Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hold on to that and never lose it

I don't often participate in the "What are you thankful for?" trends that pop up on social media these days. It's not that I am not a thankful person. I guess it's more because we're all thankful, or should be, so why should my story be any different than the next person's?

But this year I am thankful that our daughter sent us searching for her lost Social Security card. God can have his hand in the littlest stuff and I think he was working last week when Kelsey texted and asked for our help.

But back to that in a minute.

When I can, I attend a men's group on Tuesday mornings down at the church. This morning when we finished watching our video the conversation turned to the people in our lives that had most shaped us. Now that I look back, it seems like it might have been a cleverly disguised conversation starter for a more appropriate topic for the day: "Who are you most thankful for in your life?" Not surprisingly, most of the men at the gathering pointed to their fathers.

When it came my turn, I had the opportunity to talk about my dad. I usually don't pass up that opportunity.

I didn't appreciate my dad as much when I was an immature kid as I do now. I suppose that's what happens when the passing of time joins with the onset of wisdom to forge a greater love for someone after it's, well, too late. It's a cruel twist but it's better than not feeling anything when you know you should.

My dad and mom brought me up Baptist and my sullen teenage self somehow convinced them to let me sit on the back row of the church every week, away from them. Most often they agreed. At the altar call every week, my father's eyes would well with tears as people walked to the front of the church. Even when no one walked down, dad still cried. Being a cranky and petulant teenager, I never got that. And so I hid from it by sitting in the back of the church.

My dad never took credit for anything. He never bragged about anything if he was involved in any way. He would brag about my brother and my sister and me and our mom all day long. But the conversation rarely if ever turned to him, certainly not at his encouragement. Maybe one day I will pick up that admirable trait, too.

I also had a moment this morning to talk about my brother. I consider my brother a role model and for him I am also thankful. I didn't always consider him a role model. I watched him come from a troubled man, hopelessly addicted to alcohol to someone who found God and now admirably leads a non-profit center in Dallas. When he signed on to be that agency's new director, he had been on its volunteer board for several years. But when the past director was fired for questionable financial practices, my brother stepped up and took the job. For nothing. No salary. For a year. It was at his suggestion. Giving away salaries of dollars in salary to your employee just to make sure the doors stay open and people can continue to be helped ... now, there's a lesson for you.

My brother has never been a touchy-feely or overly emotional person. He's been nothing like our father in that regard. Yet here's the interesting rest of that story: At the agency he directs, every day he oversees about 140 developmentally disadvantaged adults of all sizes, shapes and colors. The clients, as they are termed, are paid small wages for repetitive motion tasks. It gives many of them a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and a joy for living.

I have visited the center often. I have watched my brother physically embrace almost every one of these people and call each of them by name — without benefit of name tags. I have watched every one of the clients embrace my brother, and shout out his name from across the room when they see him walk through the door. He is making a profound difference in lives. That's what heroes do. I know I am thankful for being given the opportunity to watch him become what he has become in the last fifteen years or so.

Seeing how the people at the center love him would have been enough to bring tears to my father's eyes. Now it does the same thing to me. And I am no longer afraid to admit that.

Our dad left his three children an appreciation for different things. My brother picked up a sense of fairness and decency, and how to treat others. My sister has a love for the outdoors and great compassion for others thanks to our father, but she was formed, I think, more by our mother. And that is a very good thing, too. My father left me a love for baseball, books and Big Bend. I came along with the baseball appreciation early on, but it took me years to develop that love for books and the outdoors. 

Big Bend is a sacred place to me. Some people probably think I'm nuts when I say that, and that's fine. Maybe I am, but I go there to see God and hear dad. I was there with him just once before he died, even though he had tried many times over several years to get me to go with him. 

I was on a mountain pass when a rare cellphone signal enabled a call to come through to me in 2009, one of the few areas in Big Bend where there was a signal at the time. It was my sister. She called to tell me doctors had found a tumor on dad's kidney and he would need surgery.

The night before he went in to the hospital, he gathered the family in the living room and he read a paper our daughter Kelsey had written about someone in her life she considered to be a hero. Instead of making the evening all about him — even though given the circumstances he had every right to -- he turned the attention to his granddaughter and what she had written. And then he told her he was proud of her. And all of us. He went to bed, got up the next morning and packed a bag for what he thought would be a simple surgery. Twenty-five days later he was dead. He was 84.

When Kelsey called us last week to ask for help looking for her Social Security card, we never did find it. Instead, I found this in my same important paper box:

"Hold on to that and never lose it," both Kelsey and Karen told me when I showed them what I had found.

So yeah. That's what I'm thankful for this year. And every year.

