Syrian refugee families await treatment at a medical centre at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, June 11.

CNS PHOTO | MUHAMMAD HAMED

Syrian refugee families await treatment at a medical centre at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, June 11.

July 15, 2013
DALE GAVLAK
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

A sick Syrian father said he and his family lived outdoors in the cold, under plastic sheeting, for months after their dwellings were destroyed near Damascus.

They recently arrived in Zarqa, Jordan, a desert town on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman, seeking help from a Catholic charity.

"We don't have homes anymore. Syrian government planes destroyed them," said Abu Suleiman, a greying 62-year-old man sitting cross-legged on a dingy rug in a small, sparse room bulging with young children. "With no electricity or water, we were forced to move from village to village in southern Syria. We strung up the plastic for makeshift tents and lived under the trees."

Abu Suleiman, like other Syrian refugees, uses a traditional Syrian name rather than his given name to avoid retribution from Syrian authorities. He and his 30 dependents are among the 4,500 families that Caritas, the Catholic Church's humanitarian nongovernmental aid agency, assists in Zarqa.

The town is one of several Jordanian communities where Caritas and its partners reach out to Syrian refugees with medical, educational and humanitarian assistance, regardless of religion, race or gender. Most of the refugees are Sunni Muslims and come with little more than just the clothes on their backs.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (www.devp.org) is currently raising funds to support Caritas' efforts to provide emergency relief to Syrians suffering due to the political chaos in their homeland.

Jordan hosts more than half a million Syrians, with the majority living in local communities. It is to this population that Caritas concentrates its efforts by helping 20,000 families - about 100,000 individuals - throughout the kingdom.

Zarqa is an industrial town where Jordanian Muslims and Christians mix freely in the streets.

MILLIONS DISPLACED

Now, it is drawing many Syrians fleeing the violent two-year civil war, said Faris Francis, who supervises the Caritas services at its downtown centre. The UN says more than 93,000 people have been killed and millions displaced by the conflict.

Refugees like Abu Suleiman come to Zarqa because of its proximity to the border, Francis said. Others join relatives or move there because of its affordability compared to other places.

Francis pointed to a cube on his desk embossed with words defining the charity's mission to the unfortunate: "I am love, I am hope, I am respect, I am justice, I am help."

The motto finds its practical expression in the services Caritas provides, he said. Among these are medical check-ups, psychological support and child-rearing awareness to mothers, as well as non-formal education to help refugee children cope with their classroom studies in Jordanian schools after missing months of education in their homeland.

During a recent home visit, Caritas case workers encouraged Abu Suleiman to come to their nearby health clinic after learning that he suffers from hypertension and diabetes. Unfortunately, the Jordanian medical system makes treating his prostate cancer financially prohibitive.

The former Syrian government employee and his wife said they worry for the welfare of their half-dozen daughters and daughters-in-law and 16 grandchildren, the majority of whom are under the age of seven.

The women's husbands have been killed or arrested in Syria, and two living in Jordan were wounded or suffer from physical disabilities, making it impossible for them to work.

Caritas has provided bed linens and other basics for their home as well as food and diapers for the children.

The Catholic charity works with other partner organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee to provide school, hygiene and relief kits, including blankets to the refugees and impoverished Jordanians.

The Mennonite Central Committee has supported Caritas in the past two years with more than $200,000 to cover activities over a range of areas, including distribution, peace-building outreach as well as necessities like diapers and infant milk powder.

Mennonite and Caritas volunteers find that the desire to return is strong for Syrian refugees, many of whom spend their days simply waiting to go back.

A short distance down the street from Abu Suleiman is where a Syrian Christian refugee man named Johnnie resides.

He, his mother, and two brothers live in a single room constructed on top of a flat roof. It's simple, spare accommodation normally reserved for impoverished building doorkeepers in the Middle East.

Mattresses stood upright along the tiny room's walls while cans, boxes and pots filled the worn oven for lack of a better storage space.

The 25-year-old told Caritas case workers that his family fled Syria's instability, but did not feel entirely comfortable in Jordan.

Johnnie found it impossible to find work, after owning his own successful hair salon in Damascus. As a Christian, he felt vulnerable mixing with other Syrians who view the country's Christian minority population as largely supporting the Assad regime.

GAIN NEW SKILLS

Caritas workers encouraged the young man to try to break out of his isolation - the rest of the family had travelled to Syria to visit an ill relative - and gain new skills by joining English and computer classes at the nearby centre.

Back at the centre, a 55-year-old Muslim scholar from Damascus expressed his gratitude for medical treatment and other assistance he and his family have received.

"We certainly feel God's love here," said the man, dressed top to toe in white. "Back in Syria, our children have been killed and homes destroyed. I can only ask help from God to make things better."