Church-run school in Jordan for Iraqi refugee children educates, saves lives

Father Khalil Ja'ar in this undated photo leads prayer at Mary Mother of the Church school's athletic field in Marka, a suburb of Amman, the Jordanian capital. (OSV News photo/courtesy Father Khalil Ja'ar)

AMMAN, Jordan (OSV News) – It's a sight to behold: Iraqi refugee children recite the Lord's Prayer in their native Syriac language, found in their ancestral Christian homeland of Mosul and northern Iraq.

Their tiny hands are cupped outward, imploring Jesus for deliverance from evil and obtaining their daily bread. Each class stands lined up on the athletic field, waiting for instruction as a bell rings.

Fr. Khalil Ja'ar, pastor at Mary Mother of the Church, who runs the school, aids Iraqi Christians who escaped from Islamic State militants to neighboring Jordan. He told OSV News huge challenges persist a decade later for these Iraqi Christians as their trauma can continue.

"I'm doing my best to assist them now. But really the situation is very bad," Fr. Khalil Ja'ar told OSV News in Marka, the northeastern suburb of Amman, the Jordanian capital. He said more funding is needed to continue the school.

Some 10 years ago, Fr. Ja'ar set up a school to educate Iraqi refugee children at his parish church, as the children faced difficulties entering the Jordanian school system. Iraqis are prohibited from working in Jordan due to economic difficulties in the resource-poor Middle Eastern desert country.

Presently, the school educates 200 Iraqis on a shift system whereby they attend classes in the afternoon starting at 3 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. after Jordanian children have their lessons in the morning until 2 p.m.

"I want the children to feel they are in a safe place," said Father Ja'ar. "We have 14 teachers from the Iraqi community at the school. This also provides some jobs to the Iraqis because outside the church, they are not allowed to work. The teachers can also understand the students because the Iraqi accent is quite different from the Jordanian," Fr. Ja'ar said.

At the church's sewing center, some of the children's mothers prepare their school uniforms of maroon trousers with white and maroon striped shirts.

"So, we don't have to buy from outside, and this gives a nice opportunity for the mothers to work for payment," he added.
"Many of our pupils still suffer from trauma. Numbers saw Islamic State militants kill their fathers. And even if some are not able to be perfect pupils academically, the school still accepts them because it is important for the children to be together and they are still learning," Fr. Ja'ar explained.

Most hail from northern Iraq: Mosul, Bartella, Qaraqosh, as well as from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. "It's almost impossible for them to return, because a few went back and found their houses occupied by Muslim families," he said.

One of the student's mothers named Nadia recounted to OSV News: "My family and I were forced to flee Iraq because of the Islamic State danger. I saw car explosions with charred bodies in Mosul. My husband said we've got to get out of here, otherwise we and the kids will be killed. The children witnessed terrible things, but now I'm so pleased that this school educates and gives our children a normal life." Parents of schoolchildren who spoke to OSV News only gave their first names.

Fr. Ja'ar was spurred to provide the students with a nutritious meal after he found a girl had collapsed due to hunger. "We tried to revive her and when she opened her eyes, I asked her what she ate before class. Often the Iraqis don't have a refrigerator at home to keep food safe. I was afraid that she ate something spoiled." But in fact, the child hadn't eaten anything for more than 24 hours.

She told the priest: "I didn't eat because today was not my turn to eat. Protect me." Taking her home, he asked to speak with her father. "They told me that he was killed in Baghdad before the family came to Jordan," Fr. Ja'ar said. The girl's mother told the priest that she depends on whatever the neighbors give them for food and because there is never enough, she has the children take turns to eat.

Fr. Ja'ar recounts another story in which Jesus answered a child's prayer in an unexpected way. Walking to school, the girl longed to taste a juicy hamburger after seeing colorful advertisements plastered on the street. During a Christmas school celebration, Fr. Ja'ar told the students to "ask the Lord in your heart for the gift that you want."

"Suddenly, we heard a girl crying with joy. She told me that she always asked the Lord if she could get a burger. When she opened her party food box, she found two small hamburgers inside," he said. "The Lord heard my prayers immediately and he gave me not one, but two," the child told him excitedly.

"These two stories shocked me so much," the priest said, their lessons having a lasting impact on him.

"The school and teachers are so good. They are open-minded and treat us so nicely," Gabriel, 15, told OSV News. "You don't find this in every school. I want to be a lawyer when I grow up," he said.

"As a teacher in Iraq, I know education is very important because it is their future and their life," his mother, Reeta, said. "We appreciate the opportunity for them to be educated here," she added.

"We're grateful for this school, otherwise our kids could just be out in the streets," said Gabriel's father Riyad, an Iraqi journalist who knows the value of a religious education, having completed seminary studies in Baghdad and serving as a coordinator for Pope Francis' historic 2021 visit to Iraq.


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