-- jimmy

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Love of family, country trumps all else for Syrian refugees (Pt. 7 of 7)

By Jimmy Patterson

   AMMAN, Jordan — Tears are prevalent here. They come from the eyes of Syrian refugees driven from their homes by the violence of the Assad regime and the forces that oppose his rule in their homeland. In two years of fighting, the bloodshed quickly escalated and grew into the deadly conflict it is today. The latest numbers are startling: Over 2 million have fled the country. Of the ones who stayed, more than 115,000 are now dead. Those who escaped are left to face a future of uncertainty. No one knows when or if they will ever be able to return home. Or if they will ever see their family members who stayed behind to fight for Syria.
   In America, our greatest uncertainties can amount to what time a soccer game begins or when a spouse will get off work so that dinner can be on the table and warm for the family. So many of us have such minor problems in comparison.
    The killing in Syria is not unlike the stories of war and brutality we’ve heard for as long as any of us care to remember. War has been with all of us for most of our lives, it doesn’t matter our age. We have not learned.
   Certainly next to those who give their lives or suffer injury, and their families, the people who lose so much in war are the peaceful among us; citizens, such as the Syrians in this case, lose so much; they are forced to give up their homes, husbands and sons. Forced to trade lives of security for the unknown. Peace-seeking people are left out of the political equation of war. People like us and Syrian refugees — who are like us — are all one, perhaps especially so when part of the body is hurting.
   I learned a lot in the Middle East. Most lessons came from people who say they are hopeless, but who still hope anyway.
   When I left America on October 4, we were embroiled in much bitterness. Disgust flowed from our lips and anger through our Facebook status — our modern day stage and soapbox. We were faced with the bleak reality of having a government in tatters, unable to pay its bills and its people but continuing to spend. When I returned home, we had traded a government shutdown for a healthcare lockdown. The rage remained, only the object of the rancor had changed.
   I learned a lot from the people I was fortunate to meet from Syria and Jordan. Like many people in America, nothing is more important than love of family and country. Many Syrians step out in courage instead of understandably suffering through pain and depression. Just that one attitude can teach us a valuable lesson.
    But there’s also this:
Love your family. Anyone who has survived a fire or a natural disaster knows what it feels like to lose everything, When family emerges from the rubble, they know what it feels like to have everything. People driven from their homeland know both those emotions in an especially compelling way.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of the These: Church Pastors Serve as Living Witnesses for Refugees (Pt. 6 of 7)

Jordanian priests walk the walk in helping Syrian refugees, children navigate through impossible time

By Jimmy PattersonEditor / West Texas Angelus

   KARAK, Jordan — Watching Syrian refugee children flock to both Fr. Elie Kerzum and Fr. Wissam al-Massadeh is a powerful story of witness. As the two men walk into the courtyard of the schools they oversee, scores of elementary- to high school-age children crowd around them. The two priests look truly like the shepherds they were ordained to be.
   The jobs these men are tasked with aren’t easy. Both confessed to having initial reservations until prayer and guidance led them to the positions they finally accepted to lead the refugee children along with their own Catholic students for the greater good of love and solidarity.
    Fr. Elie serves the Jordanian town of Zarqa, a larger urban area near the Syrian border; Fr. Wissam is tucked away in the small southern village of Karak, 129 kilometers south of Jordan’s capital city of Amman. A generous donation by anonymous Midlanders is helping both priests — along with priests in three other Jordanian cities — provide education, counseling and care for the Syrian children they and their educators oversee.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Refugee overcomes depression to help other displaced women (Pt. 5 of 7)

Her home reduced to rubble by air strikes, Tehane
left Syria, and then sank into a lengthy depression

By Jimmy Patterson

   ZARQA, Jordan — The day Tehane left Homs, the Syrian town where she had grown up, the warplanes thundered overhead. From one came a bomb. The percussive boom, fire and collapse of her home served as the moment everything changed for the 25-year-old university art student, who, in a single moment, became a “refugee,” on the run from an unchecked civil war that was destroying her homeland.
   Following a lengthy journey across Syria, the neighboring country of Jordan became Tehane’s new home. She, her husband and their two small children arrived in Zarqa like over a million others who have walked days through deserts into often dank, dimly-lighted living quarters in unfamiliar cities of Jordan and Lebanon, two of the several countries in the region that have opened their borders to the refugees. Zarqa is an industrialized town in the north central part of the kingdom that, by American standards, was poor even before the refugees arrived. But it was now home for the family, and together they would make of it what they could — as soon as Tehane could bring herself to accept her new life.
   Severe depression froze her every move for months.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of Me: Children suffer from assorted emotional scars after war breaks out (Pt. 4 of 7)

Fear of breaking glass, slamming doors, lack of desire to get out of bed in the morning just some of the difficulties Syrian refugee children experiencing since start of war

