Mothering Mercies

A mother and child clinic in Zerqa, Jordan, builds community

by Daoud Kuttab with photographs by Nader Daoud

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In an examining room at the Mother of Mercy Clinic in Zerqa, Jordan, Dr. Ibrahim Ghabeish puzzles over a patient’s condition. Somehow Salah, a 3-day-old infant, has contracted dysentery. The infection is relatively common among adults in Zerqa; usually it is contracted by consuming food that has been contaminated by dirty water. But how could an infant, whose only nourishment is his mother’s milk, get infected? After questioning the child’s 25-year-old mother, Maha, Dr. Ghabeish put together a likely scenario.

“The child’s mother was cutting up carrots washed in contaminated water,” he explained. “When Salah started to cry, she brought him to be nursed without washing her hands. She must have transferred the disease when she prepared to nurse him.”

Established in 1982, Mother of Mercy Clinic offers a wide range of general heath care services to thousands of patients — over 26,000 in 2008 — regardless of creed or origin. The clinic, however, specializes in prenatal and postnatal care, giving priority to needy mothers and their infants.

As the clinic’s head doctor, Dr. Ghabeish has treated mothers and infants for years. “People like to come here because they know they will get quality service, that they will be treated in a clean environment run by good administrators,” said the 59-year-old doctor, a Palestinian refugee.

Though only 20 miles northeast of Amman — the increasingly cosmopolitan capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — Zerqa struggles with a multitude of problems: escalating crime rates, insufficient housing, inadequate infrastructure, pollution and poverty.

A city of 852,700 people, Zerqa boasts the kingdom’s only oil refinery as well as about 50 percent of its factories. Several military bases also are located in the area.

Attracted by the lure of jobs, many of Zerqa’s residents come from distant areas of Jordan, the Middle East or further afield. While Jordanian nationals fill most of the well-paying factory positions, immigrants and refugees find work in an array of low-paying, labor-intensive jobs. Quite a few of these immigrants first arrived on their way back from the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite Zerqa’s woes, many preferred to remain in the city, believing the availability of work, regardless of its pay, promised a better life than what awaited them in their home countries.

But most of Zerqa’s residents are refugees. By far, Palestinians make up the largest group and most live in a refugee camp located in the center of the city. Thousands of Bangladeshi, Chechen, Iraqi and Pakistani refugee families also call Zerqa home.

Zuheir Baghal, a local business leader, described the city as culturally diverse, yet transient. “People come to Zerqa for work, but they have little loyalty to the city,” he said, looking down at the congested streets from his office window in Zerqa’s business district. “The results can be seen all over.”

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