Syrian refugee family
Silas Crews

Syrian refugees Ola and Omar with their newborn, Faten, share an apartment with Omar’s brother, wife, and children Ibrahim, left, and Walid, right. Caritas Jordan provided the families with MCC comforters and relief kits.

For decades Jordan has provided hospitality and refuge for those fleeing violence. Today the tradition continues, with MCC supporting Jordanian efforts to welcome refugees.

In a three-room apartment in Zarqa, Jordan, a television broadcasts nonstop, black and white video footage of the fighting in Syria — a link to the country Ola and Omar are waiting to see again.

The newly married couple left Homs, Syria, in January 2012, fleeing to Jordan only 20 days after moving into a house that Omar, a pastry chef, had worked hard to finish for Ola, who was pregnant with their first child.

Since then, Ola gave birth to a daughter, and the family moved into an office building converted into apartments for refugees. They share the space with Omar’s brother, his wife and two children, one of whom lost most of his hearing to the sound of a bomb. (Syrian refugees interviewed for this article asked that their last names not be used for security reasons.)

On the news, Ola and Omar have seen footage of their neighborhood and know their house was destroyed. “We cry. We are sad,” says Omar, “but we can’t change or do anything. I have a lot of friends who are not here, but our homes are destroyed. What can we do?”

That doesn’t stop them from wanting to go back to Homs, just as soon as the fighting stops.

Syrian refugee familySyrian refugee Ibrahim sits in a one-room dwelling where he lives with his wife Odeya and baby Majid, as well as Odeya’s brother Achmad. Many of their household goods, including blankets and a relief kit, were distributed by MCC partner Caritas Jordan. Photo by Silas Crews

The desire to return is strong for Syrian refugees, many of whom spend their days simply waiting to go back. The same desire is echoed by the 2.7 million Palestinians living in Jordan — some of whom have been waiting since 1948 to return to land and homes illegally seized by the Israeli occupation. Other refugees from various countries also wait in Jordan — either to go home or to find a new permanent home.

MCC supports the efforts of Jordanian partner organizations to walk alongside refugees and their Jordanian hosts, meeting immediate needs for refugees such as those from Syria and helping other, longer-term refugees continue building their lives as they wait.

“Everyone is coming, asking for this bucket.” 

In apartments such as the one where Ola and Omar live, MCC comforters provide needed bedding for families who fled Syria. By November 2012, more than 17,500 comforters had been sent to Syrian families, as well as 8,000 hygiene kits.

MCC also has provided nearly 3,000 families with MCC relief kits, buckets full of towels, soap, toothbrushes and personal supplies. “Everyone is coming, asking for this bucket,” says Jameel Dababneh of partner Caritas Jordan, noting the quality of the supplies and the bucket itself. For Ola and Omar, who left Syria with a single suitcase and the clothes on their backs, the relief kit helped meet urgent needs. They still use the bucket for mopping floors and bathing.

In Mafraq, MCC Jordan Program Coordinator Nada Zabaneh looks over MCC material aid with Hussam Nasrawne, supervisor of the Caritas Jordan center where MCC assistance is stored and distributed. Photo by Silas Crews

Even as new shipments are being sent for Syrian refugees, MCC continues to support efforts to help improve the lives of refugees in Jordan from Palestine, Iraq and countries such as Somalia and Sudan.

At the Baqa’a refugee camp, southwest of the capital city of Amman, Palestinians wait in the overcrowded cement-block buildings of refugee cities, barely eking out a living. Frustration is rife and sometimes emerges through domestic violence. The YWCA, an MCC partner, offers classes to women and youth, teaching about the rights that women have, offering training in income generation and strategies to address conflict, tensions and violence. Some men come with their wives to learn communication and problem-solving skills.

Palestinian refugeesAt Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp, Palestinians such as Hanah Abred Alltateef benefit from classes aimed at reducing domestic violence, teaching people to address conflict in healthy ways and increasing their opportunities to earn a living. Photo by Silas Crews

One instructor says as men learn that women know their rights and have a supportive community, the likelihood of violence decreases. Also, when women gain skills to earn a living, some of the financial stresses lessen. Classes help young people learn what healthy relationships should be like.

Suhaile Abu Shanab pushes back the hijab on her forehead to show a scar where her husband hit her. His aggression, she says, came from frustration with his inability to make enough money to support his wife, seven children and his parents. If she asked for money to buy food, he would get violent. At the YWCA’s classes, she gained courage and strategies for keeping conflict from escalating and learned how to start a small business.

Over time, the level of violence in their relationship decreased. Her husband’s health also declined greatly and her business selling homemade food and used clothing, tables and chairs has become the family’s primary means of support.

The problem for Iraqi refugees, who fled their country during and after the U.S. invasion in 2003, can be one of isolation as they wait for the United Nations to relocate them. Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), an MCC partner, brings refugees in Amman together to learn English and computer skills during afternoon and evening classes.

informal education centerIraqi refugee John Phameen brings his sons, including 5-year-old Firas, to the Jesuit Refugee Services classes to learn English. Phameen and his sister Madlin Phameen also attend classes. Photo by Silas Crews

“We want our kids to learn English,” says John Phameen, who brings his sons, Oras, 3, and Firas, 5, to the children’s classes, supported by MCC with food, play areas, fans, educational materials and teacher salaries. “It is important for their future.”

When the September session started, children kept coming into the classroom, squeezing into one more tiny, plastic chair after another until there was absolutely no more room. During the summer, teacher Shahed George had more than 50 students in her class, causing her to ask for volunteers. In September, another teacher was added, allowing for two classes for younger children.

classJesuit Refugee Services offers after-school classes for refugee children and adults in Amman. On the first day of a new session, Shahed George begins working with pupils. (Read about one student LINK TO HELLO). Photo by Silas Crews

While Phameen’s sons are learning songs and rhymes and English vocabulary, Phameen and his sister are taking classes upstairs, taught predominantly by Iraqi educators who also fled their country. Classes are held for students young and old and bring together refugees from a variety of countries and backgrounds.

The children’s program is critical, George says, because most families don’t have grandmothers or grandfathers to watch the children while parents take classes. “They don’t have anyone to help them.”

The community that develops at the center is as important as the education, says Laith Eskander, an Iraqi refugee who works as the family visits coordinator for JRS. Before he worked there, he learned English and computer skills at JRS, but it was the community he connected with that had the biggest impact. (Read more about Eskander.)

computer trainingMCC funds supported educational improvements in the center where refugees such as Abdalmakeh Yalda gain skills and prepare to take advantage of other online learning opportunities. Photo by Silas Crews

While he waits to see if his own future is in Jordan, Iraq or somewhere else, Eskander says the JRS community has helped him cope with being away from home.

“Just to be out with others and mix with others is a better way to make your life good,” says Eskander, whose family was relatively isolated before he got involved with JRS. “To be alone without help, you have a bigger problem. That’s what I learned from JRS. Community puts better things in our lives.”