22 April 2015
Agnon Adnidihad, 62, fled his home in Mosul last year. (photo: CNEWA)
Last Saturday morning, I met a man named Agnan Adnidihad. Now I’d like you to meet him, too.
A few months ago, he was a 62-year-old repairman working in Mosul, Iraq — a Syriac Orthodox Christian quietly tending his business and saying his prayers.
Then along came ISIS.
Today, Agnan is a refugee, living in a corner of Amman, Jordan, where all he can do is survey the remnants of a life that has been ransacked and left in ruins. I met him at the Italian Hospital in Amman, where he is being treated for heart ailments and stress. He agreed to a short interview; the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Khalid Shammas, served as our translator. You can watch the video below.
Dr. Shammas told us the needs of people like Agnan are great; many who pass through the hospital’s doors suffer from posttraumatic stress and depression. And their numbers are growing in Jordan. The country is being flooded with tens of thousands of people from Iraq and Syria who are literally running for their lives. In Jordan, they are finding their way to the Italian Hospital for treatment.
The Italian Hospital is Amman’s oldest medical facility, dating to 1926. (photo: Greg Kandra)
I was blessed to visit the hospital last weekend and receive a guided tour. In the Spring edition of ONE magazine, writer Dale Gavlak offers this snapshot of an institution that is having a profound and positive impact:
The Italian Hospital is Amman’s oldest medical facility, dating to 1926. The 100-bed hospital maintains a longstanding charitable tradition, providing some of the best care at low prices — in some cases, as with Nevine’s delivery, for free.
The hospital offers checkups, intensive care, pediatric and maternity care and a variety of other services, making referrals only in the case of the most serious procedures, such as cardiac surgery.
“For many years, refugees have been coming to our hospital, starting with the Palestinians,” says Nassim Samawi, administrative director. Now, as many as 130 Iraqi Christians daily seek medical assistance at the white limestone facility in Amman’s bustling downtown. Refugees driven from neighboring countries and continents alike come for help, including people from Syria, Sudan, Somalia and even Iraqis still displaced from the 2003 war.
“The flow of refugees is great. We see the suffering they are going through and how we can support them,” says Sister Elizabeth Mary, one of the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Mary who staff the facility.
“Whatever funds we receive, they’re used because the people never stop coming. We are always looking for help,” adds the soft-spoken sister.
“It’s normal to see refugees here at the Italian Hospital, which is not the case with other hospitals in Amman. At every level, our staff is prepared to aid them, and the refugees also feel good about coming to our hospital,” Mr. Samawi says.
“Thousands of people are benefiting from our health care program handling mid-sized surgeries,” says Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq, which supports the Catholic hospital’s care for refugees and the poor. “Now, we are trying to help with larger surgeries — heart operations and some cancer and hernia treatments.”
When our group of newswriters and bloggers visited, the waiting rooms were crowded with mothers with small children and the elderly in wheelchairs. Young nurses shuttled from room to room tracking patients, collecting samples and filing paperwork. The overwhelming majority of patients and staff were Muslim; the women’s heads were covered in the traditional cloth hijab. Many spoke little or no English.
Many of the staff at the Italian Hospital, as with most of the patients, are Muslim. This nurse cares for newborns. (photo: Greg Kandra)
But for all that, the hospital remains distinctly Catholic. Every room has a crucifix on the wall. In the neonatal unit, images of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus watch over slumbering newborns. Two sisters from India, Sister Elizabeth and Sister Vinitha, from the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, supervise the staff.
Sister Vinitha, left, and Sister Elizabeth, right, are the two sisters who serve at the Italian Hospital. (photo: CNEWA)
The work being done at the Italian Hospital is urgent — yet in our short time there, all we saw was calm. The hospital is spotless. The staff is efficient and gracious. You have the sense that all who come there are in the very best of hands.
For so many, these are the only hands reaching out to help them.
The Italian Hospital has a unit dedicated to caring for newborns, many born to refugees.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
It was a great privilege to see the work CNEWA is helping to make possible in this corner of the land we call Holy — and I was proud to be a part of it, even in some small way. There is so much good being done here. Grace is everywhere.
You, too, can share in this work, and make the lives of men like Agnon Adnidihad better. Take a moment to visit our giving page. You will be giving something beyond what you may realize — a sense of possibility and promise, of reassurance and hope. These people from Iraq and Syria need that. Now, more than ever.
