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.
“Abunna! Abunna!” The children in Zarqa and Karak frequently shout the Arabic word for “Father” when they see the priests.
The love and respect the Syrian children have for the priests is clear. They are almost giddy as the priests approach.
“Praise God, I am happy for that,” Fr. Elie said of the children’s welcome. “You have to love the place where you are. We are personally very poor in Jordan but with Caritas and people who help Caritas we can do, and we can help.”
Caritas is the social service mission of the Catholic Church – an infrastructure in many countries across the globe, as well as a federation of Catholic agencies devoted to serving the poorest of the poor. Caritas Jordan works in partnership with Caritas of the United States, known by its formal name as Catholic Relief Services. This is how generous Americans here at home, in Midland, are making a direct impact on the children of Syria.
Fr. Elie was busy the day of the visit by Caritas representatives. He was also hosting almost 20 visitors from France. Born in Haifa, Israel, near Mt. Carmel, Kerzum, who is learned in five languages, broke down into simple terms the message of God’s love at the urban refugee centers Caritas operates.
“We are usually the enemies of what we ignore,” he said. “Once we know each other, a lot of walls and barriers come down and we find we are afraid usually just for what we don’t know. It is important for our soul to help without wanting anything in return.”
In Karak, Fr. Wissam reaches down and pats a young boy on his head as the two of them have a brief moment of conversation. The young priest, in his early 30s, turns and tells the story of a Syrian woman who came to the church where Fr. Wissam pastors.
“The woman said, ‘I want to say thank you.’ I tried to help her with vouchers for food and clothing for her children. She was very touched. She turned and asked me, ‘What is your name? I want to tell my children to pray for you.’ It was very touching.”
With the help of Caritas volunteers, Fr. Wissam routinely gathers his Syrian students together and has what American culture calls, ‘teachable moments.’ On a recent Thursday in October as the sun began to drop below the desert mountains west of the village, the students assemble in the playground area.
“Who can recite your ABCs?”
“How about the days of the week? The months of the year? Seasons of the year?”
In unison, the children recite what Fr. Wissam has asked.
“Very good, very good, children,” he says. “ Now, let’s sing a song!”
Together, over 100 Syrian children exuberantly sing “One banana, two banana.” The recitations are all done fluently in English.
Out of sight, far from the bright lights and a half a world away from the admiration both deserve but neither would ever seek, Fr. Wissam and Fr. Eli are busy changing the world. One refugee at a time.