We gathered in the tent, homemade but well-made, of goat’s wool. The outer shell is a tarp-like material, but the inside is colorfully lined. The ceiling is made from two large pieces sewn together in the center, down the length of the tent. The front wall has triangular cut pieces that attach to the vaulted roof and the straight horizontal pieces of the walls. The dirt floor is covered by rugs and is amazingly clean. The poles of the tent are hand hewn from local trees. If you get close enough, you can smell olive wood. There are a few cushions around the large open space. The tent flaps are open on both sides to allow a cool breeze. There is another cloth wall separating the tent into a front open living room and a private back area. During our visit, two young women, covered with veils and only showing their eyes, keep peeking around the corner flap of the back room. They giggle and whisper and disappear when you gaze in their direction, only to reappear in a few seconds.
Abu Hakeem has just come from the fields where he was working as a farmer in the olive groves. He graciously invites us into his home. We remove our shoes and settle around on the cushions. I was curious to note a solar panel in the dirt yard and now see a string of bare light bulbs down the center of the tent and a small hot plate as well as a small television. Abu Hakeem has already set a kettle of water to boil. He is anxious to show hospitality to his guests. There are eight of us; five white English speakers and three Arabic speakers.
Abu Hakeem has offered us Jordania Tea to drink. It’s a blend of spices that is almost like a sassafras tea, with hints of orange and coffee. We want to be gracious and honor the household of Abu Hakeem by partaking of the tea, but looking at the surrounding with a cloud of flies in the top corner of the tent makes it difficult. Abu Hakeem pours tea into his tea cup and drinks it down. Then he brings the kettle to the first of us sitting on the cushion and pours another serving into the same cup. Well. Many thoughts cross through our minds as we share that cup, but we’re on a task that won’t stop for a few shared germs. We all have our cup and Abu Hakeem is satisfied.
We speak together of Abu Hakeem’s life in Syria, his family and especially his children. Why has he, a Muslim, invited this group of Mamadaniya (Baptists) into his home? His children are attending a school that has begun because of the Jordanian Baptist’s work to help Syrian refugees. He left his country five years ago because of the war and the dangers to his family. His children, like the children of so many other refugees, have not been able to attend school. Many of the older children have not learned the basic Arabic alphabet for reading and writing. Earlier that day, we spent time at the Mamadaniya Madrasa (Baptist school) to meet and interact with the children.
Kasem is one such child of war-torn Syria. At ten years old, he is the oldest in his family with three brothers and three sisters. In the refugee camp, there are no education opportunities for him, but his family now lives outside the camp. Because of his immigrant/refugee status, he is not allowed to go to the public school. The Jordanian government has allowed Jordanian Baptists to create an alternate fully-government-approved school. The school house is a small five room building with a kitchen and a central breeze-way. There are one hundred children packed into those five rooms! The school is completely full and there are one hundred more children on the waiting list. There is no tuition and most of the teachers are volunteers. The church has provided a van to bus the children from their homes. The van is often packed with three dozen or more children in spaces normally set aside for eighteen. Another van is sorely needed. Their school day covers subjects in Arabic, English and Math.
Kasem is delighted to begin learning the English alphabet and hopes one day to be an English teacher. Kasem says that he is very happy to be in the school. He feels much love there. His grandmother is still in Syria and he doesn’t know whether she is safe or not. He misses her cooking, but smiles when he says that his mom is still the best cook. He has fond memories of his house in Syria and the school he used to attend. When you see Kasem interacting with the other boys, it almost seems like every other school boy in the world; active, bright, mischievous and playful. We’re so thankful that Kasem and many other children have the opportunity for school, but further, we’re thankful that these children are able to hear certain stories from the Christian faith and to interact with loving, caring teachers.
