Cry and dance at the same time

Rev. Dr Gloria Rojas Vargas, LWF Vice President and former president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile, shares a joke with Ahmad at the LWF Peace Oasis in Za’atari refugee camp. Photo: LWF/ C. Kästner

Lutheran bishops visit Za’atari camp, Jordan

“One moment you want to cry, the other you want to dance,” Antje Jackelen, Archbishop of the Church of Sweden (CoS), summed up her impressions. “We have seen both the strength and the vulnerability of life, hope and destroyed lives.”

Together with Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and LWF Vice President Rev. Dr Gloria Rojas Vargas, former president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile (IELC), the Swedish Archbishop on 14 December visited the LWF Peace Oasis in Za’atari camp. At this center, The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) offers psychosocial support through workshops, training, music and crafts to Syrian refugees in the camp.

“They miss home”

“The Syrian refugees are incredibly resilient,” Bishop Eaton recalls the visit. “We met a family where the father lost two of his sons in the Syrian war. He had worked 30 years to have his own farm and lost it all. A young girl was showing me images of burned bodies on her cellphone. And yet the parents are doing everything to keep their children engaged and out of trouble. Some have painted their houses, trying to bring some beauty to such a stark place. It’s incredible,” she said.

“They miss home, you can tell that. Still they were hopeful, they wanted to return,” she added.

The Lutheran leaders also met with Syrian families as well as three imams from the refugee camp. “It was very important to hear and see emotionally,” said Rojas. “I have seen people with hope and peace, but also with pain, because their families have been separated. In my home church, we are not so much aware. When the media talks about the Middle East, it’s mostly about terrorism.”

Populists frame discourse of immigration

The three church leaders emphasized the need to not let “populist groups frame the discourse about immigration,” as Jackelen put it.

“In Europe, we have all these discussions about ‘streams of refugees’ now,” she said. “What we saw were ordinary families. It makes you think about the fact that Jordan with its infrastructure is receiving so many, and in spite of our wealth, our systems in Europe are not geared for this sort of challenge.”

Rojas recalled the time when many Chileans themselves were refugees during the time of the military dictatorship. “We should know how that feels,” she said. “They are not in a good situation, and they must be allowed to go home.”

“The suffering of the people in Syria is real. Bombs are falling on these people who just want to live their lives,” the ELCA presiding bishop Eaton said.

Cross of life with those who are suffering

The bishops also voiced their appreciation of and pride in the work of the local LWF staff, many of whom are Syrian volunteers from Jordan who are now devoting spare time to help their countrymen and –women in need. “I am especially thankful for their work,” Rev Rojas said. “They have empathy for the pain the refugees must feel, and are very committed. I also compliment the work of the communion office to promote peace and justice.”

“We believe that the cross of life is where there is suffering,” Bishop Eaton said. “It certainly is in that camp in Jordan, and it’s our calling in God’s world to alleviate these people’s suffering.”

Za’atari camp in Jordan is home to almost 80,000 refugees from Syria. The LWF Peace Oasis in 2015 has provided psychosocial support to 2,662 people in the camp. Activities are a combination of activities such as sports, music, arts and crafts and workshops for conflict mitigation, problem-solving and building of self-esteem.