Kevin Clarke
Three communities of sisters offer solace and support in troubled times.
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The Italian Hospital is nestled at the crest of a steep rise overlooking the city of Al-Karak, Jordan, surrounded by the remnants of a crusader castle, its crumbling walls a reminder in sandstone of the region’s many conflicts. From this vantage point raids were once launched on passing Muslim caravans. On the roof of the hospital’s adjoining convent at dusk, Alessandra Fumagalli, C.M.S., leans along the parapet. Before her a purple and rust sunset breaks the line of a mountain in the near distance; the fading light falls across the small houses and scrub desert below. Far to the west, the sunset sparkles across the surface of the Dead Sea. Sister Alessandra surveys the sleepy valley a moment. “At night all the homes on the hillside light up,” she says. “It’s so beautiful, it looks like Christmas. You can see why Jesus wanted to be born here.”

Sister Alessandra’s perspective is indeed beautiful, but the view is hardly the only compensation she derives from her work among the poor in Karak and its surrounding villages, so far from her native Italy. She describes her mission as a satisfying, silent evangelization of doing, for and among her Muslim neighbors. Like the crusaders before them, this handful of Comboni sisters keeps watch over the people of Karak, but they offer an altogether different Christian presence among their Muslim neighbors.

Christians are only a tiny percentage of Jordan’s population, but Sister Alessandra says it is important to her to live in Jordan. “People from Europe and the United States are surprised to see Muslims and Christians living and working together, [but] this is even the aim of our operation, why we love to be here. Not only to provide health care, but to show that we can live together.” Her work speaks about God without speaking about God, she says. Six other sisters join Sister Alessandra in keeping the hospital going, as other Comboni sisters before them have done since 1934.

Though it is open for pretty much any medical emergency, the Italian Hospital’s scarce space is devoted primarily to two of Karak’s most pressing needs: Women from the neighboring villages come to the hospital to have their children, and many come for treatment for kidney issues related to the region’s poor drinking water and haphazard use of drugs that elsewhere require a prescription or are otherwise controlled.

The Italian Hospital has just 38 beds, but more than 1,000 babies a year are born there. How is this possible? Rapid turnover. Sister Alessandra says women can expect about two hours for recovery after a normal delivery and 24 hours after a caesarian, then it is off to home to make room for the next birthing mother or broken arm. Sister Alessandra says if the hospital had more beds, the new mothers could have more time to recover. We need more money, she flatly tells visitors; we need more room; we need a new maternity ward, better dialysis facilities, new medical equipment of all sorts. Amman, where the sick or injured can find an M.R.I. machine or a specialist, is 130 kilometers away. She wants to bring those services closer to the people of Karak. “People wait weeks to see a doctor,” she explains.

“In some way I have to find all the money to do this,” Sister Alessandra says. She seems more than up to the challenge. “I applied to the Vatican [for financial help],” Sister says. “I said, ‘If you want our presence here, you need to support us.’” The Pontifical Mission for Palestine has helped, but much more is required. The hospital gets by on support from the mission and from donors in Europe and the United States through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. But its patients are also expected to help keep the doors open. “Who can pay, will pay,” says Sister Alessandra in a charming, slightly fractured English. “But it is a very low price,” she rushes to clarify.

Out of Zarqa

Babies and young mothers crowd the hallways and small examination rooms of the Mother of Mercy Clinic in the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp of Zarqa. It is Monday, vaccination day, and a line of mostly young mothers with small children in tow threads along the corridors and out the door. Like babies everywhere, the infants and toddlers in this small health center smile shyly at strangers and find ways to amuse themselves until the needles appear and the screaming begins. Mercifully, it is over quickly and the kids and their mothers are out the door or off to their next appointment.

Established in 1949, Zarqa is one of the oldest of the 13 refugee camps for Palestinians in Jordan, though the dusty tenement city of more than 17,000 hardly resembles anyone’s idea of a camp at this point. As a way of insisting that the camp is a temproary measure, there is resistance to the creation of basic infrastructure. Even after decades and generations have passed through Zarqa, no sewer lines have been installed. Open sanitation canals run through the middle of the streets, just one of the many health hazards confronted by residents and another reason the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena who work here can expect to stay busy.

Three Domincan sisters help run the clinic, which treats about 140 patients each day. The small staff currently includes just two harried doctors, one male, one female. In this patriarchal society few women will agree to be treated by a male doctor. Sister Habiba Touma, the clinic’s director, hopes soon to hire another female physician to keep up with demand. Every day the staff is forced to turn people away. The sisters live near the clinic and each day pass through the Muslim streets of the camp in their habits. Zarqa has a reputation as a cauldron of Palestinian resentment—a one-time “most wanted terrorist” in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (literally “one from Zarqa”), grew up here. But the sisters say residents treat them with respect, even affection.

There is certainly no indication of anti-Western or anti-Christian hostility among the families visiting the clinic this afternoon. Patients come from all around Zarqa and from the city outside the camp. Sister Habiba says health services to the camp residents are paltry at best and thousands crowd the U.N.-run clinic. “This clinic is too good and too cheap!” she says cheerfully. The clinic charges minuscule fees for its services, but “whoever can’t afford it, that’s fine, too,” says Sister Habiba.

