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