We Europeans have the natural tendency to see things in the European way. Well, maybe it’s not just European, but very human to always see ourselves at the centre of world happenings, to think of our own social, cultural and political codes as the normal ones, even the (only) good ones. Being very interested in the rest of the world – and Europeans have always been – we receive with interest news about what happens elsewhere: the Arab Spring, wars in Iraq (how many already in the last decades?), Libya, Syria and Sudan, violence in Palestine, Turkey, Egypt… hunger in the horn of Africa... Many Europeans may even know, or at least have the moral certainty, that in many of these conflicts some European governments, industries and interests have been a part of the cause, are part of the problem. Many Europeans also know that the EU, some European governments and European NGOs are providing humanitarian assistance and development aid to these countries. But all this is “there”, not “here”. The war in Syria is there – what a pity. We even shake our heads and feel at unease for an instant, but continue our normal lives. Millions of refugees from that war arrive to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan – what a pity, but we continue our normal lives.
In Caritas, a world-wide family of more than 160 national member organisations, when we see all this human distress and suffering, we organise help to support our sister organisations in these countries. This is our mission: to help where people need it most. In this context, we can also speak about European generosity.
But suddenly part of the problem that was “there” swapped over and is now “here”. Last summer and over the whole autumn and winter, more than one million refugees from our neighbouring regions arrived at European shores. It could have been only an “issue”, complex to deal with of course, but it was artificially made into a “crisis” by European politicians and media.
Two antagonist positions seemed to have appeared in Europe: the rejecting and the welcoming positions. But things are never just black and white. Caritas was and is part of the welcoming and caring Europe.
At the same time, our sister organisations in the Middle East have been claiming and challenging us: “engage more in peace building”; “don’t forget to support the neighbouring countries to Syria”; “don’t allow that the Christians, other minorities, even the qualified Muslims are taken from this part of the world”; “contribute that we all can build together our countries after the war”. I remember one strong appeal from the Director of Caritas Jordan. I spoke with him and we exchanged our views and positions.
But, I thought that this simple exchange over the phone was not enough; I sensed that. I should learn to see the reality from the perspective of the Middle East also, to put myself in the shoes of the Christians of the Holy Land – the whole Middle East – where Christianity has its roots. Wael, the Director of Caritas Jordan, welcomed this idea and invited me to come. So, I spent a week in Jordan, at Caritas, not on an official visit, but just as a European colleague/brother/fellow human being to experience the work of Caritas at the grassroots level, to listen to the employees and volunteers and share in their daily endeavours, and to speak with and listen to the refugees and the people in poverty Caritas attends to. My son, student of mechanical engineering, joined me in this experience.
Jordan is a small country of 9.5 million inhabitants. It plays an important role in the very precarious stability of the whole region. Already the previous King Hussein, whom I admire, was a champion of peace and dialogue. Jordan has received in the last decades not only millions of Palestinian refugees (after 1948, after 1967, after…) who are already integrated into the Jordanian society, but it has also opened its doors to refugees from the wars of Iraq and Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and Sudan. Nowadays around 2 million refugees and migrants live in Jordan. Guiding words from the current King Abdullah helps the Jordanian society to continue being welcoming.
Caritas is a mission, not a job. We met many people in Caritas Jordan, very friendly and welcoming, very devoted, very professional. The spirit of mission that everybody there is living is difficult to transmit. I saw there an extremely high level of commitment and devotion: everybody is giving 200% for their work, everybody smiling (and meaning it!) to anyone who enters Caritas’ doors, offering very friendly treatment to the people in need, regardless of their faith. For Caritas, the satisfaction of the person who receives services is crucial; therefore, they have also in place quality checks and complaints mechanisms for the beneficiaries. The mission is clear and is made into reality: in all things to love and serve (as Saint Ignatius said).
Caritas Jordan is a very professional organisation, which offers a variety of services through a holistic approach that has the person and all his/her needs at the centre: health, education, humanitarian assistance, child-friendly spaces, awareness-raising for women on education, discussion with parents on domestic violence, etc. Having seen different centres, we could notice that each one has its own style: one underlining efficiency, another underlining fraternity, spirituality, friendship or innovation. For example, the Restaurant of Mercy is a soup kitchen that is more than just a soup kitchen: it is open seven days a week for anyone who is in need of a good warm meal (no questions asked). The kitchen is mostly run by volunteers, even some Iraqi volunteers, and young people from parishes. Many others come there to serve.
We listened to the stories of people in need who come from Syria and Iraq. Syrians want to go back to Syria, while Iraqis have given up hope and will not return. Sad. We also listened to elderly Jordanians living in poverty, living in very poor conditions, but so friendly and welcoming. One elderly lady even sang a song for us. We listened to Christian families, to the mothers and their concerns and hopes for their children.
Islam and Christianity, a difficult topic because the reality is challenging, but so often misused to bring more suffering to people. It is not easy to live as Christian minority in a Muslim country, but the roots are clear and the mission is clear: to serve and love the people and the country. It is important to listen: European paradigms are not helpful to understand the situation. It is important to empty oneself of assumptions and ways of thinking. The witness of Christians in that part of the world is incredible. In Jordan you are Christian; it doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Maronite, Latin, Chaldean or Melkite. Of course you belong to one tradition or another, but you are Christian. The role of Caritas and of Christian schools is so important: in order to love and serve, only the highest quality in education and service is good enough. Very often Muslims acknowledge this quality and honesty of Christians. Christians are so needed in the Middle East!
What can I say about enjoying Jordanian hospitality and gastronomy! And we laughed a lot with the people: with people in need, with people on the street (the boy from the fruit and vegetable shop with whom we discussed about Real Madrid or Barcelona – a very important topic in Jordan), with Caritas friends… And shared the joy of life of Jordanians!
Thank you Caritas Jordan! Thank you to all people in Jordan who welcomed us (so many names to keep in my heart)! Thank you to the Caritas organisations who contribute to Caritas’ work in the Middle East!
But let us also reinforce our engagement here in Europe for peace in the Middle East and everywhere! So that the melting pot of diversity can flourish again! Christians are so important there, as are Yazidis, Jews, Kurds, Shiites, Druses… The Middle East is not “there”, it is “here”. We shall make an effort to shift our understanding of the world from Europe to the Mediterranean as the axis (the sea in the middle (“Medi-“) of the earth (“-terra…”)) and re-establish spaces of dialogue, mutual understanding, common growth and beauty. The history shows many inspiring examples.
In this Year of Mercy, let’s pray and act! For peace in the Middle East, for peace in Europe, for peace in Africa, the Mediterranean and everywhere.
PEACE FOR ALL, NOW!