By Jimmy Patterson

    AMMAN, Jordan — Many Syrians who have made the journey from their home country to Jordan seeking safe haven from the violence in their former neighborhoods often bring with them only the clothes they are wearing.
   The children displaced by the war often bring much more, say psychologists, counselors and social workers with Caritas Jordan, a humanitarian social service agency of the Catholic Church in Jordan.  They see many psychological and emotional issues in children, not uncommon for the kinds of brutal violence many have witnessed.
   Caritas Jordan offers therapy sessions, both group and individual, to those who have made the trek here, and who bear the emotional weight of trauma, grief and depression. The relief programs they take part in are supported by the American-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
   The trained specialists caring for Syrian refugees say there is much work ahead to get the children through this the most trying part of their young lives.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: A Love Story (Pt. 3 of 7)

 Syrian couple's bond unlike many others in Middle East

By Jimmy Patterson

    ZARQA, Jordan — To reach Azhar and Halah’s front door in Zarqa, a visitor must squeeze through a narrow space between two buildings, perhaps no more than three-feet wide, cross a damp alley where water drips from a pipe above and runs under foot into a drainage ditch, and duck under a staircase where a non-descript heavy, metal door waits. Inside, the home smells musty. It is dim and non-descript. There is no furniture. When visitors arrive, they remove their shoes, and one of the couple’s children pulls out a mattress, little more than a piece of foam, covered with a gently-worn sheet. The guests in the home lean back against a living room wall for comfort, and listen as the couple begins their story.
   Azhar and Halah’s history is unlike many of the other refugees who have come from Syria since the fighting took over their once-peaceful country in the Middle East.
   Back home, Azhar drove a taxi on a regular route from Syria to Saudi Arabia, a long trip across an often bleak desert region. He met Halah on one of those drives and they ended up getting married — and that is where their story takes a turn that many here do not.
   “I am 24,” Azhar said.
   “I am 33,” Halah added.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Helping refugees who have lost faith a big task for Caritas Jordan, director (Pt. 2 of 7)

“If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike them will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. — C.S. Lewis

By Jimmy Patterson
   AMMAN, Jordan — In his book “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis argues that we all want the same thing: to be treated with dignity. Now, or centuries ago, Lewis says it is the one human law that has really never changed. Jew. Christian. Muslim. All have their differences in the way they practice their faith but the fact remains that most everyone wants to be treated the same way they would treat others.
   The law of treating others with dignity is what Caritas Internationalis is based on, and those characteristics are exemplified through the actions of Wael Suleiman, director of Caritas Jordan.
   Soon after the Syrian civil war began two years ago, King Abdullah II, no doubt guided by the foresight and integrity of his father, King Hussein of Jordan, opened the kingdom’s borders to those suffering the atrocities of that war. As a result, Jordan saw an average of 3,000 refugees cross into its country from Syria every day. That flow is now at 500-600 a day. Caritas Jordan and the country of Jordan, where it is common to see Christians and Muslims working side by side for the betterment of the lives of those refugees, embody Lewis’ notion that people must all work together.
   Under Suleiman’s leadership, Caritas Jordan has served what is believed to be 150,000 refugees. The humanitarian organization has provides education; psycho-social services, such as counseling; food; blankets and other examples of life’s most basic essentials to the Syrian people. He expects that number to climb to 200,000 in 2014. Suleiman’s objective is to provide food for everyone and educations for as many as possible. Perhaps most importantly and most difficult, though, is to re-
instill in the people of Syria that God still loves them.
   “When we took in the Iraqi people in Jordan, we did not experience what we are experiencing now,” Suleiman said. “The Syrians have lost their faith. In other wars, people have lost everything but their faith. Not this war. This war, the Syrians are asking us, ‘Is God still there?’ For them, God doesn’t exist anymore. It is something new we are facing.”
   Suleiman said he spoke with a young boy, no more than 6, who admitted that after he saw his father killed in front of him, he no longer believes God is there for him.
   Convincing people who have lost so much and whose lives are filled with uncertainty and heartbreak that God is still above, taking care of them, is perhaps one of Caritas’ greatest challenges in the region.
   “I talked to one mother who came from Syria and she has psychological problems because when she came from Homs, she took her children with her to come to Jordan but when she arrived here, she realized that she had forgotten one of her daughters in Syria,” Suleiman said. “She looked at her children who had come with her and it wasn’t until then that she realized one was missing.”
   The family left Syria in such a hurry and under such emotional duress that the mother left her 2-year-old asleep in her bed. There is no way for the woman to return to Syria to check on the child, or to ever learn what happened to her.
   “Nothing is possible to that mother,” Suleiman said. “She is living in a very bad moment. She is thinking, ‘What if my child has died?’ We have no words to help her. I cannot tell her that God is there. That God loves her.”
   Suleiman’s uncle, Michael Suleiman, was a professor at Kansas University, and an educator in America for 40 years. His uncle’s book, “Arab in America,” was a widely read work on his experiences of being Arab in the United States. The same questions his uncle once had, Wael Suleiman has long had. Suleiman learned at an early age of the disparity in the way people are treated. As a young boy, he was rarely, if ever, exposed to anything that could be considered a preferential option for the poor. One day when he was just seven, Suleiman came home from school in Jordan and asked his father why rich children were treated differently than the others. His father told him to go out and play like the other boys and girls. But the younger Suleiman persisted, and by the time he was 10, he had taken himself out of private school and enrolled in the Jordanian public school system so he could interact with children of all types.
   Suleiman said he is working on his own book, which he is calling, “Noah’s Ark.” The book is his dream of building a bridge between not only Arabs and Americans but between all people. He recently wrote a letter to Jesus asking him to come again, a second letter to the United Nations and a third letter to unborn children telling them what they should expect when they enter into the world.
   What those unborn children will experience, and what Suleiman would want for them are different worlds that he wishes he could join together peacefully.
   “We are one human family,” Suleiman said. “It is our responsibility as human beings – you have brothers and sisters in the world and they are a part of us all. And in the end, we are created by one father. Christians, Muslims, Jews, we are all one people. The only solution is solidarity. With solidarity, people can feel love. With solidarity, maybe the people feeling that God is no longer there can feel that He is there and that there is still love.”

