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27 June 2016

Counselling victims of a war that doesn’t discriminate between generations

Counselling victims of a war that doesn’t discriminate between generations

For the last three years, Christian volunteers, trained by Alliance member Bible Society, have helped refugees to talk about their experiences, face the horror and think about questions such as: 'where is God in my suffering?'"

It's a bright, sunny morning in the Jordanian town of Madaba. Parents are taking their children to school. Bread sellers are pushing their carts, laden with wares, along the dusty roads. And the first of the day's tourists are arriving at St George's Church.

It's a significant stop on the pilgrimage trail as it contains a sixth century mosaic map of the Holy Land. It's the oldest map showing this part of the world still in existence. Time and weather have fragmented its edges. There are blank spots where there were once towns, mountains and rivers. It's a metaphor for what's happening in the Middle East today, as war forces millions of people to flee their homes, obliterating cities, communities and lives. 

Some 1.6 million people have fled the wars in Syria and Iraq and headed to Jordan in recent years. The population has risen by an estimated 20 per cent. But what do you do if that number of traumatised people – young and old – arrives in your country? I spent a week with the Bible Society of Jordan to find out part of the answer.

For the last three years, Christian volunteers, trained by Bible Society, have helped refugees to talk about their experiences, face the horror and think about questions such as: 'where is God in my suffering?'.

They do all this using a counseling scheme devised by the American Bible Society after the Rwanda genocide. It's now used in 70 countries and 174 different languages. In Jordan, over three years, tens of thousands of people – both adults and children, Muslims and Christians – have received the trauma healing.

And I'm here in Madaba to meet one such family. Wedad is 37 and the mother of six children. The family fled their home in Damascus in 2014 when their home was bombed.

"We stayed for three years of war," she says. "Bombing destroyed half of our home. We left after the chemical bombs. 

"My brother died. He was killed in cross fire. They just left his body in the street. He didn't have a proper burial.

"It was emotionally exhausting. We got to the point where we didn't have food and my littlest child had a rash on her arms because she was so afraid of the bombing."

Indeed, the children were the biggest concern for Wedad and her husband Khaled. 'They were all traumatised and none of them could sleep," says Wedad. "When we came here, fear had overcome the children. "Whenever they heard fireworks or planes flying above the house they would get very scared. 

"They would start crying and they wouldn't sleep at night. Some of them had allergies on their skin from the fear." 

Then, they were introduced to a local vicar, Pastor Amjad. He and his wife are also the trauma counselors for Madaba. All six children went on the specially-designed trauma healing course for children.

"Now all of that has changed," says Wedad. "He drew the feelings out of the children. "It was amazing that they could go through that trauma healing and come out of the misery that they were in."

The children are indeed bright-eyed, friendly and engaging. They draw pictures of flowers and love hearts. They sing a series of their favourite songs, ending, somewhat strangely, with the Arabic version of Jingle Bells, which is a trifle dislocating on a warm, sunny day in the Middle East. But no matter, presumably you can't sing it if your heart is gripped by fear, so it's an indicator that the children are beginning to recover from their terrible experiences. 

Six-year-old Rawand is fascinated by the contents of my rucksack. "Are there any sweets?'" Sadly no. But I show her my voice recorder, we muck about with my notepad and pencils, I haul some lipstick out of a pocket and she gets a daub of that. Normal stuff. Abnormal childhood.

Rawand then adds to the poignancy by reading some sentences she's learning in English. "I jump on the bed," "I played with my cat in the yard," "I talked on the phone with my friend." Not: "I saw people shot dead in front of me," "I had terrible nightmares," "I had to flee my home."

And there isn't a dry eye in the house when 12-year-old Amal recites a poem that she's written in Arabic. "No-one knows what I went through," the poem goes. "I pray for God to protect Jordan and for Syria to go back to its former glory." 

Wedad, Khaled and the children now attend a church established by Pastor Amjad for refugees. Two hundred people go every week. Eighty per cent of them, like Wedad and her family, are from a Muslim background.

But Pastor Amjad is dying of cancer. He is painfully thin. "Why," I ask him, "are you offering trauma healing to refugees in your dying days?"

"This is the heart of Christ," he says. "God put them on my heart. God brought the Syrians to me so I can serve them.

"I hear so many stories. They come with very negative thoughts, with hate in their hearts. They want revenge. But with the Spirit's work, we have made a difference.

"We focus mainly on the children as they are damaged from the war. If we work hard on them, they will grow up to be a new generation.

"I'm not doing it with my own strength," he adds, "but with the Lord's. If I'm not serving, what am I doing?" 

JORDAN'S REFUGEE CRISIS IN NUMBERS

  • 1.6 million refugees from Syria and Iraq
  • 20 per cent increase in the country's population
  • Tens of thousands have received trauma healing from Bible Society over the last three years
  • Between 33,000 and 35,000 people each year receive practical aid and support from Bible Society, including mattresses, nappies, clothes and basic food supplies

As a member of the Evangelical Alliance, Bible Society is one of 600 organisations supported by the Alliance. If you would like your organisation to become a member of the Evangelical Alliance, visit eauk.org/join 

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