AMMAN – In August 2014, hundreds of Iraqi refugees, fleeing Daesh, flock to the Marka-Hashemi neighborhood, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Amman, near the Latin Parish of Marka. Father Khalil Jaar opened a free “evening school” for all those children who had no place elsewhere and who are waiting with their families to get a visa to reach a host country.
A vast courtyard filled with students in gray and red uniforms. It’s time for recreation. The children have fun and pose for a photo. Suddenly, a bell sounds: Abouna Jaar sounds the hour of prayer. The children line up with discipline in front of the chaplain and sing a powerful song. It’s the Our Father in Aramaic, the language of Christ, which young children also call “the language of Christians”, the language in which they were used to pray, and which some speak fluently. Realizing the linguistic richness of their culture and “that they do not forget their roots,” Father Jaar instituted this daily Our-Father, learning this prayer by heart.
From humanitarian urgency to the creation of a school
In August 2014, this tireless parish priest of Marka faces the arrival of more than 800 Iraqi Christian families hunted by Daesh. He speaks of the difficult first months of these families. “At first, everyone was sleeping here. We turned the school into a giant dormitory. It was hard, we had a lot of sick people. Then, little by little, thanks to generous wealthy families from Amman, we were able to rent apartments in which two or three families settled. In addition to material worries, Father Jaar recalls the psychological distress, and recounts how he led children, scared by the noise of planes’ takeoff, to Marka airport to show them that it was not about warplanes. “There is not one family here who has not lost a loved one,” he sums up.
Once the state of “humanitarian crisis” passed, “the evening school” was born in February 2015. The school today welcomes, free, 200 children at night, in addition to 100 children integrated with Jordanian schoolchildren in the morning. “These children had no place elsewhere,” continues Father Jaar. In a few months, the establishment becomes a pillar in the lives of many families. Cafés for women, games for children, Masses and prayers: everything is organized around the parish. “Some people were scared to go out and still are, but this school has brought them joy,” continues Father. Aware that each expense is a sacrifice because some families cannot properly feed their children, he has gone so far as to transform an old storage room into a hairdressing salon: in exchange for compensation, a young trained hairdresser cuts hair from all the little community!
Although he can count on the generous support of the Embassy of France that finances the schooling of all these children, Father Jaar does not hide his concern. “There are still more than 220 Iraqi out-of-school children in the neighborhood, but we do not have the funds to accommodate them. The Iraqi situation has sadly gone to the background in terms of humanitarian urgency. In addition to the 800 families already in his care, Father Jaar has recently been entrusted with the care of 355 Chaldean families following the departure of the Chaldean priest to Australia.
A united community, “awakened” by Iraqi distress
In recent weeks, the parish has also opened a free clinic because medical costs remain very high for Iraqis. The entire community around him, Christian and Muslim, also benefits. “Among the Jordanians, many isolated elderly people cannot move because the hospital is too far away or too expensive. Marka is a poor neighborhood.” A nurse comes three times a week and the doctor travels punctually. “We hope to be able to finance compensation so that she can come regularly because the needs are immense: just today, we had 56 patients!”
Father Jaar also does not intend to forget all these young Iraqis, deprived of the right to study in Jordan and, what is more, to work. In order to better prepare them for the future that awaits them in their future host country – Australia, Canada or even in Europe – the chaplain has created a computer center. Every day, 20 young Iraqis come to take classes to prepare for the ICDL (International Computer Driving License), an essential test to find work afterwards. “The majority of these young people could not continue their studies because of Daesh,” he explains. This training also benefits young Jordanians without resources. “I want everything that is made available to Iraqis to benefit my parishioners as well,” he summarizes. “Whether they are Jordanians or Iraqis, I say to these young people every day that they must not waste a minute of their lives.”
This mix between the different existing communities is a difficult but successful challenge for the parish of Marka which has found a new breath since the arrival of the Iraqis. “You only have to see the number of young Jordanians who volunteered to help these families! This Iraqi community has awakened my parish,” says Father Jaar.
For his part, the priest from Bethlehem saw this apostolate as a radical call that changed his life. “When these families arrived, I realized that God had sent me here to take care of the Iraqis while I was wondering what I would do in this parish. They are martyrs, witnesses. I often have in mind this Gospel sentence that says, ‘They will persecute you because of your Faith!’ That’s what they have lived! Yes, I rub shoulders with the saints of the 21st century.”