There has been a lot of press in the past year about the crisis in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to Syrian refugees. Many of our churches in the Diocese of Virginia have shown an enormous outpouring of interest in helping. Various congregations
have raised money for relief, collected blankets and agreed to co-sponsor refugee families. More churches are joining the effort every day.
We are hard-wired to respond to others’ hardships, to do something to help, to make a difference. That reaction is the spirit of mission – it’s what drives us to reach out to others. But there is another facet of mission – the opportunity to learn from those whom we visit and to draw inspiration from the way that our Church – that is the family we call the Anglican Communion – responds in love.
I rediscovered how much I had to learn in December when I travelled to Jordan. I was accompanied by Kendall Metz, a parishioner from Grace Church, Alexandria, with a huge heart for helping the disadvantaged. We both felt called to understand better the Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of the people in Jordan, home to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees plus hundreds of thousands more from Iraq and other nearby countries.
Our first learning lesson was that most Syrians in Jordan came there legally. They didn’t sneak across the border. They are not huddled masses living in refugee tent camps (although there are many in camps). They live in cities and by and large are professionals trying to find work to feed their families. Unfortunately, although they appreciate the hospitality provided by Jordan, they cannot legally work there. They also cannot immigrate to Europe or America.Those doors are closed. And they can’t go back home because of the continued fighting in Syria. So they are crammed three or four families to an apartment. They work off the books. They survive.
But they are not alone, because the Episcopal Church in Jordan is hard at work welcoming these strangers. We visited the Rev. George Kopti of St. Paul’s Church in Amman who has welcomed many Christian refugees into his church community. Refugee families, from Iraq as well as Syria, participate in Bible studies and the church has special activities for the women and children. One Iraqi woman now helps teach Sunday school.
We also discovered that the signature ministry of the church in Jordan is working with the disabled, particularly deaf and blind children. We visited the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid where visually impaired children learn side by side with their sighted friends. The Rev. Canon Samir Esaid, vicar of the Virgin Mary Episcopal Church, explained how the school is taking in refugee children, often for free.
In the town of Salt, we spent two days at The Holy Land Institute for the Deaf, run by the Rev. Canon “Brother Andrew” de Carpentier, who has been a tireless educator of the deaf and deaf blind for decades. Brother Andrew is reaching out to welcome children of refugee families in Salt and in other satellite locations. The Institute’s work with these children is amazing – you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to sign all of the familiar Christmas carols.
Perhaps most of all, in every location we visited, we were reminded that one of the most important things we can do is pray, and work, for peace. Most of the refugee families we met don’t want to move to Europe or America. They just want to go back to their homes. But when your home is in Aleppo or Homs, that’s tough.
When we asked one Muslim mother what her kids did all day, she said like all kids they play make-believe. We wondered what they make-believe about. She sighed and said “they make-believe that there is peace in Syria so they can return.”
If we do nothing else, let’s pray for peace.
By: Buck Blanchard, Director of Mission & Outreach, Diocese of Virginia