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Wounded Healers

Iraqi sisters offer health care to the poor, refugees in Jordan

Stalls displaying used clothing and other colorful wares flank either side of the church compound in which the Mother of Mercy Clinic is located. The clinic offers medical care to tens of thousands of refugees and poor locals living in and around Zerqa, Jordan’s industrial hub.

Sister Habiba Toma, who oversees the clinic, comes outside to welcome her visitors. Housed in an older building of cut limestone blocks, the traditional building material found throughout Jordan, the clinic is immaculate, well-maintained and fully equipped.

“By receiving these people with a smile and kindness, we look to restore the bonds of love, friendship and faith, acknowledging that there is no refuge except in God.”

Administered by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena since 2001 and funded by Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the clinic provides prenatal and neonatal care for the city’s poor women and children, as well as medical treatment to many others needing care.

The clinic was established more than 30 years ago by CNEWA-Pontifical Mission with the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, an English community of sisters who then worked in Jordan to combat the kingdom’s high infant mortality rate.

Located 12 miles northeast of the Jordanian capital of Amman, Zerqa was founded at the turn of the previous century by Chechens displaced by the wars between the Ottoman Turks and tsarist Russia. Later, Palestinian refugees found refuge there, and the United Nations set up a camp to offer immediate aid. Refugees from other countries — Bangladesh, Iraq and Syria — have since settled at the camp, situated near the Latin Catholic compound of St. Pius X of which the clinic is a part.

A densely populated city of about 800,000, Zerqa is largely impoverished, lacking infrastructure and employment opportunities. While its civic leaders have worked to address the city’s economic challenges and improve the quality of life, Zerqa also has been home to Islamists and extremists, who find anonymity in its crowded quarters.

Sister Habiba, head physician Dr. Ibrahim Kamil Alghabash and the staff empathize deeply with the clinic’s disadvantaged patients. They themselves are “wounded healers.”

Sister Habiba relates how she and her other sisters were forced to flee Qaraqosh, Iraq, a thriving Christian commercial town of 50,000 people in the Nineveh Plain outside of Mosul, when ISIS swept through in August 2014.

“We vowed we would be the last to leave because we had to ensure other townspeople were safely out,” she says of that traumatic, fearful ordeal.

Nun standing.
Sister Habiba Toma

“Escaping in the middle of the night on foot and by vehicle, we headed north toward the Kurdish area of Erbil seeking safety. We fled under the threat of having to pay the Islamic jizya protection tax or be killed by the militants,” says the older, spritely nun in earnest, her eyes widening.

“All along the way, there were constant stops at checkpoints. We made room in our vehicle for fleeing mothers and put children on our laps until we reached St. Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in Ankawa,” Sister Habiba explains.

Despite experiencing their own trauma and loss, she and the other sisters cared for the thousands of Christians who fled their homes and businesses. Having lost all their possessions, many of these people had only the clothes on their backs and slept on church pews and on mattresses strewn on the floors of churches, youth centers and schools.

As she recounts the story, Sister Habiba points to the sun shining through the clinic’s kitchen window.

“Later we were housed in trailers in Ankawa, where there was just one tiny window,” she says, her voice trailing off.

Two other sisters who are nurses, Sister Ibtisam Girguis and Sister Maryann Kamii, serve at the clinic with Sister Habiba. They are both from Batnaya, an Iraqi town that had been overrun by ISIS militants as well. Sister Maryann, who has been at the clinic for 11 years, is currently working on a Ph.D. in counseling in view of helping young people discern their future after experiencing the trauma of conflict or the coronavirus pandemic. Sister Ibtisam has been at the clinic only four years.

Sister Habiba, also from Iraq, has been in Jordan the longest among the three, having served there in various capacities on and off for more than 14 years. She started at the clinic in 2001, but was reassigned to Iraq in 2010. She returned to Jordan seven years later with the defeat of ISIS to serve at the clinic once again.

Dr. Alghabash is a Palestinian refugee, originally from Jaffa. He had won a United Nations scholarship to study medicine in Egypt and later came to the Zerqa clinic, where he has been working for the past 30 years.

Portrait of a doctor.
Dr. Ibrahim Kamil Alghabash, the head physician of Mother of Mercy Clinic. (photo: Yazan Hmoud)

“My family and I have been refugees since 1948. I like to work here because we assist the refugees and poor around this industrial area and those living in the surrounding harsh desert region,” he says.

“I feel good when I give my expertise and help to these people, because as refugees, we suffer. And as Palestinian refugees, we have suffered for a long time and are still suffering,” he says, his brown eyes expressing sorrow.