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: The Church's work with Syrian refugees in Joran (1 of 7)

Schoolchildren in Karak, Jordan (Photo by Andrew McConnell for Catholic Relief Services).

Anonymous Midlanders funding educations of almost 1,000 Syrian refugee children

By Jimmy Patterson

      MAFRAQ, Jordan — When Fatima left her home in Aleppo, in the northwest part of Syria, seeking a peaceful place to settle her family, the thought of her children’s education never entered into her decision as to whether she and her kids should escape the country and set out on a 335-mile journey. There were far more important things to worry about: Would her husband and oldest son survive the ongoing civil war in their homeland? Would they have a home to return to when the conflict was over? Or would they even be able to return to Syria, home or no home?
   Although Syrian families place a high priority on their children’s schooling, how her youngest son, Samir, and daughter, Wafa, would continue that education was unknown.
   For most of the millions of Syrian children forced from their once-peaceful homes and schools, educations have ceased. Many spend their days now in what passes for a home. Some have not been able to attend school for over two years. Although the public schools are open to Syrian refugees whose families are registered with United Nations and who have the proper paper work, there is very limited capacity.  Initially only 75,000 seats are available in the public schools for Syrian children, far below the needs.  
    As a member of the Caritas Internationalis confederation — the network of Catholic international humanitarian organizations from more than 200 countries — Catholic Relief Services closely collaborates with its sister agency Caritas Jordan to make up the gap in education available to Syrian refugee children.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Heart-Shaped Clock

   Many people have asked me since I returned from Jordan about my most lasting impressions from the trip. Although too many to mention, there is this one I wanted to share. This picture was drawn by a Syrian refugee child enrolled in the non-formal education program, a program that a group of generous Midlanders have funded through December 2013.
   The meaning of this piece of art? Each day, the Syrian children in Jordan go to school at 3:30 p.m. It is the time of day they feel most loved and most valued, and it is the time of day they get to share with the many others who are in the same situation in which they find themselves.
   Sometime in the next couple of weeks, the Midland Reporter-Telegram and mywesttexas.com will publish a series of stories from the trip to Jordan. I hope you will be educated by what you read. And a big thanks to all for keeping up with the trip and for the abundance of kind words you have shared. -- Jp

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Photos from Jordan

Was fortunate to be accompanied last week by Andrew McConnell, a photographer who covers the Middle East and who was on assignment for Catholic Relief Services. Here are some of Andrew's images of a week spent in the Syrian Refugee towns in Jordan.

Friday, October 11, 2013

An unthinkable loss

AMMAN, Jordan — There are thousands of stories here. Many are difficult to just imagine, while still others brim with optimism despite long odds. One story from Thursday's visit is one that no one would ever want to hear again.

Wael Sleiman, executive director of Caritas Jordan, hears many of the stories of the pain and anguish that escaping Syrians who come to Jordan endure every day and have been living for the last two years as their country is ravaged by an ongoing civil war. Stories such as people losing not only their hope but their faith, their loved ones, their homes. "There is no God in my life any more," Sleiman said one six-year-old Syrian boy told him.

There is no remedy for one story, nothing that can be done and no consolation to be offered to one Syrian mother who came to Jordan two months ago.

"One mother came here," Sleiman said. "She was scared and in a rush to leave her homeland. There was violence all around her," Sleiman said. "It was not until she arrived here eight hours after she left Syria that she realized she did not bring one of her children."

Sleiman said the woman has four children but was in such an emotional state of hurt and confusion that she mistakenly left her two-year-old daughter laying in bed in their Syrian hometown, one that was being threatened as the violence grew nearer. There has been no turning back for the mother. No crossing the border back in to Syria to retrieve the child left alone. No re-establishing contact. No calling a neighbor or a husband to find out if her child is OK. No way to know what has become of her.

