It stands out suddenly, in a clear colour, between the green hills of winter and the desert hills of summer crowned by Amman. The belfry of the new church of Our Lady of Peace Centre acts as a signpost for those who want to come to this special place which for some years on has welcomed disabled children, young people, adults and elderly people. Hundreds of people from the whole of the outskirts of the Jordanian capital come here because they know that they can find help, a school, physiotherapy, a teacher who will teach them to be autonomous in eating and dressing, a workshop where they can learn a trade…but above all a network of people who make them understand how ‘convenient’ it is to leave the safe four walls of their homes so as to begin to be accepted and to make themselves accepted as different people but people with equal rights, duties and opportunities.
The Our Lady of Peace Centre (OLOP) is not ashamed to call these people by their name – ‘the handicapped’ or ‘the disabled’ – but it prefers to appreciate a special feature of their profile: a disabled person is a person who has special needs. Here at the OLOP these special needs are recognised and attended to in a special way because this reality is made of a special weave, a set of different threads that make it especially resistant.
In the heart of the Middle East, a land that is deeply agitated and wounded, this centre was founded by the Catholic community led by H.E. Msg. Selim Sayegh, the Episcopal Vicar for Jordan of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Inaugurated officially in 2004, what could then appear to be a hazardous undertaking has become an organised and growing reality thanks to a network of people, voluntary workers, Christians and Muslims, who believe in it and dedicate a great deal of their time to it. A capillary presence and one that is able to interact at various levels with society and state institutions because Our Lady of Peace was not created out of an alchemical calculation of experts on disability or an artificial plan dreamt up at a desk and then imposed on reality, but as a response to a silent and pressing request from Jordanian society.
According to the official data, in fact, 10% of the Jordanian population is handicapped (a fact explained by some people with reference to the widespread practice of marriages between people who are related) but those who enter the homes of those most in need and suffering from poverty, and receive at an informal level requests and indications, believe that the real number of handicapped people is significantly higher than that declared in official records. Pressed by this fact, Bishop Selim Sayegh as early as the late 1980s decided that it was necessary to respond with concrete works to this situation which affected so many Christian families and above all Muslim families. From this, with a healthy realism, germinated the work of Our Lady of Peace.
Our central building is fifteen minutes away from the heart of Amman: a large house where the school, the room of physiotherapy and the swimming pool, the laboratories for computers, a number of offices to deal with reception and consultancy, and a large area with a large number of rooms to receive groups that come from the whole of the country for community activities connected above all with pastoral care for young people, all find space.
A new building is coming into existence near the centre. At the moment the building work has stopped but when the funds that are needed arrive what should become a home for the three Combonian sisters, who have lived at the centre since 2009 and are responsible for all its various functions, will be completed.
They are a varied small community: Sister Adriana Biollo, an Italian, Sister Amal Saady, an Egyptian, and Sister Kedesti Techle, an Eritrean. Sister Adriana, who spent twenty years in the Sudan, as well as ten in Bahrein and another ten in Israel and Jordan, lean in her body but determined in her action, is the director of the centre, whose administration in particular she follows at a detailed level. Sister Kedesti, who has been in Jordan for twenty years, attends to the pupils who go to the school – the youngest in the morning and the oldest in the afternoon. At times Sister Kedesti makes them look at the mirror: “Look how beautiful you are!” she exclaims, injecting into them a good dose of self-esteem and happiness. Sister Amal, after about fifteen years spent in the Sudan and Egypt, engages in pastoral care for young people at the vicariate and is involved in promoting friendship between young Jordanian Catholics, a small minority that strives to live its faith deeply in a land marked at every step by mosques and the calls of the Muezzin. Another three missionaries are the point of reference for the professional workers, physiotherapists, teachers, and assistants, and for the network of voluntary workers.
Three Basic Principles
In the beating heart of the centre of Amman various services are offered: the school for the children and girls and boys between the ages of six and sixteen, organised into different classes, which concentrates on the teaching of various cognitive and manual abilities, education in autonomy and self-management in the actions of daily life, the use of computers and similar things; special weekly programmes for people with grave disabilities and autism; cycles of play therapy and computer laboratories which have been begun where necessary; physiotherapy for people who are physically or mentally disabled and the teaching to parents or family relatives of techniques and exercises to be done at home; and a laboratory for ceramics. All of this is flanked by a service of home visits and therapy for those who are not able to go to the centre which functions according to the requests that are made and the resources that are available.
