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.

   Despite the harsh conditions now faced by the families that have fled, the schooling needs of nearly 1,000 Syrian children are being met by concerned Midlanders, who have requested to remain anonymous. Earlier this year, after one of the benefactors watched a televised report on the CBS Evening News about the conditions faced daily by the Syrian refugees who had flooded into neighboring Jordan, donors sent a check for $700,000 to ensure that at least some Syrian children could go on learning with limited interruption.
   The people of Jordan have largely opened their hearts, homes and schools to the influx of refugees, old and young alike, and they are doing so in a manner befitting the gospel. The refugee
children are being made to feel comfortable, safe, secure and loved. At Caritas-Jordan, a partner to CRS, Catholics and Muslims work side by side to ensure life is made as bearable as possible for those who now find themselves without a country.
   The Syrian children are being taught an informal education program created by CRS professionals from both the United States and Jordan. Math, languages (Arabic and English in this case), recreation and other core subjects common to a routine school day for children around the world are offered.
   “The fundamental core values of Caritas and CRS are at work every day here in Jordan: to treat the individual person with dignity. That’s what drives us,” said Michelle Ryan, Head of Programs for CRS Jordan.
    Educational opportunities for the refugees, regardless of their age, have been both problematic and limited. Barriers that would not normally exist in a typical American school setting arise here, where the Ministry of Education welcomes the Syrians and allows them, at the encouragement of King Abdullah II and the Jordanian government, to utilize the educational facilities available in the kingdom.
   “The public schools now run on a two shift system whereby Syrians go for half a day and Jordanians go for half the day,” Ryan said. “However public school facilities and resources are being stretched beyond capacity.  Teachers are not being paid additional salary or wages for the extra hours worked.”

   The difference being made through these educational programs is unmistakable. In Karak, 129 kilometers south of the capitol city of Amman, almost one-hundred children flock to the side of Fr. Wissam Al-massadeh, a Jordanian-born Catholic who has been a priest for four years. Fr. Wissam has taught the elementary-age Syrian children in his parish school the alphabet, the days of the week, months and seasons of the year, and playful children’s songs. The students gathered in the blacktop playground area on this beautiful day in southern Jordan recited all of these things — in English. The love and respect the young people have for this man of another faith tradition is obvious. And it’s no wonder why the young students care so much for him.
   “In the beginning, I could only think, ‘We cannot do anything with these people” Fr. Wissam said. “I began asking myself, ‘Why, Lord, are you giving me all this work to do?’ I have two parishes, two big schools to oversee. I have 300 students. And now I have 2,000 Syrian refugees? One day recently, someone asked me how many parishioners I have. I told him 2,300. Eighty families in my church, and with the Syrians, I now have 2,300. I consider them my parishioners.”
   Because CRS and Caritas help people in need regardless of creed, there is no religious education of the children who are of diverse faiths. Rather, Fr. Wissam simply goes through each day simply being who he is. Without words, he leaves a lasting impression on the children, all of whom are desperately in need of an authority figure at this point in their lives. Fr. Wissam said none of the children have ever asked him what religion he is.
   Stories like the one in Karak play out at schools in five different locations across Jordan. Midland generosity plays a role in each of the towns: Amman, Madaba, Mafraq, Zarqa and Karak.

   Four times during the school year, host parishes stage a “Let Kids Be Kids Day,” which resembles the annual carnivals and fairs found in many American schools every fall.
   On October 9, the most recent Kids Day at Zarqa School, a teacher spoke of one Syrian boy named Omar. Manal Hejazeen conveyed Omar’s story of a band of armed men who came into their neighborhood and summoned all the residents into the street outside their homes. For some reason, Omar’s family did not hear the command of the men who had come into the neighborhood.
   “The men started shooting people. Nearly the whole village was killed in front of his eyes,” Manal said. “Why do the children love Kids Day? They can move, they can play. Maybe they can laugh. They don’t have this from a long time ago with war, shooting, killing. So this is their time to breathe, to see something that makes them happy. They are not happy. These things help to make them happy.”
   The impact of the generosity of Midlanders to the Syrian refugee students in Jordan may be no more obvious than on a picture a student in Karak recently drew. On a piece of pink construction paper cut in the shape of a heart, one of Fr. Wissam’s students has drawn a clock with the hands pointed to 3:30, the time of day the Syrian refugees’ class day begins.

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