The Orthodox Initiative: St Ephraim’s Syriac Orthodox Church and Syrian Refugees in Jordan
Our distributions to local communities constitute the spiritual food of our work. When we are lucky enough to take items to the most vulnerable we are humbled again and again by the circumstances in which they survive.
Our distribution in East Amman on December 18th, 2013 was no exception.
Several weeks ago, we received news of a Syriac Orthodox Church in Ashrifiyeh (East Amman) that had opened its doors to Syrian families. The Pastor at St Ephraim’s Syriac Orthodox Church, Abuna Emmanuel, wondered if we could share with the vulnerable families. We agreed to make the church’s request part of our Winter Distribution. Preparations were underway to deliver parcels of food.
But we were not prepared for what followed:
When we arrived at the church families milled about the premises. Some were gathered in the narthex of the church, others were sitting on chairs nearby. It wasn’t until later that we realized that almost all of these families were living at the church. It wasn’t until later that we realized that the coffee we were served, again and again, was an expression of hospitality. These refugee families, many of whom have one or two sets of clothes, were serving us their coffee. The weight of this revelation is continuing to resonate & reverberate.
What we saw amazed us. There in the church facilities were approximately 50 Syrian families sharing communal eating, sleeping, and bathing quarters. The Pastor and the congregation have converted the Church facilities into a complete hostel for the Syrian refugees. What was once a fellowship hall now sleeps 20. The meeting room houses 10 more. There is a shared kitchen, where church ladies once arranged coffee & sweets for fellowship hour following services.
Next we went upstairs, around the side of the church, and into a building that sits on top of the sanctuary & fellowship hall. This building, we were told, was the church’s school. Built to educate young children, it now houses entire families. Our guide, a man from the congregation who now devotes much of his time to maintaining the housing, introduced us to families who shared their lives and stories. Mattresses covered the floors and old classrooms have been converted into shared bedrooms. The hallways serve as kitchens, laundry rooms, and storage spaces.
Many of these families come from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, renowned for its culture and history. But if you type ‘Aleppo’ into a Google search today, you will only see headlines about destruction. While these families are thankful for their personal safety, they struggle to envision the future. They indeed appreciate the gift of food, yet the gift they want this Christmas is for a return to peace.
Our visit to St Ephraim’s deeply moved all of us at the Orthodox Initiative. We felt that our attempts to understand or sympathize are inadequate and that the comfort we have in our daily lives is unjust. While we cannot secure peace for their homeland, we feel the need to do more.
We decided to continue the joy and bounty of Christmas by humbly offering a Christmas dinner to the families living at St Ephraim’s.
The Feeding of the 5000 was a miracle that illustrates the abundance found in community. In the story, Jesus’ followers gathered to hear him deliver a sermon over lunch, but the amount of food was inadequate. The disciples went from person to person, collecting what little provisions they had – a slice of bread here, a piece of fish there. Jesus blessed the meal and it multiplied such that the entire crowd ate abundantly.
It is a beloved parable, but one that is seldom connected to Christmas. Yet, it is what the Orthodox Initiative director thought of when she reflected on Christmas dinner at St Ephraim’s Syriac Orthodox Church in Ashrafiyeh. What began as a humble desire to get to know the Syrian refugee families living at the Syriac Orthodox Church in Ashrafiyeh became a joyful and meaningful Christmas dinner.
True to Middle Eastern hospitality standards, the Syrian families welcomed their guests, the staff and volunteers of the Orthodox Initiative, into their temporary living space inside the Orthodox Church. Preparation did not merely include getting out a table cloth and sweeping the floor. The Syrian families, who have fled from their homes and resettled in the St Ephraim’s Church’s Fellowship Hall, accommodated their guests by clearing out their living spaces and setting up tables and chairs to seat 100 people.
The atmosphere of the dinner was full of joy and peace, affording a welcome respite to the families from the trauma of fleeing violence in their home country only to arrive in Jordan with few possessions and resources. Relaxation permeated the hall with families sharing stories and memories. Upon arriving at the dinner, the Orthodox Initiative director felt a sense of nostalgia while she, “watched as families switched off lights in their homes and rooms and walked to the church to join the gathering. It was as if watching a classic Christmas movie.”
Joining in the meal were leaders in the church, including Syrian bishop of Jerusalem Melki Murad, who blessed the meal, and Abuna Emmanuel, St Ephraim’s priest and the man responsible for the refugee ministry.
The Director of the Orthodox Initiative delivered words from His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, sharing with the group that Christmas is a reminder of hope and love. She shared that “having Christ in our hearts allows light to shine on us, a light that we can then pass to others.” His Beatitude encouraged the Orthodox Initiative to share this Christmas meal as a way to also share a bit of the burden that refugees bear due to uprooting their lives. The meal was not just food, but also fellowship and companionship.
In addition to the Christmas meal of traditional Jordanian dishes, the Orthodox Initiative brought along warm jackets and pants as a Christmas gift for the children living at the Church.
The Orthodox Initiative invites all concerned people to join in supporting the noble mission that this particular church has set out to accomplish. It is through the help of the community that the church is able to provide heating, living space, cleaning supplies, and food for the families. But many of these resources are finite; the Orthodox Initiative calls on people of good will to step in with solidarity and resources to better the lives of this vulnerable population.
We ask you to join us in fervently praying for that this season is spiritually nourishing to the displaced families; pray that they find meaningful work in Jordan; pray that they grow as a community of love and support. And above all, pray that someday soon, these people will be able to safely walk back into their beloved homeland with the weight of war lifted from their shoulders.
The United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) continue to offer support for the work of many partners in the region to provide humanitarian response to the needs of Syrian refugees. Please consider supporting the work of Global Ministries’ partners’ relief efforts in and around Syria. You can do that through One Great Hour of Sharing (UCC), the Week of Compassion (Disciples), or through Global Ministries directly.