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27 February 2018

Providing refuge for the Iraqi victims of IS

Providing refuge for the Iraqi victims of IS

The Jordanian woman inspired to feed, clothe and heal the traumatised refugees in her hometown.

More than 1 million people have taken refuge in Jordan from the vicious conflicts in neighbouring Syria and Iraq with Islamic State (IS) that began in 2014. For Maran Maayah AbuJabar, CEO of a Jordanian charity for refugees, the human cost of the conflict became real when she met a group of Iraqi refugees sheltering in a local church.

"They looked like me, they dressed like me," Maran recalls. "They were doctors, nurses, well-educated people, who looked like my uncles, my aunts. They were on the floor, with nothing, traumatised. The kids couldn't speak – they were in complete shock."

So she began taking beds, food and meeting other needs. These simple gestures have developed into a broad program for humanitarian action through Al-Hadaf, her charity based in Amman, Jordan. It provides meals, emotional support and clothing to the refugees there.

Maran says it is very important to her that they are served with dignity. Al-Hadaf doesn't just give out food packages – they present them as a gift, wrapped in ribbons. They don't just cook meals – they set out the centre like a restaurant, with tables, chairs and flowers, and the team eat meals together with the refugees. And they don't just give out clothes – they have created a secondhand clothes boutique, where families can come and 'shop' using vouchers.

Maran says, "We only take clothes that we would wear... that have a high level of quality. We dry clean them, we iron them, and we set them out in a boutique style. Each family comes with a coupon, and they 'shop' in that boutique. It gives dignity to these families. And it's so funny, they will come and bargain, 'No, this is worth 2 coupons, not 3 coupons!' We love it. It's like being in real life again. 

"We just share these moments of being normal again. This is something we're very passionate about, keeping their dignity."

Though Al-Hadaf is now busy meeting the needs of the refugee crisis, the charity began 12 years ago to support Jordanian orphans, after Maran experienced a dramatic change of heart. "A video changed my life," she says. "I saw a video of a child being abused by a care-giver in an orphanage in Jordan, and another child was videoing it.

"I decided at that moment, I'm going to take care of these children, in my country, in my area, in the Middle East and in Jordan. That is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."

Alongside practical support, Al-Hadaf also provides treatment for trauma through workshops and art therapy. This began in response to seeing how emotionally damaged some refugees were: "This young girl… would come to our office and sit in the corner, completely traumatised - we could see how scared she was," recalls Maran. "She never spoke to anyone."

After several months of taking part in workshops, this girl felt able to share her harrowing story: "She had gone into labour the day IS were coming to her town. Over loudspeakers there were announcements saying, 'You have 24 hours to leave or we'll cut off your head.' She went to every doctor, asking them to deliver her baby, but they were all too busy trying to escape. Finally, she found one who agreed, and as soon as she had delivered the baby, she fled."

This girl was given practical aid through Al-Hadaf, as well as emotional support and English classes. Maran says, "This mum is amazing. She's back to a normal young lady who's 20 years old."

Another woman, a widow, said she would be dead if it wasn't for Al-Hadaf. Maran explains, "Her husband was a professor at the University of Mosul. They were very rich, and her husband was very well-respected in Mosul… [they had] a four-storey house, cars, all their money was with the Bank of Mosul. But IS took their money, and they became homeless overnight.  

"He comes to Jordan, goes to take a food package, and while he was in the line, he had a stroke and died. This widow thought she had nothing left. She had chosen a day to take her own life."

Art therapy is particularly helpful for children, helping them to work through the emotions from their terrifying experiences. Maran said you can see the change in their paintings as they progress. "At first it was black black black, very dark colours. But after a while, after five or six months, there were faces with eyes, smiles, with names, which was very different from what we used to see. "This is where we found out this works with people with this level of trauma, who can't even speak about it, they can't even speak about what they've seen."

Maran almost had to stop the work of Al-Hadaf due to lack of funding. She had applied for grants 40 times. "I was rejected for being a woman, I was rejected for working in the Middle East - they said it's an unstable region to fund any project. So I prayed. I said, 'You know what God, I'm done. I applied for funds, I've been rejected 40 times. It's your turn.'

"The next day, someone from Open Doors came to my office. I had never approached Open Doors, never applied to them to become a partner, I didn't even know much about Open Doors.

"A few days after I got this money from Open Doors, they said, 'We want to honour your vision, your heart. This is for your work.' I was in tears because I had almost closed the centre. I was done, I was very exhausted. I was at the weakest point of my life. But in my weakness, He is strong, this is what I've learned."

Open Doors is now Al-Hadaf's main partner, and Maran relishes the prayer support as well as the necessary income. "With the body of Christ," she says, "you can be weak, you can cry with them, hug them. We are just one big happy family." Open Doors is currently running the Hope for the Middle East campaign, a global, seven year campaign mobilising Christians around the world to stand with families like those being served by Al-Hadaf. Visit the Open Doors website to find other ways to get involved: opendoorsuk.org

Father Daniel supports displaced Iraqi Christians in Erbil, Northern Iraq. In 2014, his church, Mar Elia, found itself hosting 1,600 people, including 350 children, who had fled from the Nineveh Plain to escape IS.

He says the children were incredibly traumatised when they first arrived at the church; some would wake in the night screaming 'IS is coming!'. They displayed aggressive behaviour and would break games instead of play with them.

Open Doors gave Father Daniel and his team training in how to help these children deal with the trauma. He saw their artwork change. "Early on, we asked them to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of them would draw themselves in the army, saying that they wanted to kill ISIS. I was very worried by this," Father Daniel says.

"But six months later, after we had been working with them... they wanted to be doctors, nurses, teachers – even Britney Spears or Lady Gaga."

Daniel himself had experienced persecution as a young person when living in Baghdad. "On my 16th birthday, my family received a threat from Islamic extremists, saying that we should leave or be killed," he says. "Instead of gifts and a party, my gift was tears. But my misery turned into ministry."

Father Daniel was in the UK in December to present the Hope for the Middle East petition to the UK government, signed by 808,172 people worldwide, including 186,390 people from the UK and Ireland. The petition calls for a better future for Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.  


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