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Our Sisters in Amman

Franciscan Sisters in suburban Amman, Jordan, provide healthcare, moral support and religious training to impoverished women and children.

In the rolling hills of northwest Jordan lies the busy city of Amman. The city and its environs are home for nearly half a million Palestinian refugees, 93,000 of whom live in crowded camps. Most of the refugees are ill-housed, ill-nourished, and badly in need of medical care.

Four enthusiastic, hard-working Franciscan Sisters are helping to meet that need each day at their clinic in Marka, a suburb of Amman. Sisters Ellen, Dorothy, Bridget, and Christine, all of whom are nurses, began with a one-room clinic where they gave health care to mothers and babies. Today, their recently-expanded building contains seven rooms, and their treatment programs include prenatal instruction and care and regular postnatal checkups. One of the Sisters’ most important goals is to reduce the high rate of infant deaths caused by malnutrition and lack of education for new mothers.

The clinic is capably directed and administered by Sister Ellen. It serves over 1,200 registered patients. There is considerable turnover, since the mothers come less frequently after childbirth. Most of them are from camps in the area, but as news of the clinic spreads by word of mouth, patients come from farther away to be treated.

Mothers with children in their arms trudge along dusty roads; the lucky ones catch a ride from a passing car or truck. All the patients are accompanied by several friends or family members.

Many of the women coming in for their first visit are filled with anxiety and fear. They are suspicious of treatment that is offered without charge. They have little or no experience of modern medical technology, and they are frightened of injections, medicines, and instruments such as blood pressure pumps. Many patients refuse to give blood samples at first, thinking that the procedure will kill them.

The fears and mistrust of the women present a frustrating obstacle to the Sisters, who are eager to help where help is so desperately needed. Before they can relieve suffering or prevent illness, however, they must work to instill trust and confidence in their patients. Dr. Mazen, who works at the clinic several hours each day, faces the same problem. Patients who have never been treated by a doctor before are often afraid to be examined. With gentleness and infinite patience, Dr. Mazen reassures each one and calms her fears at the unfamiliar procedures.

If a woman is too frightened and upset to be examined, Dr. Mazen relies on the help of Diana, a volunteer worker who is on duty at the clinic every day. With Dr. Mazen there to guide and direct her, Diana conducts the examination. Through Diana’s hands, Dr. Mazen is able to treat the occasional patient who might otherwise have gone away, needing care but afraid to receive it.

Each day of the week at the clinic is designated for a particular kind of care. One day is set aside for prenatal registration. Mothers who are pregnant come to register and to be checked by Sister Bridget, who is a midwife. Another day is reserved for baby care. Women bring their children in for check-ups, injections, medication, and advice.

Mothers who will soon give birth come to the clinic on another day for final examinations. Most of the births take place in the families’ homes, which are often small, crowded one-room houses. Expectant mothers are encouraged to go to a hospital if complications arise, but many fail to go because of misunderstanding or lack of transportation.

Muslim girls generally marry young, often at 13 or 14 years of age. It is not uncommon for a woman of 25 to be expecting her eighth or ninth child. These young mothers of large families must raise their children in cramped quarters with very poor sanitary conditions. The places where the children play are little more than open running sewers. Under these circumstances, another pregnancy presents a heavy physical, emotional, and financial burden to the mother, and severe depression may result. The Sisters and staff of the clinic regularly provide much-needed counseling and comfort for troubled mothers. They also conduct classes in natural family planning to help avoid the problem of unwanted pregnancies.

Besides providing medical treatment, the clinic also serves as a community resource center both for the patients and the Sisters. One day a week, food supplies are given to starving families. The needy receive rations of lentils, rice, and other staples. For many, this food is the only source of nutrition for the week.

From the people who come to the clinic, the Sisters learn about other poor families who may be eligible for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s Needy Child Sponsorship Program. Sister Dorothy works on the program in the Amman region. She spends much of her time traveling to other impoverished camps in the area, to check on the progress of the children and to gather information for concerned sponsors.

Visiting the families in the camps can be difficult and discouraging. Poverty, filth, and stench are everywhere. Sister Dorothy often meets with harassment from some of the refugees because of political and religious tensions. The camps are so wretched that it requires faith and courage to endure a visit, to say nothing of daily life there. Yet they are also a testimony to the refugees’ will to live.

In addition to working on the Needy Child Sponsorship Program in Amman, the Sisters have developed several projects of their own to meet the needs of the people. Sister Bridget plans regular visits to the women’s prison in Amman. Conditions at the prison are cramped and depressing. The women who are confined there have no opportunity for useful employment, and as a result their self-esteem is pitiably low. With a social worker, Sister Bridget encourages the women and supplies such items as soap and combs to help them care for themselves.

Sister has also devised a project whereby the women can learn a skill and be rewarded for it. She has taught them to make baby blankets using material donated by local merchants. The blankets are sold at the clinic for a small sum, and the women in the prison receive part of it. Earning their own money helps them to build a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.

In addition to her work in the clinic and with the prisoners, Sister Bridget visits the elderly, many of whom are needy but cannot leave their homes. Sister brings food and medicine, and gives injections. Most important of all, she gives the gift of friendship to lonely old people. A fluent speaker of Arabic, Sister Bridget brings a few precious moments of company and conversation whenever she visits.

Another of the successful programs the Sisters run is designed to help young girls. The daughters of needy families are given the opportunity to learn to sew at a small school outside Marka. During a course of instruction lasting about nine months, the girls learn sewing, pattern cutting, embroidery, weaving, and knitting. Once they have mastered the trade, they are able to earn a living and help support their families through satisfying work.

One of the Sisters’ fastest-growing projects is religious instruction for children. The Sisters hold Sunday school classes each week in their home. Many of the children who attend have no other means of learning about their Faith. As word of the classes spreads, more and more children come to be taught.

No matter what project the Sisters undertake, each of them plays a special part in its success. In the clinic and in the prison, with the elderly and among the children, each Sister brings her own talents and her dedication to those in need. And each of them finds special joy in her work of service. Sister Ellen says, “We learn a lot from working with the poor. Their helplessness, their total dependence on other people, and their inability to help themselves teach us what poverty of spirit really means.”

Margaret Kelberer visited Jordan and worked with the Sisters in the clinic.

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