Tuesday, October 8, 2013

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.

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