchard and livestock farm in Smakieh. Nevertheless, caring for those who have left behind their family and culture for the glamour of the city remains a pastoral challenge for the Pontifical Mission.

Although Jordan rarely makes international headlines, for 50 years it has been a refuge and haven for people affected by war and poverty throughout the region. The staff of the Pontifical Mission in Amman, with self-effacing dedication, strives to stabilize a population in flux by supporting needy children, providing education and offering health care.

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of Catholic Near East.