On my recent press trip to Jordan I arrived in the capital city of Amman eager to meet with and interview Christian refugees who have escaped ISIS militants, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
It was this desire, in fact, that drove me to apply to participate in the Catholic Bloggers Press Tour of Jordan this year.
What I wanted was to give faces and names to the label “refugee,” a description that too often seems far too distant and extraneous to most of us living a comfortable middle class American lifestyle.
Yet as a Cuban refugee myself, I felt a strong urge to travel to the other side of the world and bring back – by writing about them – some of the stories of these families, my fellow refugees.
I could have never imagined the many graces and surprises that God had waiting for me there—and the powerful witness of faith I was able to experience first hand.
At the Pontifical Mission Library in Amman, our first stop in the Jordan tour, we encountered dedicated, generous volunteers and staff who daily give their lives to helping in any way they can the thousands of Christian refugees still arriving regularly with nothing but what they could carry.
I met young refugees full of faith who still trust in God’s plan for their lives—such as 15-year-old Marios, who confidently told us, “We were forced to leave… if we wanted to survive. This [Bible] is the only thing I brought with me,” he added, holding out the small book covered by a plastic shopping bag.
Through an interpreter, I learned that Marios’ hometown of Batnaya was one of many thriving Christian villages on the Nineveh Plane, a vast area in Iraq that had been home to Christians since the 1st century after Christ.
“Our villages were made up of all Christians, and we were able to practice our faith without any harm or trouble,” explained Sami, an Iraqi refugee who was a teacher in his previous life and now volunteers as a tutor at the center. “When ISIS came, everything changed. All those villages are now empty.”
In Fuheis, just 12 miles northwest of the capital city of Amman, we celebrated liturgy with parishioners of St. George Greek Catholic Church, a community of Catholics that has become a welcoming hub for Arab Christian refugees.
40-year-old Arthan, his wife Walaa, and their five children, are a Syrian Catholic family from the village of QaraQuth. They had been living in Jordan for only 40 days when I met them.
“We lived in fear. My wife had to cover herself like a Muslim hoping to hide the fact that we are Christian,” he explained through an interpreter. “Our Muslim neighbors marked our house with a Christian symbol, so that ISIS would go to our houses first,” Arthan said.
“For the Christian, there is no place left. That’s why I came here. To provide a future for my children,” Arthan explained, as he rested one hand on the shoulder of his youngest son, Arthin.
“What’s happening is unbelievable. We can’t speak of it simply in words,” explained Ra’ed A. Bahou, Regional Director for the Pontifical Mission, the papal agency for Middle East relief and development.
“These refugees didn’t come because they are poor,” Bahou said, “They came here because they were cleaned out of their country for their faith, entire villages, because they are Christian. Many are educated, middle class people who now come to me for a $50 certificate to feed their families.”
And while other Middle Eastern nations are losing Christians, Jordan—a country roughly half the size of the state of Oklahoma, continues to absorb more Christians.
Although 92% of Jordanians are Sunni Muslim, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan prides itself on being a tolerant, Islamic state that welcomes all religions. And its king, his Majesty King Abdullah II, remains committed to welcoming refugees, and to working towards peace and stability in the region.
In the meantime, the numbers are quite staggering. According to Jordanian government estimates, since the beginning of Syria’s devastating civil war four years ago, Jordan has taken in 1.5 million refugees. That’s 22% of the country’s current population in a nation of 6.8 million people.
“We need to do what we can to support Jordan,” emphasized Regional Director Bahou, “and hope that it continues to stay safe and stable.”
Next: what can I do to help the refugee crisis?
Copyright 2015 María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda.
Photos copyright 2015 María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda. All rights reserved.