And, Sleiman said, although Caritas Jordan offers much to thousands of refugees, there are no therapists that can provide encouragement and no treatments that can take away the pain of this mother's loss. It is one of the few times, Sleiman said, that there is simply nothing that can be done.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Syrian children have Midlanders' support, but need it from around the world

Father Wissam Massadeh, right, with a student from Karak School.

KARAK, Jordan — When I first received the call back in March from a friend asking me if I would consider traveling to Jordan to do some reporting work, saying no was not an option. How often would such an opportunity present itself?

As the months dragged on and the heat and drought seemed to elongate the summer, as they often do in West Texas, clarity about exactly what that call would ultimately mean never really revealed itself. Arriving this week, an abundance of 'whys' still accompanied me. Even this morning, there was a lingering 'Why?' I thought shouldn't be there any longer.

And then the strangest thing happened. Farah, our driver, with Caritas Jordan, a non-governmental global humanitarian relief organization, drove us 140 kilometers south into the bleakness of the Jordanian desert. As late afternoon arrived, we pulled into Karak, a tiny village with a Catholic parish and school that is home to about 80 Jordanian families. I met Father Wissam Massadeh, a 30-year-old Jordan native who has been in the priesthood for just four years.

The Catholic school he oversees in Karak educates well over 100 Syrian children. We met about fifty of them in the playground of the school and when I say met them, I mean met them. Spontaneously, each child looked up at me, shook my hand and said hello. The kids in this village, the most remote place I have ever been, have learned much from Fr. Wissam. He has taught them manners, the alphabet, children's songs, days of the week, and months and seasons of the year. All in English.

The priest spoke of a young student who, like most all Syrian refugees here, have literally nothing. Every day, the child says to Fr. Wissam, Alhamdulillah, Arabic for, "Thanks be to God."

It was in Karak today that I learned why I am here. It was here that I learned that people are the same everywhere. West Texas or Southern Jordan, people just want to love and be loved; to not ever lose hope, to have faith and be able to nurture it, and to be surrounded by the comfort of family, whether that be mother, father, brother, sister, priest or schoolmate.

The love the Syrian students have for Father Wissam and for one another is likely what keeps all of them going from day to day.

To think that the generosity of Midland, Texas, is responsible for that boggles the mind. Midlanders funded 3,000 Syrian refugee students — including 1,000 in Jordan — at a cost of about $500 for each child for the year.

It took 18 hours to get here and it will take at least as long to get home in a couple of days. Why would anyone that far away care about the plight of children they have never met?  The Caritas slogan is posted throughout offices in Jordan: "One Humanity, Zero Poverty." Poverty, of course, comes in many forms and it will take much more than the generosity of Midland to one day achieve a zero balance.

Why, then, do Midlanders care about Muslim children? That's the "one humanity" part. To witness the work of this young priest interacting with the Syrian students is to witness something akin to a little miracle in action. As long as Fr. Wissam continues to come into the lives of these Syrian Muslim children, he takes away all boundaries of state, nationality and religion. What the kids in Karak see is humanity in action. Christianity in action. The Church in action. And Caritas in action. The kids at the Karak school don't care what religion Father Wissam is. All they care about is being able to see him every day and to feel loved by him every day.

Understanding the impact of this effort by Midlanders can be difficult. But for the children here, and in Mafraq, Zarqa, Amman and elsewhere, it is both simple and tangible: if the generosity of Midlanders was not forwarded to the Caritas and Catholic Relief Services to help fund the program, the children would just not be going to school. Many have already fallen as many as two years behind in their formal educations in Syria. The educations they receive by way of Midland allows them to continue learning.

The long-term impact is perhaps a bit more abstract but just as important: for every day they go to their schools here, the Muslim children from Syria are on the receiving end of love and care offered by a community of people who just so happen to be Catholic Christians. Factored out over 10 or 20 years — when their lives will have hopefully returned to normal — the memories these schoolchildren retain of this time in their lives, of being helped by people who were Christian — who wanted love, faith, hope and family just like they did — could easily alter their life. And perhaps the bonds and love being developed and shared here now, not only between the kids and Fr. Wissam, but with other Jordanian volunteers and workers, too, may somehow impact the world.

"Let Kids Be Kids Day"

ZARQA, Jordan  — Tuesday in Zarqa, Syrian refugee students assemble for "Let Kids be Kids Day," a program held four times per school year that treat school kids that have been forced from their homeland to jumpers, face painting, arts and crafts, and popcorn. The "Let Kids Be Kids Day" is part of an effort funded by the generosity of a group of Midlanders concerned about the future of the Syrian children.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What kind of fish live in the Dead Sea?