Read more about the hospital in Finding Sanctuary in Jordan in the spring edition of ONE.
16 April 2015
Tags: Refugees Children Jordan Health Care
Mayor Akel Biltaji of Amman speaks with the group of pilgrims. (photo: Greg Kandra)
If you were looking for a figure representing the diversity and religious harmony of Jordan, you couldn’t do much better than a man who was born in Gaza, was raised a Quaker, married a Muslim, and now serves as the mayor of the capital city of Amman.
Meet Mayor Akel Biltaji.
I did Monday night — along with the other religious bloggers and writers who are touring Jordan this week at the invitation of the Jordan Tourism Board. The mayor agreed to give us some time to talk about issues facing his city and his country. So a little after 6 p.m., we boarded our bus and made our way to Amman’s imposing city hall.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
We were ushered in through security and up a winding stairway to a large conference room.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
And there we suddenly saw the mayor: an elegant figure with a shock of white hair and a trim moustache, greeting each of us at the entrance to the room, shaking our hands, making chit-chat and asking us where we were from. We took our places around a large square conference table. The mayor’s communications staff also joined us.
Dapper, warm, talkative, effusive, the 64-year-old mayor is the very model of modern major politico. He’s also a born diplomat. When one of our bloggers asked him which cities in America he liked the most, he slyly worked his way around the room and extolled the virtues of every home town of every writer at the table.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
He has an instinct for people. And his background in management is impressive. From his official biography:
Raised and educated in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, he obtained his High School Diploma and the London General Certificate Examination at the American Friends Schools (Quaker) in 1959. Mr. Biltaji graduated in the summer of 1962 with a degree in education and joined the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) the same year. In the summer of 1969, Mr. Biltaji returned to Jordan to join the National Carrier ALIA, the Royal Jordanian Airlines as a senior management officer. In his 28-year distinguished airline career, Mr. Biltaji served in different capacities, the last of which was senior vice president.
His Majesty the Late King Hussein appointed him in March 1997 as the country’s minister of Tourism and Antiquities, where he continued to serve in this portfolio under His Majesty King Abdullah II until June, 2001, when he was appointed by King Abdullah II as chief commissioner to the newly declared Region of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority
In February, 2004, His Majesty King Abdullah II appointed Minister Biltaji as His Majesty’s advisor on Tourism Promotion, Foreign Direct Investment and Country Branding. In November 2005, he was also appointed as a member of the House of Senate, where he served as chairman of the Tourism and Heritage House Committee, and member of the Foreign Relations and Education Committees.
You would think the mayor of a major world capital would have better things to do than chat with writers after business hours on a Monday night. But for over an hour, Mayor Biltaji — in between extolling the virtues of his city and selling it to all those in the room — entertained questions on a number of topics.
On Jordan’s significance to the world: “This is the land of the sunrise of faith. … Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The mix is here. The heritage, the antiquities, it’s all around. This is the source of a spirit of compassion. When we count the apostles and the prophets that have touched this land, we are blessed. It means they left something and it stayed, and we hope to be the custodians to these relics and antiquities.”
On the importance of religious acceptance: “What is so unique about us here is acceptance. It’s not tolerance. Tolerance is a bit condescending, you know? That’s not coexistence. What matters is acceptance. Once you accept, you find yourself falling into taking the other in and being taken in, too, by the other. Once you surrender to that, that’s how things should be. “
On how Jordan is coping with refugees: “We’re managing. We are sharing with them whatever we can and making them feel at home. Just imagine if one-third of the U.S. just crossed the Mexican borders into the U.S. We have one-third the population, 30 percent of people living here have come from other places and are sharing very scarce resources. But this is part of our idea of acceptance. This is what is unique about Jordan. To have [been] born in Gaza, brought up in Jaffa, become a Jordanian — now I’m the mayor of four million people. Where else in the world can you do that? Lebanon? You can’t. They have kept the refugees in something like a ghetto. Here, certain refugees who came here years ago and made a life here have insisted on staying in camps as a symbol of the right to return. Some are members of parliament, members of city council, but they are Jordanians living in the camp. The identity is there. Refugees are included here in the political life of the country. Lebanon is different. It’s very sectarian. But here? We have 1.6 million Syrians — 20 percent of our schools in the north are full of Syrian refugees. But this, again is a sign of resilience, of compassion.”
