Pontifical Mission at 50: Healing in Jordan

For half a century, the Pontifical Mission has provided health care for Jordan’s neediest.

by Michele Chabin

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Driving to Zerqa, Jordan second-largest city, about 40 miles north of the capital of Amman, is a bit like traveling back in time.

Leaving the spotless streets of Amman, you pass towns and villages almost devoid of greenery, for there is a severe water shortage in this Middle Eastern kingdom. The farther from Amman you go, the older the houses and the poorer the people.

The apparent prosperity of Amman does not seem to have touched Zerqa; many roads are unpaved and deeply pockmarked, especially in the city refugee camps. Without yards in which to play, children scamper in the dirty streets, barely avoiding traffic. Even in the relentless July heat, jobless young men gather at midday outside neighborhood coffeehouses.

Twenty-five percent of Zerqa population is unemployed; the vast majority of these are males under the age of 30. Illiteracy, particularly among Zerqa women, is high; prospects are generally bleak.

It is no coincidence that the Pontifical Mission for Palestine established a mother-and-child clinic almost two decades ago in one of Zerqa poorest neighborhoods. At the Mother of Mercy Clinic, which is administered by the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, thousands of local women receive some of the best pre- and postnatal care Jordan has to offer.

“The Pontifical Mission serves poor areas and Zerqa is certainly one of them,” explains Dr. Ibrahim Ghabeish, one of the clinic two staff physicians. “We treat bedouin from the deserts and people from Zerqa itself. We serve the surrounding Palestinian refugee camps and even patients from the nearby industrial city of Rosafa.”

Dr. Ghabeish says the clinic provides care to Jordanians who would almost certainly fall through the cracks of the nation overextended and costly health care system. Only an estimated 10 percent of Jordanians actually have health insurance.

“The Pontifical Mission has served the people here and in Palestine for many years,” explains the physician, who was born and reared in the West Bank. “As a Palestinian, this is important to me. I feel that someone is helping my people.”

Fifty years after Pope Pius XII established the Pontifical Mission as a relief agency to provide Palestinian refugees with food, clothing, shelter and education, it continues to aid refugees. Yet while the agency goal to help the needy has remained basically the same since its foundation, the scope of its projects – especially with regard to health care – has broadened considerably.

The Pontifical Mission was established in 1949 soon after the partition of Palestine and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. Most relocated to nearby Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria, or to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The latter two were under Jordanian and Egyptian control, respectively, until Israel captured them in June 1967. With its headquarters in Beirut the Pontifical Mission established local committees to aid refugees in these areas, as well as in Israel.

It was not until the cataclysmic 1967 Arab-Israeli war displaced hundreds of thousands more Palestinians – a large percentage of whom flooded into Jordan – that the Pontifical Mission decided to open a full service office in the kingdom.

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