The health problems of the people are manifold, many associated with the poor conditions in the camp itself. In addition to the general overcrowding and poor sanitation, unregulated industrial sites have sprung up around the community, exposing the children to industrial dust and pollutants. Asthma is an acute problem. Poverty among the Palestinians here is extreme. “Malnutrition is a problem here,” Sister Habiba says. The people also suffer from kidney troubles and many congenital disabilities related to the high rate of communal intermarriage, which persists despite the Palestinians’ dislocation. People generally marry only from within the village they left behind in Israel, the sisters say, even when that village has become an increasingly distant memory.

A young man who grew up, like Abu Musab, in Zarqa and now sells pharmacuetical supplies to the clinic interrupts Sister Habiba’s tour, excited to see a group of U.S. journalists and eager to get a message through to America. “Bush is a liar,” he says. “And bin Laden is the same liar.”

“A human being is a human being,” he says earnestly. “I am a Muslim, but before Islam my ancestors were Christians. We were sons of Jesus and then later sons of Mohammed. When they meet, they will never stop crying about what is going on,” he says.

Sister Habiba is happy to finish the tour. She has a lot to do this afternoon. The next day she will be returning to her native Baghdad to assume a leadership position with her order, which will bring more difficult—and increasingly dangerous—work to do in this her 50th year of religious life. The reporters are incredulous. “What were you, 9 years old when you joined?” one asks.

She ponders a moment. “Ten,” she says with a laugh. “I think I was 10.”

Guests of a Nation

A young man drew a primitive outline of a handgun and a bullet. A small illustration like this had accompanied a demand for $50,000 that his family received the night before they fled Baghdad, he says. The family knew such a message was no empty threat to Christians in Iraq. When you receive a note like that “you must go,” he says, throwing up his hands. “We told them, ‘Don’t kill anyone; we are leaving.’” Did he know the people who were threatening him? “Of course,” says Raed, 17 now, 11 then. They were his neighbors. Like thousands of others, Raed escaped with his mother and sister to Amman, where they maintain a tentative, frustrating existence, not as official refugees in Jordan but as guests of the nation.

Chaldean Catholic families are gathered, as they are every week, at a parish house maintained by a group of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Amman. The Christians, dislocated by years of violence or running from kidnapping or death threats, live in densely populated neighborhoods in Amman. They come for services and catechism offered by this small community.

The border with Iraq is more or less open, and even the Jordanian authorities are not certain how many Iraqis there are in the desert kingdom. It may be as many as 500,000; a significant percentage of the total, whatever it is, are Christians. Though many receive a stipend from the United Nations, the Iraqis face severe financial constraints in Amman. Most, even those who were once people of means, now struggle to put daily bread on the table.

“It’s very difficult” for the Iraqi Christians in Jordan, Sister Warde-Rose Keirouz allows, but certainly preferable to conditions back in Baghdad, which for some could mean certain death. “Jordan is a poor country, and it is doing what it can.”

As “guests,” not official refugees, the Iraqis cannot legally work in Jordan—those who are caught in “illegal” jobs are deported—and children cannot enroll in state schools. “Some of our Iraqi families have children who have never been to school,” Sister Warde-Rose says.

The education of this lost refugee generation is a major preoccupation of a community that once prided itself on the educational attainment of its young people. Another concern is getting out of Amman to America. This is a dim prospect: only 6,600 Iraqi Christians of all denominations were accepted as refugees in 2010. A bright young woman who hopes to go to America some day and to attend college—somehow—reports that she has come of age in Amman, six years after fleeing Baghdad, without once attending school.

The sisters have come to have a hand in resolving the many settlement, employment and housing issues of the Iraqi newcomers, finding groceries and, before the numbers became too great, attempting to run a kind of primary school themselves for the children. Now they try to find donations that allow Chaldean Catholic children to attend private schools, one less worry for their exasperated parents. This year they found placements for 100 Iraqi children.

“The Christians in Iraq are now just waiting for the opportunity to leave,” Sister Warde-Rose says. “They lost their faith; they lost their security.” They may have had wealth; they may have had shops and property; but it has all been left behind in Iraq.

“Only a small number plan to go back,” Sister Warde-Rose says. “Most are hoping to go to the United States or Europe or Canada.” Real peace and security in Iraq remains a hoped-for outcome among the sisters and their “guests.”

“God can do miracles,” Sister Warde-Rose says. “I’m not very optimistic, but I think our Lord can do anything.”

“We need St. Francis to help us,” she adds with a smile.

View a slideshow report from Jordan.

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Charles Erlinger | 2/6/2011 - 3:44pm
Excellent.  Can we have something like this every week, or at least every month?  Thanks.
NORMA NUNAG | 2/5/2011 - 3:15pm
Thank you for this piece.  I will email my friends to read this.  Spreading this piece of information is very important, if we want our Christian faith to be visible  in places as this one!
Joyce Polistena | 2/5/2011 - 7:20am
Inspiring of course, but also this sequence of stories speaks volumes about the role of women in the Church. Praise God and all those women and men who answer, "Yes!" to His Word.
Thank you. 
Craig McKee | 2/4/2011 - 8:23pm
Memo to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton:

I want my TAX DOLLARS to support this kind of activity. NOT your WARS!