Back in the tent, as we continue to share in conversation, more family have arrived from the fields. His neighbors also have joined us, probably quite curious at the guests. Our Arabic speakers are eager to share and the discussion is quite open concerning faith and life. These visits are repeated several times during a two-day period. All these families are receiving home-visits because of their relation to the school. We visit the students; we share with a shepherd; we drink tea with a farmer, we enjoy the pride of a grandfather in his grandchildren. The homes vary, but the hospitality is the same. Their stories are similar, but each child represents an opportunity for a better future. Each family represents an opportunity for an open dialogue on faith.
55-year-old Abu Simon (Father of Simon) left Syria five years ago. That was the last time he saw his son Simon, who was shot in the leg by soldiers while going to the market to buy food for the family. He was taken away by the soldiers and has not been seen since. During that same year, Abu Simon and his family were threatened several times. His neighbor was a widow with two boys. Soldiers came and threatened the woman by saying they were going to take both her boys. The woman refused. The soldiers pulled out their guns and threatened to kill both boys if she didn’t let them go. The woman, in hysteria, asked that they would kill one boy and leave the other with her. The soldiers shot and killed one boy, but somehow the other son was injured as well, grazing his head. He soon died as well.
The household of Abu Simon includes his bachelor brother, his wife, two sons and a daughter, their spouses and his grandchildren. He was a successful businessman who owned a furniture store and a materials store with fabrics for furniture and curtains. He left his livelihood, his home and his possessions and journeyed across the border to Jordan. Now there are 14 people all living together in the same two-bedroom flat.
In all the misery and death, God is working in the life of Abu Simon. During a visit to his home, he was asked if he would permit our group to pray for him in the name of Christ. Our guide wanted to share a bible verse and was using his phone to do so. Abu Simon remarked that he had a Bible that he and his brother were reading! A missionary from South Korea had given it to him. Remember that Abu Simon is a lifelong practicing Muslim. The current situation in his life has opened doors to Christ. He was very receptive to reading a passage from the New Testament. We closed our visit with invitations for follow-up and prayers. We came around in a circle and I asked permission to place my hand on his shoulder. As we prayed, we asked the Lord for truth, love, grace and mercy in His life as well as the life of his lost son.
We make another visit with another family whose father works as a shepherd. He also left Syria about five years ago displaced by the war. The shepherd has only recently arrived at the farming compound, where refugees who are interested and experienced live in small two room poured-concrete homes and work various jobs in the olive groves and farms surrounding them. His boy is attending the free Baptist school, but has not been in school for almost five years and is lagging far behind. He has two special needs daughters who stay at home.
We gathered under the shade of a tree on a sand-covered tarp. The shepherd brought out cushions with torn coverings for us to sit on. I noticed he took off his sandals, as was the custom, before he stepped onto the tarp. His feet were covered in the dry red dirt and sand, but the tarp was already covered with the same sand. Soon another family arrives from across the field, curious to meet the strange foreign visitors.
Through translators our group asked a few questions. The leader of our team, a Jordanian Christian, takes the lead and speaks to the two Muslim families about Jesus. I look at the dry cluttered surroundings, the small block house and a few scraggly chickens. I think of the poverty of the family, the stress of displacement, lack of health-care and uncertain future. How can we come and speak of the graciousness of Jesus from the position of all our riches?
But we speak of Jesus, his grace and mercy and especially His love. The Muslim fathers are interested and even the wife makes a few comments. They admit to respecting all religions, but they are followers of the One True God with Mohammed as his prophet. The conversation is good and we make our points about Jesus, the Messiah. As we stand to leave, I share with them a story they have never heard: The Story of the Sower and the Seed. I tell them that they are men of the earth, who know the way of farming and animals. I tell them of the farmer who casts his seed on the hard soil, the scavenging birds, the growing thorns and finally the good soil. As I speak through a translator, I know that the Spirit is speaking through me to these men of agriculture. I close my story by sharing with them that we have brought a spiritual seed; a word of truth and love. They nod in understanding. We pray that the spiritual seed will grow in the hearts of these men and their families and that Jesus, the Messiah will glorify himself in their lives.