At the clinic’s door, one of the sisters welcomes patients and takes their temperature before allowing them entry. The clinic is pristine. Patients are instructed to use hand sanitizer, while masks and gloves are also available for those who need them.

Patients represent more than 20 nationalities, although the majority is Jordanian, says Sister Maryann. She points to the clinic’s online report, which demonstrates the diversity: Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians and other Middle Eastern nationalities, including Kuwaitis, Yemenis, Saudis and Lebanese, as well as those further afield from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Romania and Turkey. Most patients are Muslim.

“Our specialty is maternity and child health. We have a vaccination program, excluding coronavirus vaccines, for children from the age of 1 to 1½ years old. But we also treat adults, both men and women, for a variety of diseases and infections,” she explains.

“We follow up with pregnant women from the first week of pregnancy through the ninth month when the mother decides which hospital to deliver her baby,” adds Sister Habiba. “We offer ultrasounds and a variety of tests, including protein, diabetes, routine urine, general chemistry, stool and others. Visits are scheduled weekly or monthly.”

The clinic also has a female doctor, several nurses, a pharmacy and a well-appointed lab for ultrasounds and other tests.

Rasha Khalil al Toum, the social worker at the clinic, teaches people about disease prevention and helps those struggling with autism and a variety of personal and social challenges, including financial and psychological stress, and family or marital issues.

Some patients will exhibit symptoms, such as tension headaches, sleep problems, shortness of breath and abdominal pain, that are psychosomatic. Others suffer from psychological disorders of varying degrees, from mild to severe, including depression, mood disorders, phobias and anxiety.

One of the biggest challenges is “a lack of awareness of the importance of mental health and psychotherapy,” says Ms. Al Toum. “They seem to know little about the effective methods of education and behavior modification.”

A woman sitting with her daughter in her lap.
Rasha al Sheikh and her younger daughter, Rand, wait for medical staff in an examination room. (photo: Yazan Hmoud)

“Some parents seem to be unaware of the importance of valuing childhood,” she adds. “So, they need instruction on the best methods to raise their children.”

Children in difficult parenting situations and requiring assistance may suffer from pronunciation delay, involuntary urination and distraction.

“The clinic provides support and assistance as much as possible to sensitive cases of women suffering domestic abuse or other forms of violence,” Ms. Al Toum continues. “We listen to them, provide psychological support, and show them all available options to help them make decisions about their lives.”

“We see results that are good and quite advanced in treating children or women,” says Sister Habiba. “This is very important for us, especially in providing psychological counseling.”

“I see our service as very important, especially for the poor, because we do not consider any class or religious differences, just people in need of medical treatment,” she adds. “We see God in every person, and when we serve them, we feel that we are serving God as well.”

Jordan enforced a tough lockdown in spring 2020 in a bid to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which gripped the resource-poor Arab country, seeing many businesses shuttered and unemployment skyrocket from 17 to 25 percent.

In this same period, the Mother of Mercy Clinic stepped up to meet the many challenges posed by COVID-19, even exceeding past performance.

“From the start of the pandemic, our clinic has been sanitized every month, following Pontifical Mission’s directives, including the wearing of masks and gloves. Everything is meticulously cleaned and disinfected, including door handles,” Sister Habiba explains. “The Jordanian Ministry of Health visits numerous times to inspect our facilities and they see that all is fine.”

“More people are coming to our clinic because they feel safe here,” she adds. “They know we are taking the necessary precautions and measures, so they have confidence to come here. They trust us and they know we are worried about the condition of their health.”

Due to the need for social distancing, the elder sister is often instructing patients to sit further apart on the wooden benches lining the clinic’s waiting area corridor. A nurse teaches patients as they wait about the necessary hygiene measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. One woman sits quietly, listening as she cradles her tiny baby. The baby wears a white cap embroidered with the phrase, “I (heart) Mom.”

Colorful pictures of babies and children adorn the waiting area walls, along with information for visitors on how to stay safe during the pandemic, medical advice for pregnant mothers and those struggling with Hepatitis A, bladder infections and other disorders.

Dr. Alghabash says he has noticed more psychosomatic symptoms among patients due to the pandemic and the harsh living conditions they face. The poor are most affected by the pandemic, lacking the funds to meet daily needs for their families.

“Every morning, they think about how they will manage the day and how they will provide food and other necessities for their families,” he says. “It’s not just a one-time concern, but it continues always.”

Sister Maryann says the clinic spent 33,023 Jordanian Dinars (US $46,577) on providing free health care services, including lab work and pharmaceutical costs, to 15,225 people out of the nearly 18,000 patients in 2021. The rest paid at greatly reduced rates.

“We have helped a lot of people who have no money, no jobs or who have lost their jobs. Most of the financial assistance for the clinic comes from Pontifical Mission and we are very grateful for this generous support,” Sister Maryann says.