A day off in America can often mean a trip to the lake or kicking back for a sporting event; or maybe a trip to grandma's house or helping out at the Church.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan, site of Jesus' baptism
In Jordan, a day off could mean a trip to Lot's Cave (near where Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt) or a walk to the top of Mount Nebo, where Moses looked down upon the Promised Land. For most visitors to this ancient land, a day off could very well mean a visit to Bethany on the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Bethany on the Jordan is where it is believed that John baptized Jesus, according to Luke 1:28. But, as a native guide explained, Jesus was not actually baptized in what is the present day location of the River Jordan, but at Bethany, beyond the Jordan. What remains is a large hole in the ground several yards from the river, where interpretations of biblical history say John frequently performed his full salvation submersions, including one on the man whose sandal John said he was not fit to tie. A trail leads from the baptism site to the river itself where it is possible today to walk into the river or simply dip your toes in. (And yes, you can take home water from the River Jordan. It comes in small (10 JD) and large (15 JD) in the River Jordan gift shop. Forget, though, about filling your own container with water from the river itself.)

Need a ride? Camels are for hire along the Dead Sea Highway
The Dead Sea has certainly earned its name throughout history: the saline content in the water is so high nothing can live in this water, actually not a sea in the true sense at all but rather simply a large body of water. Mentioned throughout the Old Testament, the Dead Sea is shrinking now because of present-day irrigation needs in the Jordan Valley. The high saline rate is due to the extreme summer heat and the fact that the water has no outlet. At 1,388 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point on earth.

Amman Beach, the Dead Sea.
These two biblically historical points are not typical American visions of vacation resorts, although the eastern shoreline of the Dead Sea is speckled with chain hotels. Holiday Inn and Marriott are open, others are up and running, more are coming — and Dead Sea skin products are a hot commodity these days.

This is harsh land, even in October. The highest temperature recorded ever in the area was 50 degrees Celsius (roughly 122 degrees Fahrenheit), according to our driver. The region receives little rain and to put the topography into a Texas and southwestern perspective, think of a much, much larger Terlingua only with less vegetation, and without the picturesque mountains that skirt either side of the Rio Grande. Sitting in a Dead Sea restaurant looking east toward the mountains that lead to Amman, I was reminded of the first few miles of the drive east from Alamogordo to Cloudcroft, NM. And to the west, instead of the White Sands, there is the Dead Sea's blue sapphire appearance.

Two of the more interesting sites briefly mentioned by the Jordanian guide were the city of Jericho, vaguely visible across the Jordan, and the site where Elijah was "carried by a whirlwind" into heaven on a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pictures from Mafraq School

Last week, students from St. Ann's School in Midland drew pictures with scenes of peace and love to send to the Syrian children in schools in Jordan. In return, The refugee children here drew many pictures of scenes from their life. Watch a slide show of some of the pictures by clicking

Courage unveiled

Tehane, a volunteer with Caritas Jordan, helps Syrian people who have fled to Jordan — just like she and her family did.

