There was a time when Maran, a mother of three, worked as an engineer and had a long career ahead of her. But when Iraqi refugees started arriving in Amman, Jordan’s capital, fleeing from the violence Islamic State had unleashed upon their communities, Maran was dismayed about the treatment they received in her country and wanted to do something to help.
Once proud, hardworking men and women, the Iraqi refugees were now given out-of-date food and had to find clothes to wear by trawling through a huge pile of second-hand items that somebody had just left for them on the floor.
Maran says: “I visited them, but when I saw how they were treated I did not like it [and] I had a choice: either I would keep crying and stay heartbroken, or I could do something about it. So I said: ‘Let’s do something about it.’”
That was three years ago. Since then, with the help of the international Christian charity Open Doors, she has founded Al-Hadaf, a NGO aimed at supporting the most vulnerable in Jordan. “My goal is to restore the dignity of these refugees and treat them how I would like to be treated, how I would like my children to be treated,” she says.
Al-Hadaf (“The Purpose”) is run with the help of volunteers from Jordanian churches. It offers a boutique for second-hand clothes, a room for trauma workshops and training, and an art-therapy room for children. Through these, as well as health clinics and campaigns, the centre reached 2,473 Iraqis in 2016 alone.
How the programme works
Iraqi Christians have faced increased pressures since 2003, when the US-led invasion, in its mission to topple Saddam Hussein, destroyed the country’s infrastructure and Christians were scapegoated in the chaos that followed. Ewelina Ochab, a human rights lawyer, said those who were internally displaced are now generally hoping to return, while those who crossed into nearby countries, such as Jordan or Lebanon, are seeking asylum elsewhere, disillusioned by years of discrimination and persecution.
Hence many of those who come to Al-Hadaf are not only traumatised because of IS; they also feel they no longer have a future in Iraq.
“The programme for the refugees starts with loving them through art,” says Maran.
“We express our feelings together; we pray together. This is a place where members from the Evangelical, Syriac and Orthodox Church all come together. To love one another.”
The second step in the programme is an English-language course, especially helpful for the many refugees who want new lives elsewhere.
“That is why we created a curriculum that is tailor-made for refugees. For example, focusing on how to communicate in the airport,” says Maran.
Those who come to the centre are also invited for lunch. “We do not ‘feed’ the refugees,” Maran underlines. “Instead we have a healthy meal together. We – our staff and volunteers – sit with them and after the meal they take the leftovers with them for their family.”
“In the boutique the Iraqi visitors can shop for clothes. The clothes are donated by women through women’s ministries in Jordan,” Maran explains. She is adamant that only the best clothes – “clothes that I would wear and that I would let my children wear” – make it to the boutique and only after they are dry-cleaned and checked for damage.
The actual purchase is done with vouchers. They get these for free, according to the size of their family, but being able to perform an actual transaction contributes to restoring their dignity, says Maran.
Large black figures
“Many of these kids saw IS take down the crosses from their churches and it influenced them a lot,” says Maran. She points at several pictures the children have drawn during their art-therapy classes. “When they visit the art class for the first time we ask them: ‘What is the thing you miss most from Iraq now that you live here?’ Almost all of them draw their church,” she says. “They used to go to church on a regular basis in Iraq, and they loved it. It’s the place where they socialised.”
What struck Maran is that many children include large black figures in their first paintings. “The dark figures represent IS and other evils the children had to endure,” Maran explains. “After a while, we see their paintings becoming more clear, bright and detailed, and the dark figures become smaller or disappear. This is a sign the children are processing their trauma.”
Another important step, according to Maran, is helping children and parents to talk about their feelings. “Because the mother is traumatised, the kids are also traumatised,” Maran explains. “There are a lot of mood swings in these families. The mother gets mad at the kids, the kids get mad at the mother, and they can’t communicate well about it. In some cases the mothers feel so powerless that they start beating their children.”
In that case, just telling them “Don’t hit your kids” doesn’t help, says Maran. “Instead we’re asking them the ‘why’ question: ‘Why did you beat your kids? You never used to do that. You’ve changed because of the trauma’.”