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Catholic medical student sees Syrian refugee crisis up close

Jerusalem native, other Church organizations see, cope with war's fallout in Jordan

Tareq Nasrawi, a native of Jerusalem who is studying medicine in Amman, Jordan, through a church-affiliated scholarship for Holy Land Christians, has seen a variety of Syrian war injuries and refugee camp-related illnesses over the past several years at several hospitals he works at around Amman.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Tareq Nasrawi, a native of Jerusalem who is studying medicine in Amman, Jordan, through a church-affiliated scholarship for Holy Land Christians, has seen a variety of Syrian war injuries and refugee camp-related illnesses over the past several years at several hospitals he works at around Amman.

Amman, JORDAN | When he came to study medicine in Jordan’s capital through a scholarship program for Holy Land Christians, Tareq Nasrawi had expected to see heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and other basic public health concerns.

But the 21-year-old Roman Catholic and native of Jerusalem, who studies at the Jordan University of Science and Technology and now works in seven or eight hospitals in Jordan, is also seeing the human suffering and medical crisis from a civil war raging unabated in neighboring Syria since 2011. 

The influx of Syrian refugees pouring into Jordan and seeking health care may have peaked a few months ago when Nasrawi said he observed a crescendo of war-related cases turning up at the King Abdullah University Hospital north of Amman, along with Jordan’s peripheral hospitals.

“All the hospitals were filled with Syrian refugees,” Nasrawi said. “We had a conference at King Abdullah Hospital where they talked about Syrian cases, saying that in the history of the hospital — since about 1999 — that they have not encountered such severe cases as they have encountered with the Syrian war.”  

Fractured bones and penetrating wounds caused by heavy weaponry meant Jordanian orthopedic specialists are treating injuries that were never seen here until now, according to Nasrawi. 

They also treated a fair amount of routine medical cases from among the estimated half-million Syrian war refugees in Jordan as well as women and children suffering ailments specifically brought on by conditions in the crowed refugee camps.

“Six months ago we had swine flu cases from the Zaatari refugee camp (described as the country’s fourth largest city), and I have seen other serious cases like cancers and issues not necessarily caused by the war,” he said.

Until now, insurance companies and private funds have been paying for much of the Syrian medical expenses in Jordan but as the crisis has widened — and with more refugees pouring into refugee camps there this year — the hospitals in Jordan have had to restrict refugee health care.

Jordan’s government said last week that it needs $850 million in additional international assistance should the country’s Syrian refugee community surpass one million persons, as has been forecast by UN agencies.
Recent conservative estimates put the number of Syrian refugees at 580,000 since the conflict began; of those, some 78,000 Syrian students who entered public schools in Jordan are projected to cost the country $200 million, according to local news reports.

“It is especially sad when dealing with the children in most cases. It is unfortunate to know that the image they will always remember as part of their childhood is what they have faced during these crises,” said Nasrawi, who studies medicine through a scholarship from the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and a husband-wife benefactor in the U.S.

The Syrian crisis represents one more time that the Kingdom of Jordan has received with open arms refugees who were adversely affected by wars and conflicts, according to Father Rif'at Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan.

Jordan took in tens of thousands of Palestinian and later Iraqi refugees in recent years.

Tom Tracy, a freelance correspondent for the Florida Catholic in Miami, traveled to Jordan Sept 22-29 with a 12-person ecumenical delegation of U.S. based journalists convened by courtesy of the Virginia-based Jordan Travel Board. The group toured several major Biblical and historical sites in Jordan's Holy Land. They also met with the priest-founder of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman and a head archaeologist of the Baptismal Site Commission at Bethany Beyond the Jordan on the Jordan River.

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“We never expected to witness all these kinds of tragedies, massacres and deportations to occur,” Father Bader said. “The new arrivals from Syria are staying in three camps while a large number are also staying in cities and villages of Jordan.”

Facing a tragedy of this magnitude, it was incumbent to pool the efforts of the Church with those of international and national institutions including the United Nations and the Caritas Jordan Association, the priest added, noting he was especially concerned about the strain on drinking water levels.

“This is a major problems facing the Middle East in general and Jordan in particular. Whenever the number of arrivals in Jordan increases, the water problem becomes more serious. Another emerging problem is health services that constitute a humanitarian need as well,” he said.

At the same time, the arrival of refugees from Iraq and Syria has expanded the mosaic of Holy Land Christians living in Jordan, he said.

Caroline Brennan, a communications officer for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services who recently visited Jordan and the region, said CRS has been working with Church partners in Jordan to provide medical care, counseling and informal education and emergency assistance to about 140,000 Syrian displaced persons in Jordan and elsewhere. Many are women and children who fled Syria’s conflict zones.

“A year ago the Syrian refugees would say, ‘I will go home in a month or six months when the fighting stops.’ Now they are talking about a much longer time frame and it is sobering,” Brennan said.

“As a relief agency we have to expand our vision for families that have to be there a while, to help get children back to school. The longer a child is out of school the more likely they will stay out of school. School provides care for children cooped up in tents or crowded apartments.”

Brennan said there is tremendous worry about what is to become of the Syrian refugees, who prefer to think of themselves as “guests” in a country where the word refugee is toxic and associated with the never-resolved Arab-Israeli conflict.

“These people want peace and have nothing to do with the fighting in Syria. They had jobs, they are educated, had homes and some stability. They want the peaceful life. If a refugee sitting in a tent still has hope and calls that hope then who are we to not have hope?” Brennan asked.

While the majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim, the Christian-Syrian refugees are fearful of reprisals against Christians and their perceived support of the Syrian dictatorship. They therefore have been reluctant to register for international aid, according to Michael La Civita, spokesman for the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

CNEWA has been helping local churches in Jordan furnish emergency food, sanitary supplies, infant formula, medicines and medical care as well as support to school age children.

“CNEWA is concerned always for the poorest of the poor and those who are in most need. Consequently, many of those we assist are Christians,” La Civita said, adding that Jordan is a poor nation but what it lacks in natural resources, it makes up in human resources.

Palestinian, Iraqi, Bangladeshi, Circassian and now Syrian refugees have indeed enriched the Kingdom, but for a nation of only six million, this latest wave of arrivals also has exacted a toll.

“Rents have skyrocketed and the cost of living has soared,” La Civita said. “As Christians we are compelled by our faith to reach out, to heal, to minister, to accompany our brothers and sisters and to witness the love that is Christ. Acts of charity are ways to bring about peace.”

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