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Volume 45, Number 3
22 November 2013
Nicholas Seeley

Located outside the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the Syrian border, the Zaatari refugee camp has become an interim home to about 113,000 Syrian refugees, according to current UNHCR data. (photo: CNS/Reuters)

In the Autumn issue of ONE, writer Nicholas Seeley reports on how Catholic health care initiatives are helping refugees in Jordan. Here, he offers more insight into how small faith-based charities are making a difference.

One of the interesting things about writing this story, for me, was the opportunity to reflect on the significance of local and faith-based organizations in emergency situations. When a huge humanitarian crisis occurs, the United Nations, governments and large international aid agencies quickly step in, and often they seem to monopolize the response with huge aid requests and high-profile projects, like Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. But they are not the only players.

It is important to remember that in Jordan, at least, only a small portion of the refugees have ever been in camps. Most are living in Jordanian cities and towns, often in low-income areas. When they arrived, it was local charities that first offered them help and support. When you spoke to refugees in 2011 and 2012, it was groups like Al Kitab wa Sunna or the Jordanian Green Crescent that they said were actually providing them with assistance: food, diapers, blankets and household goods. There were dozens of these local charities involved. They had been working in Jordan’s poor areas for years, and were able to expand quickly to start helping Syrians as well — long before the big international players got moving. Most of them were Islamic, including many associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, but there were Christian ones, too, including both dedicated organizations and small parishes across the country. (These days, there are also some Jewish groups working quietly in Jordan.)

It is hard to speak in concrete terms about how much of a role local faith-based organizations play — both because there are so many of them and because their donations are often irregular. Officials at several such agencies have told me they rely extensively on private, mostly Jordanian donors, rather than institutional contributions, and the amount of money they have at any given time can vary. Often a single large donor will pay for a load of blankets to be distributed, or for food to be provided for a few dozen families. Other times, the charity will pool smaller donations for ongoing programs, but those can only run as long as the funds keep coming.

Tracking the total impact of these disparate efforts would be a massive undertaking. But even aid workers from the big agencies say that a great deal of the support refugees in Jordan have received — perhaps the majority — has come from such faith-based organizations.

Today, both the United Nations and several of the organizations themselves have warned that that support is flagging. The sheer scale of the Syrian influx has strained Jordan’s public services and economy. Local donors are exhausted, and often feel they are in increasingly difficult economic straits themselves, so the support that sustained local charities has waned. In some places, there have even been complaints that impoverished Jordanians can no longer get assistance, because all the aid is going to refugees.

United Nations officials have said that the amount of money they have, huge though it is, will not be enough to provide for even the most basic needs of the Syrians if the assistance provided by local groups continues to diminish. Certainly the role of large institutional donors and the international community should not be diminished either.

But it is important to remember just how large and how critical a role is played by the accumulated efforts of small, local, faith-based organizations — even in the biggest emergency.

To learn how you can help support CNEWA’s work in Jordan, visit this page. You can read more about Syrian refugees in Jordan in Overwhelming Mercy, in the Autumn issue of ONE.

Tags: Refugees Jordan Health Care ONE magazine Refugee Camps

6 September 2013
Nicholas Seeley

In the Bethlehem Icon Center’s temporary classroom at Bethlehem University, students watch as Ian Knowles demonstrates the steps involved in painting an icon of the face of Christ, also known as the Mandylion. (photo: Nicholas Seeley)

In the Summer edition of ONE, writer Nicholas Seeley reports on one man’s efforts to pass on the art of icon writing. Here, the author describes for us how he first got to know the man behind that project.

I first met Ian Knowles in 2010, in Jordan. I was working on a story for this magazine about how the kingdom was trying to capture a bigger slice of the fast-growing faith tourism market. One of the lesser-known pilgrimage sites I visited was the Shrine of Our Lady of the Mountain, in the northern town of Anjara. It was one of five spots in Jordan the Vatican had highlighted as important destinations for pilgrims, but it was far from a tourist trap: a tiny church and convent in a tiny town, struggling to make ends meet and to provide services to a community facing growing economic hardship.

But in the nave of the Anjara church hung a pair of extraordinary wooden panels — giant triptychs painted with scenes from the life of Christ. They caught my attention immediately. There was a vibrancy, a sense of intention and inner light to the stylized figures that smashed through the musty vision of iconography I had taken away from art history classes. Though the work was very traditional, these pieces felt new, alive with message. And, while I knew that the tradition of icon creation was most associated with Greece and Russia, these pieces felt powerfully Middle Eastern — from the choice of colors and tones, to the names in Arabic script, to the many tiny references to the sacred geometry that is the center of Islamic art.

As it happened, in the church that day there was also a man up a ladder, busily putting the first shades of burnt sienna on the figure of the transfigured Christ that would become the center of the third panel. I stayed to take some pictures and to ask him about the church, and we fell to talking for some hours about tourism, history, and icons. And that’s how I met Ian Knowles.

I learned that it was his third trip to Anjara; he had been coming since 2009, staying for two or three months at a stretch to work on the panels. Though most of his work as a professional iconographer was in England, he had spent much of his time over the past two years in the Middle East, teaching and volunteering: painting new pieces for churches here, or restoring old ones. In the creation of icons, he found a way to offer something spiritual to Christian communities faced with an increasingly difficult social and economic situation.

