It’s only a week now until Pope Francis sets out on his trip to the Middle East. Father Khalil Jaar is already excited.
“I was asked whether I could organize two buses of refugees for a meeting with the Holy Father,” the priest of the Latin Patriarchate said proudly.
“I didn’t have to think about it for long. From our parish about 40 people will be there to meet him.”
“In all, it is intended that 200 refugees and 200 sick and disabled people meet the Pope on May 24 at the place on the River Jordan where Our Lord was baptized.”
Father Jaar’s Parish of St. Mary Mother of the Church is located in Amman, the capital of Jordan. His main concern is to care for the refugees who seek shelter from the situation in Syria and Iraq in the neighboring country of Jordan.
“In the Middle East, we have a refugee crisis of epic proportions. Millions are on the run,” he said.
For years Father Jaar has been helping to ensure that the refugees can lead a dignified existence.
“We started our work after the situation in Iraq got out of control following the 2003 American invasion.”
“Now, of course, we are feeling the full impact of the Syrian crisis.”
Since the beginning of the year alone, 400 new Christian families have knocked on Father Jaar’s door: Syrians, of course, but also increasingly Iraqis.
On the one hand, there are those Iraqi families who fled to Syria years ago and have now lost everything yet again. But there are also families coming directly from Iraq.
“For years it seemed as though northern Iraq with the Kurdish autonomous region was secure. But the terror has also now reached there.”
“Many Christians who have fled Baghdad and the south towards the north are now forced to pack their bags again.”
Father Jaar knows from his own experience how dangerous Iraq is. “I myself was once abducted in Baghdad. It was shortly after the American invasion of 2003. I have to thank God that I was freed.”
Regularly the refugee families collect in the parish center to receive relief supplies: basic food such as rice, powdered milk, tea and sugar are handed out, as are clothing and toys for the children.
“Without the generosity of the donors from Aid to the Church in Need, we would not have been able to give this support,” Father Jaar says gratefully.
The winters are a particular challenge; in the Middle East they can also be long and cold. Blankets, warm clothing and gas heaters are then handed out to the families.
In the refugee camps it’s especially bad. Snow and the water arising when it thaws both make life in the tents intolerable. Whole refugee camps then stand under water.
Father Jaar has therefore launched his own winter relief project. “It’s not least thanks to Aid to the Church in Need that I can act quickly as the need arises. I was able to buy and set up proper winter-proof portable huts instead of the tents.”
This help was given to Syrian Muslims. Christians don’t stay in the large camps like Zaatari in northern Jordan near the Syrian border.
“It would be too dangerous for them,” Father Jaar explained. “As soon as Christian families from Syria arrive in the camps, the camp administration calls me and I bring them to my parish.”
He does not discriminate on the basis of religion. “Of course I help Muslim families. They are also God’s children. I therefore can’t differentiate between the Muslim and the Christian needy. My faith does not permit me to do that.”
In view of the great need, Father Jaar insists that the refugees take advantage of any help they can get. “I make it a condition of our assistance that the families register with the United Nations Refugee Agency.”
“Many are afraid to register there. They fear that this could have adverse consequences when they return to Syria.”
“But I encourage them to do it. After all, by doing this they are granted refugee status and can claim the benefits offered by the UN relief agencies, such as free health care.”
Jordan has taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis. But they can expect no benefits. The refugees are officially only “guests” in Jordan.
The Kingdom never signed the convention on refugees which would grant the refugees certain rights, such as health care, schooling for the children and so on.
Aid to the Church in Need had therefore already helped Father Jaar in 2011 to pay the school fees for Iraqi children in Catholic schools.
Sometimes, Father Jaar says, he has the impression that his work is a drop in the ocean. “But you have to start somewhere. Anyway, this work makes me the happiest pastor in the world.”
He is looking forward in particular to meeting the Holy Father. “It is important that the refugees experience the Pope’s solidarity. This will give them hope and the feeling that they have not been forgotten.”