   AMMAN, Jordan — We were on the outskirts of Amman this morning, headed north toward the town of Zarqa. Like Mafraq yesterday, Zarqa is a town in which the Jordanian government has allowed the flood of Syrian refugees that have crossed the border in light of the ongoing civil war in Syria. Incoming traffic was heavy as people headed to jobs at the state department, or perhaps a mosque, a Baptist or Catholic church, a school or maybe the U.S. Embassy. There was just as much of a chance all those cars were taking people toward jobs at Safeway, KFC, SNAX Convenience Store, McDonalds or one of the many local shopping malls. Just when you are prepared to accept the fact that Amman seems something of a smaller, more lived in, middle-eastern version of New York City, you hear your driver say, “Whoa!”
   Up ahead, in that mess of inbound civilization, comes not one or two, but eight, maybe ten armored vehicles, each with a soldier standing in the bed of his truck, and each behind a large automatic weapon. The soldier in the lead vehicle actually moved his turret from side to side as his driver drove down one of Amman’s busiest streets. And before that moment I thought I was never going to wake up this morning. But that did it. 
   As if I needed any more of a reminder I wasn’t in West Texas, when we were done with our work day today, we headed out of Zarqa. Making our way through traffic, our driver suddenly swung the car to the right and down a side street, after all of us had clearly heard five shots coming from what sounded like the block ahead. We were assured it was most definitely not a backfire.
   Several things will stay with me when I return home next week. Some I may keep inside, but one I won’t is that I am not unsafe here. Despite what happened today. Amman is a huge, sprawling city. People are friendly and accommodating – all the proof you would need is to see the work of the Jordanians as they help the refugees that have crowded over their borders. Despite the beginning and end of this day, Amman is a town I would not be fearful of returning to and in fact feel quite welcome in.
    Even though the day was book-ended by weaponry, visible and audible, it was a remarkable eight hours. It is hard to pinpoint a single event that served as a highlight. There were several:
  • There was a visit to Caritas Jordan's Zarqa Headquarters, where over 400 refugees are assisted on the days the organization’s voucher program sees clients. It was by itself worthy of a few long-term memories. We were forced to make our way through a heavy concentration of veiled women waiting in line (sort of) to receive assistance. The crush of the people was enough to raise most anyone’s adrenalin. When we had returned to the car, as we attempted to maneuver our way through the streets of Zarqa, several of the women, dressed head to toe in black, had wised up to the fact that many people in our car worked for Caritas. They saw us stuck in traffic and, seeing that a window was down, several approached my side of the car. Before long, eight women were outside, sometimes talking simultaneously in Arabic, wanting to know when they could get inside the office and pick up vouchers for diapers, or blankets, or receive medical or dental treatment for themselves or their children. I never felt threatened, not once, but when my days are past, today will likely be the only one when I can say I was in a car that was literally immobile for a time because of the desperate people in need of assistance who blocked our progress.
  • I met a young married couple who from Syria. The man is 24. The woman 33. Not something you hear of in the Middle East every day. The couple married because they fell in love. Not something you hear of in the Middle East every day.
  • I had the privilege of sharing time with Father Eli, a Palestinian-native born in Haifa, near the foot of Mount Carmel, and named after the prophet Elijah. Father Eli speaks Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and Italian. He is adored by the children that attend the Zarqa School where he serves as parish priest. As far as “most gracious hosts ever” go, Abouna Eli is at the top. The meal he had prepared included Jordanian wedding food, fried cheese and Italian Coffee. A man of great love and compassion for the poor, he has guided his parishioners from being wary of sharing their town, church and school with thousands of strangers who have literally nothing, to being a group of Christians more resembling a church full of Good Samaritans.
  • I met a Muslim woman named Tehane today. She is 23. She came to Jordan as a Syrian refugee a year ago. After having sunk into a deep depression for several months over her displacement and the situation that has been forced upon her and others just like her, she heard about a Christian organization named Caritas that was looking for volunteers to help refugees — just like her. She got herself out of bed, took charge of her situation, walked to the Caritas office and applied to become a volunteer. She is now a social worker that makes home visits to women and families in the same situation she finds herself in. Though not formally trained as a counselor, she is able to provide the kind of listening, comfort and needs assessments necessary to help those who need it most. Easily the most courageous woman I have met so far. There are now six other Syrian women who are volunteering — just like Tehane.
  • I met a Syrian teenager named Omar today (red shirt, second from left). His dad was killed in his homeland. His teacher told me Omar has been unable to laugh since coming to Jordan. After taking a quick picture of him and his three friends, I learned that guys — whether 14 or 53, or from Midland or Jordan — have a greeting that crosses all borders. I extended my arm and balled up my hand. One after another, the four teenage boys took turns fist bumping me. And Omar smiled.
  • At the end of the day, I learned the best thing I had learned all day. Of the over 1 million children refugees in this region, there are over 1,000 Syrian children in Jordan who are able to go to school. One thousand. All receiving an education with other children in the same position. And of those 1,000 children being educated through the faith-based Caritas and Catholic Relief Service organizations, all of them are in school because of a high six-figure donation from anonymous donors. In Midland, Texas. And while that may be the best thing I heard all day, it certainly isn’t the most surprising.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Six cups of tea

Me and Samir in Samir's front yard. Mafraq, Jordan. October 2013.
MAFRAQ, Jordan — When he walked through the doorway he held a metal tray that contained a half-dozen small glasses and a kettle of tea. Steam poured from the pot as he gave each of us a helping. He looked at me as he poured the tea into my cup and offered a smile. Our server is Samir. He is 11. He is dressed in a shiny gray suit, a bright blue shirt, a multi-colored tie and a pair of what look to be Ray-Bans. He and his 12-year-old sister, Wafa, had spent the first few minutes of our visit boiling water in the family kitchen, making the tea. They are excited. Guests don't come every day to Samir's house.

We sit on the living room floor. There is no furniture in the house, a structure that sits a few blocks from downtown Mafraq, 15 minutes from Syria's southern border. Samir's mother, Fatima, sits on the floor with the rest of us. She tells of leaving her home in Aleppa and bringing her family to Jordan. The Jordanians  have been good to her but she has not seen her husband or her eldest son in months. Both remained in Syria when the rest of the family fled to Jordan. Fatima's other son, who is 18, battles behavioral issues brought on by the bitterness in what he sees as the unfairness of his family's new normal.

After hearing how the Syrian war has destroyed what had been a peaceful life for Fatima, who had worked as a seamstress in Syria, we wish her, Samir and Wafa well and make our way to a waiting car on the street.

It is hard to leave these people, knowing that what you do or write or say about them will likely amount to little if anything in their larger struggle. As I turn to leave, it is difficult to accept the simplest fact — that I will never see these people again.

