Forming Church Leadership
Inspiring the Faithful in Jordan “They aren’t inward-focused; they are reaching out to those in need” text by Dale Gavlak with photographs by Nader Daoud
n a winter night in Amman, chilling rain has cleared the streets of their typical bustle. Yet, despite the dreary weather, the city’s people can still be found gathered in the comfort of their hearths — such as that of the convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, now ablaze with song, warm fellowship, conversation and fun. “The Spirit gathers us together; Hallelujah,” sing some 35 Iraqi youth, belting out a jaunty tune in Arabic. Two Lebanese Franciscan sisters lead the choir: Sister Hanne Saad, a septuagenarian described as a ‘second mother’ by group members, and Sister Nisreen Freyha, herself just 32 years old. A bittersweet mood prevails at this month’s meeting, as the youth group bids farewell to two brothers bound for resettlement as refugees in Windsor, Canada. The pair’s lives were upended 2014, when ISIS overran their city of Qaraqosh in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. “When ISIS first entered our area, the Iraqi army and police ran off, leaving us without protection,” says one of the brothers, Ra’ed Omar, a 26-year-old graphic artist. “We had to run for our lives. We had to leave everything behind; otherwise, we would be killed,” he says, pain still evident in his dark eyes.
Others in the group have similar stories: Following the invasion of their historically Christian communities, each of them was forced to make a life-changing decision in the face of brutality: pay a protection tax, convert to Islam or flee. The fear of death hung in the air. Yet for all they have suffered, there remains an abiding sense of hope and optimism. In particular, the group members say their sojourn in Jordan has been spiritually transformative. As they reflect on their lives left behind in Iraq and the uncertain journey ahead — driven by numerous necessities, including political security and financial stability — they arrive at a shared conclusion: After being gravely tested, their faith has grown in the loving care of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who have spent years encouraging their spiritual formation and catechesis. Mr. Omar says the program facilitated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary involves a mix of prayer, teaching, discussions, spiritual exercises, meditations and recreation. At times, the gathering may also attend Mass or host a discussion with a priest. “They have influenced me a lot. I’ve learned so much,” Mr. Omar
says, as steaming cups of strong, sugary tea and nut-filled sweets are passed around the room. “It’s a great atmosphere. I was far away from the church in Iraq, but in Jordan I came closer to the church, to God and his people.” He adds, “It’s been an opportunity, too, to learn to love others without expecting anything in return.” Indeed, the youth group extends outreach to Iraqi children, orphans and others in desperate situations. Hasnaa Nazar, a 24-year-old Chaldean Catholic, was working on her final year studying electrical engineering in Mosul when her university education was cut short by the invasion. “I would like to be able to complete my studies and find work,” the lively brunette says. Following the death of her father, she says, she has had to think differently about her future with her mother and brother. “It’s important to have stability and security — both personally and for my nation.” She continues: “The situation in Iraq has been extremely difficult for us to bear. ISIS took literally everything; I have had to begin life again from zero — no, maybe minus one, because we didn’t know anyone in Jordan. But we are positive.”
The official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)