The clinic has built up a loyal following over the decades, as well as drawing those who are new to Zerqa.

Ghadeer Hazim Jalayleh, a Jordanian Palestinian Muslim, sits in the waiting area, wearing a black headscarf.

“After I married seven years ago, I started coming here. I love this Catholic clinic,” says the 30-year-old. “I’ve now had three children and I’ve brought each one here for vaccinations and check-ups and the monitoring during my pregnancies. The staff treat us warmly and well.”

A nurse giving a shot to a child in a nursery room.
A doctor at Mother of Mercy Clinic gives an infant a routine vaccination. (photo: Yazan Hmoud)

“In other places, we wait for a long time to see a doctor or to get test results. Not so here,” continues Mrs. Jalayleh, recounting the reasons the Mother of Mercy Clinic is her first choice. “Everything is prompt and professional. We can quickly see a doctor or staff and have confidence in knowing they are competent.

“But there is added value here, because of the relationship the staff fosters with patients,” she adds. “There is a personal touch. You’re not treated just as a number.”

Wearing a traditional keffiyeh headscarf, Farhan Tamun stands out among the women and their babies. The 27-year-old father plops his tiny son, Ibrahim, on a cushioned examination table surrounded by colorful pictures of animals and other objects.

“My family and I came to Zerqa fleeing the conflict in Syria in 2013,” says Mr. Tamun. “We escaped the bombing and fighting in our hometown of Homs. We have nothing to go back to, as our home was destroyed. It was a physically grueling journey, most of it on foot and occasional travel by car. It took us 13 days to arrive because Homs is very far from Jordan.

“Now, I am married with three children and I’ve come to this clinic for help with them all,” he says. “Somehow, being in this environment I can forget some of my problems and feel relaxed in knowing that this is a good and safe place.”

“Life for refugees is not easy,” he continues. “I am unable to find permanent employment in a restaurant or pizza shop, so I try to work as a day laborer. And it has been especially difficult to find work during the coronavirus pandemic, so the help provided here is really appreciated. I am grateful the nuns are taking great care of the refugees who come here.”

Iraqi Christian refugees Savio Metty, his wife, Aynaq, and their 6-year-old daughter, Maryam, are also regulars at the clinic. Mr. Metty, a security guard at the nearby Catholic parish church, is having his diabetes condition checked by the doctor. The family fled to Jordan in 2019, after their village was overrun with ISIS militants. They had sought shelter at a camp for internally displaced people in Ankawa, before leaving for Zerqa. They hope to resettle in Australia.

“We are thankful for all the services provided to my family by the sisters and this clinic. We don’t know how we would be able to manage without them,” says Mr. Metty, 33.

Sister Habiba puts into words her sense of calling at the clinic.

“I try to be with the patients and feel what they feel. I want to be beside them and try to help them as much as possible, spiritually, emotionally and with free medical services, if that is what is needed,” says Sister Habiba. “Of course, I always pray for them.”

“I want to help as well those who are refugees, who once lived well, had their own homes, businesses and finances, and now they have nothing,” the sister explains. “Many have no jobs, so when they have health problems, I really want to see them treated, but our finances are also tight as costs rise.”

“We see God in every person, and when we serve them, we feel that we are serving God as well.”

“I try to call Pontifical Mission sometimes for some refugees requiring surgery or for help with the delivery of their babies. And Pontifical Mission always assists them by providing funds for medication,” Sister Habiba explains, praising the consistent assistance made possible thanks to benevolent donors around the world.

She says she tries to help refugees find work by calling on those known in the community and by supplying some foodstuffs, baby formula and blankets through donations.

“We have dedicated our lives to God’s service and so we are in the service of everyone he puts along our path. We spread his love, tenderness and care to those in poverty, sickness and every kind of distress,” she says.

“We know that, without this clinic, the poor would be greatly hurt. But by receiving these people with a smile and kindness, we look to restore the bonds of love, friendship and faith, acknowledging that there is no refuge except in God.”


Based in the Middle East for the past 30 years, Dale Gavlak has reported for CNEWA from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

The CNEWA Connection

For nearly a century, the church has been a health care force in Jordan, beginning with Amman’s Italian Hospital founded in 1926. CNEWA has long collaborated with women religious who provide health care to the poorest of the poor, including the Comboni Missionaries in Amman and Kerak, the Rosary Sisters in Irbid, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, whose mobile clinics took on Jordan’s once high infant mortality rate, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Zerqa and the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation in Amman. Whether in refugee camps or impoverished villages, CNEWA is present through these valiant servants. They have much to do, as the need remains great.

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