Although the work style of the paid staff is characterised by particular attention being paid to integral care for the person, voluntary workers make up the vital lymph of the centre. These voluntary workers are organised into citizen’s committees where Christians and Muslims work side by side and promote constant action involving both sensitisation through public marches and workshops on matters connected with disability and the rights of handicapped people and practical services such as accompanying in therapy centres, dealing with bureaucratic matters, shopping…Every service offered by this institution dedicated to Our Lady of Peace is free. No payment is requested for treatment, the school or the shuttle bus because the economic factor must never become, according to those responsible for the centre, a reason to object to the service that is offered.
The centre, brick by brick, has been built on three basic principles. The first is the principle which we define as ‘humanitarian:’ people with disabilities are equal both as regards the international law on human rights and as regards national law. The second principle, known as the spiritual principle, consists of the recognition of the importance of the experience of faith for the individual. Jordanian society is 96% Muslim and 4% Christian, but all Jordanians see themselves first of all as men and women of faith. The third principle is connected with the idea of citizenship: everyone, both disabled and others, are equally citizens and as such have the same rights. To defend these rights in the family and in society and to uphold them where they are not respected coincides with the promotion of the real unity of the country.
But these theoretical premisses, like the above technical and structural description of the centre, are not enough to understand the impact of its presence in the field which cannot be reduced to a simple gesture of providing services to people who are in difficulty whatever their religious and socio-economic background. One is dealing, in fact, with a wise action, which is grafted onto, and acts within, the potentialities and the contradictions of Jordan, a country located between imposing neighbours such as Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This is an inexorable educational initiative that acts at a deep level in this part of the Middle East and to understand it one has to go up and down the country, enter its various ramifications, listen to the testimony of a person who has worked in it as a physiotherapist and the reasons that lead voluntary workers to cooperate in various ways in this project.
To drink coffee with a number of Muslim women volunteers of Mafraq unveils a world: they narrate how in this very poor area of Jordan, on the road that leads to Bagdad, they gradually reduced the distrust of families that did not want to expose their handicapped children to the world. They began to involve them in simple activities and to the point that now the homes of these same families are the settings for shared meetings involving playing and learning. In Mafraq, around the point of departure offered by Our Lady of Peace, various associations work in synergy to cover the poorest areas and provide any home services that may be needed. Although the Christians are truly a minimal presence, it was possible to create a mixed committee and to promote a march for the rights of handicapped people beginning at the mosque and ending at the local church. Exponents of the government and various institutions took part in this march which was even publicised by the imam in his Friday sermon. This march helped to promote new state laws such as the law which reduces architectonic barriers.
To go down the alleys of this town famous for its very old Christian mosaics in the company of Ragda Zawiadeh, a volunteer of Our Lady of Peace, means to stop at every small shop and every street stall. Ragda knows everybody, everyone wants to greet her, offer her some tea or tell her the latest
news. A middle aged woman and a physical education teacher, when necessary in English, retired but fully active as an adviser to the Ministry of Education as well, a former chief scout, with her pockets full of sweets to give to the people she meets, she has the town at her fingertips: she knows about situations where there are difficulties, helps families who have disabled members, Iraqi refugees that need help in bureaucratic matters, and much else…She is a Christian and one of the volunteers who belongs to the local mixed committee which acts through a network at a detailed level to point out needs and services. To a certain extent, Radga is the style of the centre.
In Aqaba, a city on the Red Sea, a new building of Our Lady of Peace has recently been built, just a few steps away from a mosque, on a piece of land that was given to it by the local council. Throughout the city, which is a lively city and the location of the headquarters of various service companies that settled here in order to take advantage of the free zone, only one centre for disabled people was active, it was not sufficient and was not specialised as regards grave disabilities. The new centre was built thanks to the promotion and fund raising of a committee of volunteers. But the presence of groups of Islamic fundamentalists made itself felt, even though not in an explicitly violent way. Here prudence in relationships is required, care in not exaggerating, and a capacity for mediation.
Anjara is different. It is in the north of the country where the first steps are being taken towards a new unity. It strongly feels the very deep fracture that opposes the Christian and Muslim communities which is generated more by questions of tribal membership than religious loyalties. The distance between these communities is such that the newly created committee of volunteers is made up only of Christians and this is the only such example that exists today in the committee of OLOP. And yet, as the Muslim mothers who bring their disabled small children here for weekly therapy demonstrate, in the face of concrete needs barriers crumble.
