27 May 2014

The rest of the Jordan story, 2007-2015

When I joined a tour of Jordan in 2007, my new dozen-or-so companions were fresh from a week in Egypt with tour leader Jihad. After Jordan he would take them on to tour his native Syria and to my everlasting regret, I had not opted for the extra week. Jihad was a knowledgeable and cordial professional.

One day we descended into the Jordan Valley to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” where we plainly saw the city of Jericho across the river. Bethany is located in the land of the ancient Moabites. The site is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, as recognized by various Christian faiths. Here, the muddy Jordan River is only about thirty feet wide; the other side, the West Bank of Israel, was fenced and fortified. I sensed Jihad's hesitation to go near the bank and he stayed well away from it: noted but not understood. Was his sensitivity as a Moslem or as a Syrian national? There was no visible military presence.

Aside: The baptism site had only opened six years earlier, about the time Pope John Paul II visited. Further excavation and construction was clearly ongoing. Excavation shows the ruins of a church built in the fifth century and possibly earlier. At the time, the only church there was Greek Orthodox, but a Russian Orthodox church was being built. Documentation of the site comes from many early manuscript sources, including fourth century pilgrims and St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, who came a bit later. Later the same day we viewed the famous sixth century Madaba mosaic map of the Middle East, another element that was key to locating the baptismal site.

 My transfer from the Dead Sea to Amman airport was scheduled for late night. It was totally unrequired and unnecessary, but Jihad decided to wait with me in the hotel lobby until the ride arrived. He had already explained that his given name had none of the connotations hyped by the western media. We talked at length. His home is in Aleppo, Syria; in a photograph, his two sons are aged fourteen and nine. Jihad was surprised to hear that I had seen the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. In the 1960s, friends of friends had taken me into the mountains for a leisurely lunch. Passing the extensive camp was a raw reality check. The camp still exists today after so many intervening years, having grown exponentially. We mused. Jordan was being forced, as we spoke, to create camps for the thousands of Iraquis then flooding into Jordan.
Five years later in 2012 we learned that Jihad, like millions of Syrians, was affected by the bloody civil war now raging in his home country. Adventures Abroad, the Canadian company that arranged the tour, keeps in touch with past clients. Not just promoting new trips, but adding personal touches about their tour leaders. News from Jihad was harrowing. During the battle of Aleppo his family had to flee their apartment; they had to keep moving to avoid gun battles and firefights from both sides; he was separated from his wife and children in the chaos; eventually he managed to escape to Turkey where, with difficulty, long-distance contact with his wife was resumed; all their possessions had been burnt to the ground in the city destruction; his greatest fear was that his two boys would be forcibly seized to fight for either side—a practice that can also include ransom for their release.

Jihad's small family by then was among thousands of homeless refugees hoping for visas into Turkey, visas facilitated by bribe money. In scattered groups near the border, the homeless had not even the basic "amenities" of a camp for cold comfort with winter coming. Partly through donations from Adventures Abroad and its client base, some financial assistance was possible.

Jihad, Weam, and their boys Ahmed and Omar were joyfully reunited in Istanbul four months later in 2013. A happy but temporary ending for one family among millions.

Turkey is not the only country crowded with refugees from Middle East wars. Jordan, relatively stable but small in population, has absorbed almost two million Palestinians over the years, with a quarter-million still living in refugee camps. Accommodating the homeless inevitably produces its own cultural and social tensions. More recently, over 60,000 Syrian refugees have poured in to strain Jordan's limited resources. A month ago a new refugee camp opened was on this stretch of the eastern desert near Azraq.[1]

It's almost impossible for us in Canada to imagine the anxiety and despair experienced by displaced people. People displaced and families torn by incredible violence that we have never known. It's a big thing for us that we could help one family, but a tiny drop in a sea of misery.

[1] Yolande Knell, "Syrian refugees finding new dignity in Azraq camp," BBC News, Mid-East(http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27545397 : accessed 24 May 2014).

2014 Update from Jihad:
At last I made it , I am now on the soil of Sweden. I arrived last Sunday and sought asylum in Gothenburg city. I am now in a refugee host center where I got registered. I was given an appointment for a detailed interview in September of this year after which period I would be granted permanent residence which would allow me to apply officially to get the rest of my family to Sweden. I am very happy that I can see a light in the end of the tunnel to end the situation of my dispersed family and get them united after 3 years.

2015 Update from Jihad:
After all the struggles, pain and fear we have been through over the past 3 years we got reunited in 
Sweden. It is a period of joy and re-adjustment for us. We send our warmest wishes to you and all 
friends who gave us a hand in our difficult time. THANK YOU!

"Jordan's King Abdullah calls Canada a vital ally," 29 April 2015, The Globe and Mail (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/king-of-jordan-key-canadian-anti-terrorism-ally-greeted-in-ottawa/article24166343/ : accessed 29 April 2015).
[Excerpt]: Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country, which the king said amounts to 20 to 25 per cent of his country’s entire population.
I keep frightening Americans by saying that’s like having 65 million Canadians crossing the border in two years,” Abdullah said.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved. 

No comments: