AL HASHMI ASHMALI, Jordan (BP)–Their children don’t go to school, they have no access to healthcare, and their husbands wander from country to country looking for work and a way to gain permanent resident status for their families.
They are the wives of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi refugees who have fled the unstable country in the past six to seven years. Many are barely surviving; most have clung to what one Baptist worker* calls an unrealistic “pipe dream” that the nightmare will end and the dream of a better life will begin.
“They live lives on hold,” the worker said. “They live lives interrupted. They are always waiting for life somewhere else.”
This waiting makes helping particularly difficult for those who know of their pain and their need, the worker said.
“They need help,” the worker said. “The women need someone to work with them, someone to teach them to write and to sew, someone who will listen to their concerns.”
A group of women from a team of Baptist relief workers who were diverted Sept. 2 from Iraq to Jordan were able to get just a taste of just how great the needs are. They accepted an invitation Sept. 7 to participate in a distribution project at the Islamic Women’s Center at Al Hashmi Ashmali, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jordan.
The relief workers helped distribute diapers, baby formula, bottles, baby food and clothes to more than 200 women and children. One of the workers also brought candy to distribute to the older children playing outside the center.
Covered and shrouded Muslim women from Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Syria crowded the locked doorway waiting for access to the supplies, while children as well as young adults played together in the courtyard and grabbed for candy.
The Muslim women smiled and chatted in Arabic at the relief workers, but unlike the residents of Jordan, the predominantly Iraqi group said they did not speak English for the most part. Most of the women preferred not to be photographed but instead held their babies up in their arms for instant digital pictures that were shown back to them immediately to assure the women that their own image was not photographed.
The coordinator of the group had previously told the workers that the women at the center were mostly without the large extended families that typically would teach them how to care for children, sew and cook. She said many of the women and their children were vastly undernourished; they have no stoves or refrigerators and survive on a daily diet of pita bread, tea and sugar. As a result they have “weak bones and awful teeth,” she said.
The only representation of America — which they instantly link with Christianity — is the image of women on the television show “Baywatch,” the coordinator told the group.
“Everything you do to counter that is a witness,” the worker said, referring to the relief workers’ appearance and attitude. “Share who you are — a Christian.”
At one point, one relief worker later told the Florida Baptist Witness, though she knew the Muslim women already had been told the gifts were from Christians in America who loved them and wanted to help, she felt she needed to tell some of the women more directly why she went to the center.
“If we are to be obedient to God, He says we are to love you,” the relief worker said she told the Muslim women. “God says bring these things to the Muslims.”
The coordinator of the effort described the relief workers’ willingness to travel to the neighborhood to offer help as a “foreign concept” to the Muslim women.
“To come from America to bring the women simple things is odd to them,” she said. “We don’t know how God will use this to speak to people.”
One of the workers said she believes their interaction with the Muslim women was a chance to demonstrate Christian love, quoting in part from a Bible verse, “You will show them you belong to me if you love one another.”
“I think we did that,” she said.
*Names are withheld for security reasons. Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness on assignment with the Southern Baptist relief team in Jordan.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FOOD DISTRO, “GRANDPA” and SHARING PROVERBS.