At the conclusion, he wished us well and thanked us for coming to his country — and for helping to tell its story. He acknowledged that many people misunderstand Jordan and don’t realize that in a corner of the world rife with turmoil and terror, the Hashemite Kingdom remains stable, modern and secure. Again and again he attributed that to the leadership of the king, and what the mayor called a sense of “acceptance” of many cultures and faiths.
I think we all left the meeting wishing nothing but the best for the mayor and the land he so clearly loves. In comparison to the storms raging around it, Jordan is a sea of tranquility. Let’s pray it stays that way. The Middle East needs more Jordans — and more cheerleaders for the region like Akel Biltaji.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
13 April 2015
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Jordan Amman
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated at the Easter Vigil in Sts. Peter and Paul Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Amman, Jordan. (photo: Greg Kandra)
What can you say about a day that began with the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the streets and ended with an exuberant Catholic liturgy celebrating the Resurrection?
That marked Saturday, my first full day in Amman, Jordan. To call it memorable would be an understatement; this was a day that I will not, cannot forget — and it is for days like this that I wanted to make this particular trip.
I’m here, really, by chance. I was invited to represent CNEWA as part of a group of a dozen other bloggers and journalists to take part in a tour sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board. In addition to visiting some famous sites — the Dead Sea, Bethany, Petra — we would be in this corner of the Holy Land during one of the most sacred times of the year, as Catholics and Orthodox here together celebrate Easter (according to the Julian calendar). Later in the week, I’ll get a firsthand look at some of the projects CNEWA has been supporting over the years — notably at the Italian Hospital in Amman — and get to meet some of the people we’ve writing about in ONE magazine and on this blog. The opportunity was impossible to resist.
Friends and family, when they heard about this trip, were baffled — and a little alarmed. “Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you thinking?” But the fact is: Jordan remains one of the most safe and secure countries in the Middle East; tensions and wars rage around her borders, but Jordan remains stable. (Local businesses are doing their part: Our hotel, as do many in the region, requires that everyone entering pass through a metal detector, submit bags to be x-rayed, and consent to be lightly frisked. It’s like going through security at the airport, every day.)
So… after arriving Friday afternoon and settling in, I awoke early to the unfamiliar but haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer. I rolled over and looked at my cell phone. It was a little after 4 in the morning. I had slept fitfully anyway — a 10-hour flight and seven-hour time difference will do that to you — so I decided to get up and, answering the call, pray Morning Prayer. I clicked on my breviary on my iPad and began my day.
Our group spent most of this first day on a bus, driving two hours north of Amman to visit the ancient city of Umm Qais, overlooking the borders of Syria and Israel. The day was cold and rainy; we couldn’t see far (though we were told, on a clear day, you could actually spot the Sea of Galilee many miles to the north). Umm Qais was also known at one time as Gadara, and it is believed by some scholars to be the region where Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, drove demons from a man and into a herd of swine.
From atop the rolling hills of Umm Qais, a visitor can see the Golan Heights of Israel in the distance (photo: Greg Kandra)
The cold steady rain had a very different effect on our group, though. It drove us from the open air and into the bus.
Unquestionably, the highlight of the day came in the evening, when we experienced two Easter Vigils, from two very different Catholic traditions.
The Easter Vigil begins in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Amman. (photo: Greg Kandra)
Our evening began at St. Peter’s, a Latin Catholic Church in Amman, where we arrived in a space full of flickering candles as the deacon stepped into the ambo. He took a breath. And in the hushed silence, he cried out the first phrases of the ancient chant that I know so well, the very chant I had proclaimed just a week earlier at my parish in Queens: “the Exsultet,” or Easter Proclamation. “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven … exult, let angel ministers of God exult. Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph…”
Every note was familiar to me. I knew it by heart. But I had never heard this before: The deacon was chanting the proclamation in Arabic. This moved me in a way I hadn’t expected; here was the universal church, our faith, unfolding before me. What I had sung in a parish in Queens was now being sung in this parish in Amman — and in countless other churches large and small, in languages ancient and new, throughout the world. I found myself blinking back tears. To be a part of this moment was an extraordinary gift.
The deacon chants the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, in Arabic. (video: Greg Kandra)
After a little while into the Mass, we had to leave to head to another vigil, this one Sts. Peter and St. Paul, a Melkite Greek Catholic Church a short drive away.
This was only my second experience of an Eastern liturgy; it included copious amounts of sprinkling, singing, processing, chanting and incense.
