On our blog this month, we’re taking a virtual journey to the Middle East. Our blog series highlights how Christians—both foreigners and locals—are interfacing with the religious, political, and cultural foment in this region. J. Daryl Byler, who lived and worked in Jordan as a Mennonite humanitarian worker, kicks off our series with this update on the Syrian refugee crisis.
The Syrian civil war is barely three years old, and the statistics are mind-numbing: over 130,000 dead, including 11,400 children; more than 5 million people have been uprooted from their homes inside Syria; another 2.4 million Syrians have fled as refugees to neighboring countries. The small and resource-challenged country of Jordan (population 6.5 million) currently hosts more than 590 thousand Syrian refugees.
Each of those numbers represents a story—of fear, violence, resilience and hope.
I heard some of those stories while living in Jordan, where my spouse and I were serving as regional representatives for an international humanitarian organization.
Za’atari Refugee Camp
Eighty-eight-year-old Um Omar welcomed us in her 10×15 foot caravan in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan. Mats on the floor served as sofas for sitting during the day and mattresses for sleeping at night. They were her only furnishings. She served us tea, with heaping plates of bananas and oranges.
Um Omar came to Jordan from the southern Syrian city of Dara’a along with two grown sons, who carried her across the border, and a gaggle of grandchildren.
Dara’a is where Syria’s revolution began in March 2011, when several young boys were arrested for painting graffiti about Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Um Omar told us that her grandchildren do not go to school in the sprawling and volatile refugee camp—now the fifth-largest city in Jordan—because the location is too far away from their caravan. Indeed, the camp is so massive that many residents no longer live within easy walking distance of schools, medical facilities, or other services.
Her son Omar, who was a police officer in Dara’a, fears that the Syrian regime might fire Scud missiles at Za’atari because the camp is so close to the Syrian-Jordanian border.
He waits for the day when he can return to Dara’a. “Inshallah (God willing) it will be soon,” he hopes.
Um Ghadeer—or mother of Ghadeer—is a Sunni Muslim woman from Aleppo. She made the harrowing 300-mile journey from northern Syria to Amman with her husband and four children after their home in Aleppo was destroyed in the fighting. They had spent nearly a decade saving money to build their home, which was destroyed only six months after they moved in.
Um Ghadeer is an urban refugee. Like 75 percent of the Syrians in Jordan, she lives in a city rather than a refugee camp.
Um Ghadeer’s family of six lives in a one-room flat in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Amman. Her husband sells clothing in Amman, earning approximately $125 a month. The rent on their flat is $100 a month. When I visited in January 2013, her 7-year-old daughter Ghadeer served us tea.
Um Ghadeer was not interested in siding with either the Assad government or the rebel groups. She simply wanted the violence to stop so that she and her family could return to Aleppo and begin to rebuild their home.
I met Salwa, a Syrian woman from Homs, at a Caritas Jordan center in the northern city of Mafraq, one of several sites where young Jordanian volunteers are distributing Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) material resources shipped from Canada and the United States—thousands of relief kits, hygiene kits, school kits and blankets.
Salwa came to Jordan with her husband and four small children in early 2012, after two neighbors were killed and her husband’s grocery store was taken over by Syrian security forces.
In Mafraq, they are renting a small flat for $140 USD per month. “Everything is more expensive in Jordan than in Homs,” Salwa observed. Her husband has not been able to find work in Mafraq.
She said her family’s most urgent needs are security, milk and mattresses. Whenever her children hear fireworks or gunshots (often part of local wedding celebrations), they fear that the violence has followed them from Homs to Jordan.
Sharing the light of Christ
While Christians represent less than six percent of the population in Jordan, local Christian NGOs like Caritas Jordan have been major players in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. For them, it is an opportunity to share the light of Christ (see sidebar, “Caring for the Stranger”).
Caritas had registered 146,801 Syrian refugees as of June 30, 2013. In simple yet profound ways they strive to respect the dignity of each refugee, listening to their stories, allowing refugees to choose their favorite color blanket, and tailoring a response plan for each family according to its needs.
But after three years, compassion fatigue is setting in. Refugees share stories of trauma, and humanitarian workers who listen to these stories day after day begin to experience secondary trauma themselves.
Back in Syria, the Christian community is in an awkward place. While not necessarily supporters of the Assad government, they fear that the next government could make the lives of Christians even more tenuous.
The Syrian civil war started as a rebel movement intent on ousting the Assad government. The conflict has become far more complex in the past two years as outside forces and influences have played increasing roles. Among these outside influences are organizations like al Qaeda, and countries such as Russia, Iran, Syria, Gulf countries, and Western powers. Each has their own interests at stake, and has provided funding and arms that have fueled the conflict.
The Economist recently reported that one of the best indicators of when a civil war will come to an end is when outside players stop funding it. Until that happens, sadly, there will be many more stories like Um Omar’s, Um Ghadeer’s and Salwa’s. Thankfully, organizations like Caritas Jordan will continue to bear the light of Christ in a dark and troubling situation.
The names in all of the stories in this article have been changed to protect the identities of the families.