Two hours later, after lunch with the priest at St. George's Church in Mafraq, the parish which, along with Caritas Jordan and Catholic Relief Services, hosts the school that welcomes hundreds of Syrian children every day, we began classroom visits in which both Caritas staff and even Syrian refugees-turned-volunteer teachers help educate the students. Syrians are huge on education. We walk into what would be our last classroom of elementary-age kids on this day.

My eyes scan the room. I am looking for children I might have seen in some of the pictures CRS had sent me before leaving for Jordan. I see none. Instead, on the far side of the room, alone, sitting at a 4-student desk by himself, is Samir. He looks up and sees us as we come into the room. A smile spreads across his face.

For a boy who had only three weeks earlier started in this particular school, and who only hours before had served his same classroom visitors six cups of tea in his humble home, it seems like this moment may well stand higher when stacked alongside other moments in Samir's life.

The Syrians forced to live in Jordan place different values on what is important in life than many Westerners do. There are no material goods here. Only the hope for love — a love that maybe puts a brighter shine on a child's day or for a mother missing a husband or son.

When you least expect that you might make a difference in someone's life simply by being a friendly face, you might be just what that person needs to get through the next rough spot. Like when you serve a glass of hot tea to a guest in your home.

Friday, October 4, 2013

First thoughts on a Third World: Why me?

By Jimmy Patterson

When I was eight, I crossed a road and ventured into a residential area in Acapulco, where my parents and I were visiting. I saw a little girl, maybe three or four, sitting on a street corner. She had become ill on the sidewalk and was sitting in it. I walked away, because that’s just what eight year olds did back then, and I did nothing but think of how disturbing it was. Gross or some such word was more likely my thought.

I was fortunate to have been raised in a comfortable family. My father worked for American Airlines and we were blessed to be able to travel often. I was a typical kid from the suburbs. The real world was something I would never really experience. And still haven’t. My trip to Acapulco stood as the only time I have ever been out of the country. Until this week.

With 46 years between that sight on the streets of southern Mexico and this week, I guess only one question comes to mind: Why? As in, “Why me?” I prefer ‘Why?’ because, as best as it can, it deflects attention from me, because I am not the story here. Not now.

Journey to Jordan. Day 1.

Today, I am blessed to leave on an eight-day mission trip to the Middle East. While there, I’ll be visiting the refugee towns of Mafraq and Zerka, in Jordan, near the Syrian border. Over 1 million children have fled Syria during their home country’s civil war. They have often left behind fathers and brothers who stayed behind to fight in that war. The women, children and elderly number over 2 million now, roughly half of which have entered into Jordanian refugee towns and camps. The educational systems in these makeshift towns are of course substandard to the ones the children attended in Damascus and elsewhere. Often, refugee women have become the children’s teachers, even though they themselves may not have the education needed for such a task.

Many of the people who have fled Syria for Jordan (and Lebanon) lived in homes comparable to the homes you and I live in. Many are middle income who, two years ago, lived a life similar to ours. They now live in tents often made of pieces of burlap sewn together. Sewage flows through the streets. Disease is widespread.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Messages of Hope

PEACE. HOPE. LOVE. Fourth graders show their work for Syrian children attending schools in one of Jordan's refugee towns. The pictures depict images of peace, hope and friendship, messages the Midland students say they wanted to send to kids of a similar age in the Middle East. The pictures will be delivered next week as part of a mission into some of the Syrian refugee towns in Jordan. (Photo by Jimmy Patterson)

Video: Midland children send video gift to children in Jordanian refugee towns

Fourth graders at St. Ann's School in Midland display the pictures they have drawn that will be taken to Syrian refugee students in Jordan's refugee towns next week. Students from Syria have drawn their own pictures that will be returned and given to the students at St. Ann's later this month. The video will be played for the children next week as part of a local mission into the Syrian refugee towns.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Syrian refugees suffer hardshps of a protracted civil war

Relief agencies adapting to  grim truth that an estimated 2 million Syrians may not be able to go home for a long time

    WASHINGTON — When Caroline Brennan met with newly arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan this July, she heard familiar stories of women and children forced to flee their homes without papers, money or food, while men stayed behind to protect family property. But while the accounts of bombing attacks, deaths of loved ones and sudden destitution echoed the stories she had heard during a 2012 trip to refugee camps in the Middle East, there was also a stark difference. 
    In 2012, “they would tell me they were returning in a matter of weeks —  ‘whenever the fighting stops.’ Now, they talk about a year or more,” Brennan, a communications staffer with Catholic Relief Services, told the Register.
    The shift in expectations marks the refugees’ growing realization that Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, shows no signs of drawing to a close. Indeed, experts fear it could morph into a regional sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite forces, with Christians caught in the middle. Read more ...

Children's drawings often depict war, violent images

Artwork drawn by Syrian children in makeshift schools in refugee towns often depict the turmoil the child is feeling. (CRS Photo)

Angelus editor in Middle East to report on Syrian refugees