The Rev. Nabil Haddad incenses the congregation. (photo: Greg Kandra)
I found it spellbinding and beautiful. One of the writers on our trip, David Rupert, a Protestant, captured the essence beautifully on his blog, describing the view of an outsider who nonetheless felt a sense of belonging and kinship:
I walked into the Melkite Greek Catholic church in downtown Amman, Jordan, graciously invited by others. The Sts. Peter and Paul Church was small, with probably 150 people already gathered. We were late. The service was led by the Rev. Nabil Haddad, a gracious man who is working at bridging the gap in the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian world as the leader of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.
I resisted the urge to find a way to make my way outside. I was so out of my element. This was a different culture, a different faith expression in a Middle Eastern tradition. And the service was in Arabic. To an outsider it was nonsense. Chants. Singing. Repetition. Kneeling. There was no music except for the melodic, hypnotic voices of chants that seemed to bring in a mix of Gregorian, Semitic and Arabic influence. I irreverently imagined a Jew in a vestment singing from a minaret. It was disruptive and disquieting. But as the service continued, it was powerful.
Across the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, believers are becoming a smaller and smaller slice of the population, losing the baby war. And they are oppressed and tormented and killed in some places. Yet, they survive and even thrive because of their love for each other and for God.
So here I am, standing among Christians who have been in the area for more than a thousand years. I am unworthy, ignorant, and just a little shocked. Who do I think I am? I have no idea what these people have to endure on a daily basis. and yet they embrace me and call me “brother.”
After the liturgy, we had a chance to spend time with Father Haddad and some of his flock. He’s a longtime friend of CNEWA, and was delighted to meet someone from the agency. He promised to get in touch the next time he visits New York.
I rode back to our hotel weary but grateful — and stirred by so many emotions. Several days back, overwhelmed with a thousand details demanding my attention — getting through the Triduum, finishing our taxes, ironing out all the details for this particular trip — I told my friend and editor Elizabeth Scalia that maybe I should back out of the Jordan trip. It was getting to be too much.
“You know,” she told me, “maybe you should look at what God has for you in the trip. There is a gift somewhere.”
After my experience Saturday night, I realize: She was right.
9 May 2014
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Jordan Holy Land Christians Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop William Murphy and the CNEWA team wrapped up their journey to Jordan on Wednesday.
In Kerak, they stopped by the Italian Hospital, administered by the Comboni Sisters. CNEWA has supported the hospital’s renovation and expansion, bringing health care to countless families.
We profiled the lives of Christians in the Kerak plateau two years ago in the pages of ONE magazine. Many of the people are descended from Bedouins, and have strong ties to the church:
As do most Jordanians, the Christians of the Kerak area express pride about their tribal past. But nostalgia for the old days is hard to find on the Kerak plateau. For generations, these villagers have struggled to achieve a better life, a fight that often has meant leaving behind tribal customs. Now, young and old have their eyes fixed firmly on the future. They want to talk about the Internet, not about camels and sheep; about college degrees, not tents and traditions.
The only vital thread weaving together their present and past, and one they speak about eagerly, is their Christian faith. According to these villagers, the church — Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic — has held the community together and served as a bridge to modern society.
After visiting Kerak, the team traveled to the Christian Bedouin village of Ader to celebrate a First Communion liturgy at the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of St. Gregory.
After that, it was back to Amman for the trip home.
You can find more about this pastoral visit at Cardinal Dolan’s blog and at the blog for Bishop William Murphy. The complete Journey to Jordan is also archived here.
And if you’d like to be a part of the exciting and meaningful work we’re doing in Amman, Kerak and Ader, check out our giving page.
8 May 2014
Our CNEWA team — board chair Cardinal Timothy Dolan, board member Bishop William Murphy and president Msgr. John Kozar — continued their pastoral visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and discovered the “keys to the kingdom,” its wonderful and generous people.
An important stop yesterday was the convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Amman.
From their home, the sisters offer Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria counseling, schooling, formal catechesis and emergency assistance to those in dire need. The sisters’ “House of Mary” also offers a safe haven, a refuge from the storm that has enveloped these innocent families.
We described the work of the sisters — which is supported by CNEWA’s generous benefactors — in a story for ONE magazine we called, fittingly, “A Loving Embrace”:
Among the courses the convent school offers is a remedial tutorial for Iraqi children who have fallen behind since the war’s outbreak and fled west. Some of these children have missed several years of school — not until last August did the government permit Iraqi school-age children to enroll in its schools...
