It was cold and damp in the water-stained apartment in Jordan that is now the sparsely furnished home of a Syrian refugee family. But the welcoming smile of Alima, the mother of five, brought warmth. (She requested that we not use her real name for fear of safety.) Though I had traveled 6,000 miles to be there, Alima’s smile — and the tea her son served — made me feel immediately at home.
Then Alima began to talk about her life. Her smile quickly faded, and a look of worry and despair took over. Her husband’s medical problems make it difficult for him to work, she told me. Two of her children need surgery to remove their tonsils. Her youngest child is 6 years old and has never been to school. All of her children suffer from psychological trauma from their experiences in Syria.
“They lost their childhood,” she says.
Alima was one of several refugees I met when I traveled to Jordan last month as part of my work for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a humanitarian aid organization in the United States. It was my first trip to the Middle East, and it helped me understand the struggles of the people we serve and our obligations as Christians to help them.
Refugees fleeing active war zones usually must leave quickly. They bring very few possessions with them, and sometimes are forced to even leave family members behind. Families that do leave together can become separated once they cross a border.
Salwaa, a 74-year-old Syrian refugee I met in Jordan, has eight children. Two of her sons are in Brazil, one son is with her in Jordan, and her five other children are still in Syria. She has not seen in her daughters in almost five years. “It’s hard because they are my children,” Salwaa says. “No one leaves their children by choice.”
Salwaa also has grandchildren that she’s never met. The pain of this separation and the worry over her children living in a warzone brought her to tears.
As a Christian, I turn to the teachings of Jesus to guide my life. I believe we are all part of one family. That means welcoming the stranger, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and working for the good of all people.