The centre in the hall of the parish which is the heart of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Mountain, the destination of a large number of pilgrims from the Jubilee of the year 2000 to today. Next to it there is also a school run by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It has happened that pupils have been stoned at the entrance by those of their same age group of other institutions. And once a Muslim electrician refused to repair the electricity in the church because it was Christian. These are all circumscribed episodes, the parish priest explains, but they are an expression of the climate that people breathe.
So as not to Merely Watch
“One had to do something,” explains Msgr. Selim Sayegh, “there was an evident need. But I did not want to build a house that merely provided services. I wanted the centre to become a place to welcome young people and students as well, to give them an opportunity to be educated in acceptance of the diverse beginning with the simple experience of proximity. I thought of this centre and Providence supported me in a decisive way in this work which is in the first instance of an educational character.” Basic, integral education, explains the bishop: “I have in mind education that has within it all the aspects of the person. Certainly, we begin from an immediate and practical need, that of disabled people and their families. But around them we must build a living network made up of people who work, who start from a shared fact: that they refer to God, that they are religious, their membership of a religious community.” This membership is an experience of faith, explains the founder of the centre, which in fact compels witness: “I often extend this invitation to Christians: they should bear witness through their lives that God is Love! But for my Muslim brethren, as well, the proposal is the same: if you affirm that God is Merciful, provoke me with your concrete witness. Make me see that God is Merciful through your lives!” For Bishop Selim, Our Lady of Peace is a place where one does not say that God is Love; that is something that experience does. One does not speak about the values that keep the Jordanian people standing; one touches the concreteness of this: in hands extended to the poorest of the poor, in the creative intelligence of people who invent ways of breaking down the walls of shame of those who would otherwise be buried alive by their malaise.
This is ongoing education, generated by contagious friendship between people which like a positive epidemic gradually spreads. One sees this when taking part in a meeting of the bishop with the representatives of various committees, with Christian and Muslim men and women. They are simply friends. “At times,” Bishop Selim relates, “it is specifically the Muslims who defend us against the extremist groups. Even though they do not use physical violence, one cannot deny that there is an attempt to generate discredit or distrust towards what we offer or how we behave.” Difficulties are not, and have not been, absent. “It is not easy to dent the consolidated mentality of our Middle Eastern people,” explains Majdi Dayyat, the director of the centre. “Indeed, ours is the first real pastoral commitment beyond the boundaries of the Christian community. This has shaken up, there is no point in denying it, both Christians and Muslims. Although many belong to our project, many also remain extraneous to it. They distrust its style and approach. But we go on: reality shows us that we are following a fruitful pathway because it compels constant dialogue. I can really say that I am a Christian here in the East if I demonstrate and live my faith in relation to my Muslim brothers and vice versa. I must not give up. And I cannot live my faith indoors, inside the walls of the Church.” This young director, who has followed step by step the whole of the development of Our Lady of Peace, a by now accredited interlocutor of the government and the King, explains that in Jordan a special wind is blowing: “The respect of faith for the other certainly prevails, as the law of the state guarantees, but the risk is that ghettos will be created: Christians do what they think right but remain within their fences and disturb nothing outside it. Our Lady of Peace works to demonstrate for the whole of society the fruitfulness of a frank dialogue and frank and concrete cooperation between people who are different. But in the field. Really between people, both those who receive services and those who offer them.”
“In the shadow of the figure of Mary, our Lady of Peace,” observes Msgr. Selim, “We have gradually come together for welcoming and care for the poorest of the poor. Today I can refer to very many miracles to which I have been an eyewitness over recent years.” There are also numbers that document these miracles: in Amman and Madaba thirty doctors work and they give free treatment to people who come with the cards issued by our centre; in Aqaba there are twenty-seven medical doctors. The ¬number of active volunteers performing various tasks in the various committees that are active in Jordan is almost two hundred, and there are about forty people who are employed and paid on a regular basis for various jobs in various centres. The annual budget is not light and is roundabout $350,000. It is difficult to sustain. “How can we bear the cost of everything,” smiles Msgr. Selim. “Where do we get the money from? We turn to international foundations for help, international agencies, people who ¬offer what they have because they believe in what we are doing. But basically I believe this: could a mother abandon her child who throws himself trustingly into her arms? No! So how could Providence abandon us in this undertaking?”
The next book of the series Colere Hominem promoted by the John Paul I Foundation (Marcianum Press, expected publications date: end of 2010) will be on the Our Lady of Peace Centre.