Young ambassadors of good will

By Claudia Lefko
Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, 3/9/07

On Sept. 6, I was sitting in the office of Fr. Nabil Haddad, a Melkite priest and director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman, Jordan. We had just agreed to join my project, The Iraqi Children's Art Exchange, with his and begin a small art-based school for Iraqi refugee children in Amman.

I reached into my bag and handed him $75. The money was a donation to my project from Northampton Brownie Troop 348, the proceeds of their cookie sales that year. They asked me to do something special for Iraqi refugee children while I was in Jordan. How could any of us have imagined this - a school.

"Good," said Fr. Nabil, shaking my hand, "I will match it with $75 of my own, and we will begin." He took out a piece of stationary, and penned a letter:

Dear Girls,

I am writing to thank you for your donation, which I received from my new friend and partner Claudia. I want you to know that this little money [is] meant to be a great and gracious contribution for a noble and big time program. We just started to work on it. With your "support" for the children from this troubled Middle East, we were able Claudia and I to start this school, "Children Talk and Learn Through Art." Thank you so much on behalf of these children who will be your partners in building peace in this world. Through art we will contribute to achieve this objective.

In Peace,

Fr. Nabil Haddad

Last Saturday, I felt the earth move as Fr. Nabil spoke to the leaders and girls from Brownie Troop 348 from the pulpit of Edward's Church in Northampton. I live in Amman, he said, only about 25 minutes from Jerusalem. I have come here, all this way, on a personal pilgrimage to Northampton, Massachusetts, to thank you for your gift, to thank you for the caring that helped us to start our small school in Jordan. On his lapel, Fr. Nabil wore a greeting sticker with the numbers 348 written large in blue magic marker.

The Brownies had opened the event by singing their song: "Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold." They presented Fr. Nabil with enough art and school supplies to fill a little suitcase, which they gave to him, pointing out that it was on wheels, making it easier to drag back to Jordan. One by one four small, brave girls walked up to the microphone to say something to the crowd before them, and then they stood as Fr. Nabil thanked them, giving each one a Jordanian coin as a token of his friendship.

Pride in these girls filled the sanctuary of Edward's Church. Who can imagine what impact these small ambassadors for peace will have in this troubled world. Who could have imagined their small gesture would bring a man of such stature to Northampton to see them. Fr. Nabil is leading a delegation of imams and clerics from the Middle East on a three-city tour in the United States. It is the third phase of a U.S. State Department-sponsored project that was initiated by the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center. "Islam: Scholarship and Practice in the United States" is a project focusing on religious tolerance and diversity. He took time out of his busy schedule to spend the day with us.

Melkite priests are allowed to marry; Fr. Nabil has four children and a wife in Jordan. He was at ease with the Brownies, speaking to them directly, telling them how proud he was to be an honorary member of the troop, and how he would display their number, 348, prominently in his office in Jordan. He spoke about love and the importance of making personal connections, of meeting people. Fr. Nabil has visited the U.S. a number of times, and he told us he finds Americans to be very good and kind people. His visit to Northampton provided further proof of this, he said, and he will talk about it when he returns home to the Middle East, where people have a different picture of Americans.

Jordan is struggling under the weight of the Iraqi refugees flooding into the country, as many as 100,000 a month, half of them children, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The statistics on children in Iraq, beginning under U.S.-supported U.N. sanctions and continuing until today, are devastating. UNICEF recently estimated that one in every 10 children under the age of 5 is underweight and one in five are short for their age, an indication of under-nourishment. Claire Hajaj, communications officer at UNICEF Iraq Support Center in Amman, was quoted as saying, "This is just the tip of the iceberg." We know that children are suffering psychologically as well as physically as a result of the violence created by the ongoing war and occupation in Iraq.

In the face of this we stood in awe on Saturday, seeing what small girls, under the caring direction of two dedicated women, could do to be of help to these children so far away. If you want to support these peace ambassadors, buy cookies. You can contact Jeanne Almanzar for more information at (413) 586-9135.

Claudia Lefko, a resident of Northampton, is the founder and director of The Iraqi Children's Art Exchange Project.