“You just need to walk down the street. You can feel that people are not doing well. It’s as if Gaza is inside Jordan, not outside. It’s as if the war is in our home,” said Wael Suleiman, director of Caritas Jordan, speaking to AsiaNews by telephone from his office in Amman.
In the country that has taken in Palestinian refugees more than any other since 1948, where there are “more Palestinians than in Palestine”, the pain of the ongoing massacre in Gaza is part of everyday life.
“We try to help the Palestinians in every way,” explained Suleiman, who is also of Palestinian origin. “In recent months, people have cancelled celebrations and trips, giving so much because they can feel a great wound.”
The drone attack on Tower 22, a US base on Jordan’s northern border with Syria, which killed three and wounded dozens, is “something distant from life in the cities.” It does not worry him. “It’s something that happened at the border. People don’t talk about this stuff, they live a normal life,” he said.
Caritas Jordan is the country’s largest humanitarian organization, set up in 1967 following the Six-Day War, as a response to the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees.
“It came about following an official request from the (Jordanian) government to the Vatican,” Suleiman explained. “On that occasion, Jordan took people in, as it has always done for the past 75 years. But in more than 50 years, there have been many tragic moments, wars, and conflicts, not only in Palestine.”
The latest emergencies, which have seen Caritas welcoming and providing aid to people who fled neighbouring countries, are the civil war in Syria in 2011 and in Iraq in 2014.
“We have 400 employees, 26 centers across Jordan,” Suleiman said. “We help about 200,000 people every year. We provide all kinds of services; we run health centers, clinics. We organize activities in schools, and offer psychological support.”
Caritas Jordan carries out its work cooperating with other humanitarian organisations in the country, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), but, at the same time, it tries to maintain its own space.
“We believe that ours is not a job, but a mission,” Suleiman explained. “The mission leads to taking on more responsibility. It is part of belonging to the Church, of being an active Christian.”
The relationship between Caritas Jordan and UNRWA goes way back when Caritas was also present in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan.
“In recent years, since the Gulf War in 1990, we left the camps to bring help especially in the cities,” Suleiman told AsiaNews. “So UNRWA was left on its own; in Jordan, 90 per cent of its work is still concentrated in these settlements.”
For the Caritas director, halting funding to the Agency by the United States, and ten other countries (eight in Europe, including Italy), is a “senseless” act.
“This is very strange, especially coming from Europe,” home to “countries that have taught the world about the importance of rights, justice. Today, Europe is failing to be what it has taught the world; it does not have a position of its own, it follows others. In doing so, it betrays its roots.”
The decision to stop funding is based on charges made in a report sent by Israel to the United States against 12 UNRWA employees who allegedly took part in Hamas’s attack on 7 October. Since then, the UN Refugee Agency has fired them.
“Even if it were true that these 12 people did something wrong, the decision (to cut funding) destroys the only hope Palestinians have; they have been suffering injustices for 75 years.”
Established in 1949, the agency is the largest humanitarian organization in Gaza, employing 12,000 people; 150 of them have been killed in Gaza since the start of Israel’s offensive.
Although UNRWA, with its 30,000 employees, supports almost six million Palestinians, in the West Bank and Jordan, as well as in other neighboring countries, it is the two million Gazans who are suffering the worst.
In fact, without funding, aid operations may not be guaranteed “beyond the end of February,” the agency said.
For Wael Suleiman, the situation in Gaza is a priority; everything else in the Middle East “can wait”. “Right now, we have to think about these two million people, not about the others who are at least in countries with a minimum of stability, like ours,” he said.
“UNRWA is the only channel that can give some hope to people who have been dying for four months. You are taking away even the little you can give. Much more is needed, however.”
Supported by the appeals of Pope Francis, who at last Sunday’s Angelus said that “The transit of humanitarian aid must be allowed, in order to ensure that the basic necessities of every person may be met,” Caritas Jordan works closely with Caritas Jerusalem, which coordinates the activities of the charity inside Gaza.
“We are sending aid from Jordan, because we have a privileged channel here,” Suleiman explained.
“We were helping Gaza even before 7 October, through the Caritas network, with about 100 workers present in Gaza, and the support of the Latin Patriarchate. This week we helped 4,000 families, a month ago we sent aid to another 3,000. It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing; even that little gives some relief to those people.”
Speaking about the mission, those who work in Gaza also put their lives at risk. Viola Al-Amash and Issam Abedrabbo, employees of Caritas Jerusalem, were killed in recent weeks, along with their families.
“Now we are dealing with another emergency, a worker who was shot, whom we are trying to bring to Jordan for an urgent operation. Unfortunately, there are many critical situations like hers. I have heard of 7,000 people who are in dire need of evacuation from Gaza for surgery.”
Wael Suleiman’s grandfather fled Palestine in 1948 for Jordan. “He made the decision to save his life,” the grandson said. “It is in that flight that the roots of the pain that now crushes the Jordanian people are found,” adding that “My relatives who wanted to stay are all dead.”
During his 24 years of service in Caritas, he has always “dreamt and worked for peace”, but now, after 7 October, he says he has changed his mind. “Now I want to work for life because making peace by force only causes the death of children, families.”
“What’s the most important thing?” At this point, leaving is the only possible way to save oneself from so much violence. “In the corner of a destroyed house that I visited, a Syrian boy wrote, “Life offered me death.” I think not; life must offer life.”
Who can dare question the views of those who dedicate themselves to others every day. At present, saving lives is more important than working for peace.
For the director of Caritas Jordan, this is unavoidable because “life is a sacred thing. God created us to live, not to die.” That is what his grandfather believed when he chose to flee.