Amman churches serve Iraqi refugee children

Iraqi teacher Manal Lutef talks to children during a class for Iraqi refugee children at the Franciscan Sister of Mary convent in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 14

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service
April 6, 2007

Amman, Jordan   Though Mariam Tonni, 11, remembers her home in Iraq, she prefers now to draw faces with large smiles, perfect rows of teeth and detailed hair. Her sister, Myrna, 9, likes to draw girls with fancy dresses going to parties.

"I remember our house and our garden. I remember my friends and neighbors and school. But I don't miss it there. That was our country; now we live here," Mariam said.

The girls and their two siblings are part of a group of Iraqi refugee children who regularly come to Sts. Peter and Paul Melkite Catholic Parish in Amman to participate in the Iraqi Children's Art Exchange Project. Normally some 28 children attend the two-hour classes in the afternoon.

The child-to-child art exchange program was set up in September by Massachusetts preschool teacher Claudia Lefko with the assistance of Fr. Nabil Haddad, the parish priest. It meets in the parish basement, and is one of several informal schools set up by churches and congregations for Iraqis, many of whom are in Jordan illegally and keep their children out of public schools, confused by a myriad of regulations.

The children's art project exposes the children, ages 4-12, to art and music and some basic academic subjects. The artwork is sent to American children, who then send their own drawings back in an effort to create a dialogue between the youngsters.

The pictures have been displayed in galleries, schools, libraries, universities, conferences and hospitals from New Jersey to Nova Scotia, and in Amman.

"We decided to start not just an art school program but an informal community center where we can receive people," said Haddad, who oversees the project in Amman while Lefko directs it from Massachusetts. So far they have sent two packages of pictures to the United States, he said.

At first, said Haddad, the children's pictures expressed their preoccupation with loneliness and war. Their subjects changed slowly to include birds, hearts, animals and smiling faces, he said.

"We don't talk about the war and Iraq to them. We want them to live their childhood. We want them to have joy and hope. The first drawings showed loneliness: a boy sitting alone. Now you can see the change," he said. "They appreciate the joy they have now, when they dance and sing. We need to show them we care, and the best place to do that is under the umbrella of the 'House of Love' -- the church.

Earlier that morning, four classes had been in full swing at the Franciscan Sisters of Mary convent, where the nuns run a school for Iraqi refugee children. A group of 11 kindergartners sat at little desks crammed into the kitchen as they used colored markers on a worksheet.

When the school opened in September, the children were eager to return to their studies, which had been interrupted by the war, said Sr. Warda Kairouz, the school director. The children, who are divided into four levels, come four mornings a week.

"We used to see the children watching television or playing in the streets. We decided we had to do something for the children. We couldn't leave them without an education," said Kairouz. The program is partially subsidized by the New York-based Pontifical Mission for Palestine, under the auspices of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The convent absorbs the cost of school supplies for the students and overhead expenses.

The Franciscan school provides a three-month crash course for the children to help them catch up on the main subjects, said Kairouz. After three months they may go to one of the higher-level classes. Eleven of their students have "graduated" to public school, she said. This rotation method allows more children to attend the classes, she said.

"I want to learn how to read and write so when I grow up I can have a life," said 9-year-old Baibon.

Some of the children have been seriously affected by the upheaval in their lives, said Kairouz.

"So many children need psychological help. Some children lash out and others do not communicate, and yet others are depressed. When we pray they ask why God couldn't help them stay in their country," she said. "We need money to send them to referrals for psychological treatment. It costs a lot here."

For some children this is the first time in three or four years they have attended school.

Magd, 12, told about how his church school had been bombed in Iraq. Ten-year-old Diana has never been to school but has caught up quickly with her classmates, said English teacher Sami Alisha Zora, one of two Iraqi teachers working at the school.

Sara, 14, who last attended school in Iraq in 2004, said it was "amazing" to be studying again. She said she would like to be a doctor when she grows up.

"In Iraq you can't teach, with all the bombing there may be only one class a week," said math and science teacher Manal Lutef, the other Iraqi teacher. She fled to Jordan two years ago when her church was threatened and one worker was killed by Islamic extremists.

Her two children, now ages 15 and 16, initially did not attend school in Jordan, she said, but this year they are attending a private Melkite Catholic school.

"They sat home for two years, and they are just happy to be able to go to school. And I am very happy to teach," she said.