He described how visiting the region had reinvigorated his art, and nurtured his growing interest in the Byzantine period, and the origins of iconography. “I go back to the Byzantine period in the Middle East for a lot of my inspiration, because that’s when it was a truly Arab culture, but also a truly Christian culture; and rooted here; and of universal significance,” he said. “You wander around Beit Jala or Mar Elias, and you suddenly come across some fantastic Byzantine ruins. And they’re everywhere!”

And, of course, he mentioned his most ambitious idea: he was running a course in creating icons in Bethlehem, and he had the dream of starting a non-profit, a school where talented young Palestinian artists could come and learn the craft.

As he spoke about the essence of icon writing, I began to understand what was so powerful about his work. The icon is an object in which faith and prayer are made manifest, a physical expression of the religious context. Years on from that conversation in Anjara, it is truly exciting to see Ian Knowles’ dream of an icon school becoming a reality, and to have the opportunity to watch him pass along his remarkable gifts.

5 June 2012
Nicholas Seeley

In this 1998 photo, a Bedouin shepherd leads his flock out of Smakieh to graze.
(photo: George Martin)

Contributor Nicholas Seeley covers events in the Middle East. To read more about Jordan's Christian villages, see his latest article, A Bridge to Modern Life, appearing in the May 2012 issue of ONE.

The Christian village of Hmoud seems deserted. My translator and I have been told not to expect much; residents of Smakieh, the next village over, have warned us that only a handful of people still live here, many of them elderly. Still, the emptiness of the streets is surprising. It is not abandonment; the tiny cinderblock houses are well kept and the roads are clean, but there is no one in sight.

This is particularly odd because the day is beautiful — it is surprisingly warm for early March, but not baking, and the sky is still scattered with a few puffy clouds, a last hint of the rainy season before the long, dry Jordanian summer begins.

Some villagers may still be in church — Friday morning Divine Liturgies in Jordan are often well attended, since it is the Muslim holiday, and most people have the day off from work — but there are only two cars in the street outside the Orthodox church, and almost none visible in town. Finally, we pass one yard where a family sits on plastic chairs, chatting and soaking in the sun. Finding no one else about, we stop and say hello. We explain that we’re reporters, doing a story about the area’s Christians, and soon we are sitting with them, enjoying the morning sun and learning about the lives of our hosts.

As it happens, this is the family of the local Orthodox priest, Father Sami Halasa: his wife Alice, his son Sameer and his daughter-in-law Fidaa, as well as his adult grandchildren, Lydia and Amer, who have driven in from Amman for this weekend lunch. Right now they’re all waiting for Father Sami to return from the church. As they do, they talk about the history of their family — from the arrival of the Halasa tribe from Egypt centuries before to their success today as doctors and lawyers, government ministers in Jordan and successful professionals who have spread to dozens of countries around the world.

In many ways, this is the story of Jordan’s Christians. We came to Smakieh and Hmoud, the last fully Christian villages in Jordan, expecting to find Bedouin Christians clinging desperately to the remnants of their old traditions and way of life. Instead, we found people whose outlook is particularly cosmopolitan, people who for generations have very explicitly embraced education, travel and commerce as the way to a better life. They hold fast to their Christian identity — not by clinging to the past, but by trying to improve themselves and the world.

At least, most of them do. After perhaps 20 minutes, the Divine Liturgy ends and Father Sami emerges — a solitary, black-clad figure walking slowly down the street from the church. He greets us briefly and steps inside to change. The family, we discern, is about to have lunch. As we begin to excuse ourselves, Father Sami suddenly re-emerges. Now in casual pants and a priest’s collared shirt, he settles into a deck chair and insists on being interviewed.

Advanced in years, Father Sami holds a distinctly traditional point of view. Life in the village was much better in the past, he announces — before all these machines and cars and tractors. The modern world is a corrupting influence, and people are moving away from the faith. Everyone now is obsessed with money and possessions, gradually losing respect for religion; even today, he says, gesturing toward the church, there were only three people at the Divine Liturgy. His family smiles, but there is some tension in the air; they do not all, perhaps, see eye-to-eye on this. Nor would we expect it; here, in this village, in this family, is a microcosm of one of the great struggles consuming faith communities today. Is the modernity of a globalized consumer society a blessing or a curse? How much of it should one embrace, and how far?

Father Sami’s speech ends abruptly. “I’m hungry,” he says. “You must come for lunch.” We try once more to excuse ourselves, but the Halasas won’t have it; we are guests and therefore must be fed — preferably until we cannot stand up.

As a very strict vegetarian, I have difficulties with Arab hospitality; there is little on offer that I can eat and people are often unfamiliar with vegetarian cooking. My visits usually end up being so difficult for everyone that I avoid them. But as we try to explain this problem, Fidaa Halasa smiles at me. It’s Lent, she reminds me, and in Lent, they cook without meat or cheese or eggs. There are no animal products in their Friday lunch. With pleasure, we accept and spend the next hour in their small, homey living room, being stuffed with delicious maqloobeh — a traditional Palestinian dish of rice, cauliflower and eggplant — plus salad, bread and softball-sized fresh oranges. After lunch, Father Sami produces a battered 1980’s vintage radio and sits hunched over it, listening to the news at immense volume while Lydia and Amer talk about their school and Fidaa talks about her family.

For a moment, all questions of modernity and the state of the faith are shelved. This is Arab hospitality, and it is one tradition of the desert and the nomadic life that has never been put aside. Guests must be welcomed, must be given food and water, and it is by this welcome that one is judged.

Some things never change.

Tags: Middle East Christians Jordan Village life Christian