In addition to the remedial program for young children, the convent school operates a kindergarten, a second grade and a literacy course offered at no cost to young adults between the ages of 14 and 20.
...For a few short hours, the participants leave behind their worries and gather the strength to move forward despite the seemingly impossible and unending challenges in their lives — at least for one more day.
That’s the warm and supportive atmosphere that greeted the CNEWA team yesterday. The sisters and the families they are privileged to serve welcomed their visitors and made them feel right at home. Later, they celebrated Mass together and had the opportunity to share stories, and even a few laughs.
It was a meaningful and emotional visit for everyone.
To find out what you can do to support the good work of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Jordan — and extend that “loving embrace” of Christ to others — visit our Jordan giving page.
7 May 2014
Continuing their pastoral visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop William Murphy and Msgr. John Kozar visited two key holy sites before spending the rest of the day with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. They visited the site on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, touring the archaeological remains associated with the early church.
They also paused to enjoy the view at Mount Nebo, where tradition holds Moses viewed the Promised Land he was never able to enter himself.
In 2011, we reported in ONE magazine on some of the places they’re visiting in the article On Jordan’s Bank:
Jordan is home to a mosaic of biblical places. For example, near the Zerqa River, Jacob wrestled the angel and received the name Israel. At Mount Nebo, Moses looked upon the Promised Land. The Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire from the Jordan River’s eastern bank, which also later served as the center of John the Baptist’s ministry.
These holy places, coupled with the country’s arid landscape, drew thousands of early Christians, such as St. Mary of Egypt, who led lives of penitence and prayer. Their monastic cells, caves, chapels and tombs in turn became important venues of pilgrimage for generations of Christians, who traveled along a well–beaten circuit from one site to the next for much of the first millennia of the Christian era.
Today, these sacred areas draw considerable numbers of pilgrims and tourists each year, but less traffic than one might expect. Most of the locations receive scant publicity and are overshadowed by better–known holy sites in Israel and Palestine. And, until recently, some of the most important sites in Jordan have been long lost or neglected.
The CNEWA team next headed to meet with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who are providing support to Iraqi and Syrian refugee families, especially young women.
More on that part of the visit tomorrow!
Meantime, you can read more about their visit at Cardinal Dolan’s blog and at the blog of Bishop Murphy.
5 May 2014
Some high-profile visitors this week are getting a first-hand look at the work CNEWA is helping support in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The chairman of CNEWA’s board, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and board member Bishop William Murphy are making a pastoral visit to Jordan with CNEWA president Msgr. John E. Kozar.
The team stopped by Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa this morning, where they were welcomed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.
After seeing some of the remarkable work being done by the sisters, they headed on to the Italian Hospital in Amman, where they received a tour of the facility operated by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation and stopped by the ward caring for Jordan’s tiniest patients, newborn infants.
Both these facilities are dealing with some extraordinary challenges right now, as the tidal wave of refugees from the Syrian civil war threatens to overwhelm the country.
Last summer, writer Nicholas Seeley described the serious situation in Jordan in the pages of ONE magazine, in an article entitled Overwhelming Mercy:
Jordan is on the brink of a health care crisis. The tiny kingdom’s aging health infrastructure has long been in need of an overhaul, but recent events in the region have exacerbated an already-difficult situation. The economic boom that Jordan experienced after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has come to a grinding halt. Capital and investment have fled, and jobs are scarce. Economic stress tends to cause people to fall back on public health care services, but the government has been facing a budget crisis of massive proportions. Rounds of austerity measures have increased the price of fuel and basic goods, pounding hard an already weary population. Exacerbating matters, in the past decade Jordan has absorbed massive waves of new refugees — first from Iraq and now Syria.
Since early 2011, more than half a million Syrians have found refuge in a country with a population of barely more than six million. Hundreds of people arrive every day, many of whom come with severe injuries, long-term health issues or both. Many women arrive pregnant — some of whom, married at a young age, are barely more than children themselves.
And many find their way to institutions like the Mother of Mercy Clinic and Italian Hospital, supported by the generous benefactors and donors of CNEWA.
We’ll be hearing more from this Journey to Jordan over the next few days. Meantime, please keep these travelers — and the many good people they will be visiting — in your prayers!