Last Thursday afternoon, just before heading home to New York, I stood on Mount Nebo in Jordan and looked west to the Promised Land. Mount Nebo is where Moses stood at the end of his life, having led the Israelites in the desert for forty years, and died.
Today there is a modern Catholic church built over the remains of an ancient Byzantine church on Mount Nebo. The mosaics from the Byzantine church have been beautifully restored and are displayed as part of the modern church’s design.
My visit to Jordan came immediately after my formal pilgrimage to the Holy Land had ended. My purpose was to visit the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf (HLID)’s outreach programs to children and families with disabilities in the Syrian refugee camps of Za’atari and Azraq, which my organization, Episcopal Relief & Development, supports.
Each week HLID audiologists and vision specialists visit the camps to do assessments, fit hearing aids, replace batteries and provide eyeglasses. Everyday volunteer teachers, many of them Syrian refugees trained by HLID, teach the children sign language, speech therapy, basic education, and other life skills. The objective is to give the children the support they need to enter into the more formal school settings offered in the camps.
Many of the children I met no longer remember Syria. Some were born in the camps. Like the Israelites before them, their wandering in the desert has come to an end, for the moment, in Jordan.
Some families are trying to return to Syria and restart the lives they fled because of the violence. Other families are in the long and difficult process of seeking resettlement elsewhere. All are waiting.
There is a sense of suspended reality that permeates the camps. On the one hand, they are well organized. There are basic services. There is a modicum of security. And yet, no one wants these camps to become the permanent home for the families living there—most of all the families themselves. Everything is prefabricated and can be put up and taken down in the blink of an eye. No one is permitted to work. No one can leave the confines of the camp without permission.
The children I met were wary, and rightly so. Their resilience is being tested. For these children, it is not at all clear where they will find their Promised Land.
After a quick look inside the church on Mount Nebo, I wandered to the west-facing overlook. Below me I could make out the Dead Sea and just the bare outlines of Jericho through the haze. My companion told me that on a clear day one can see the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem from Mount Nebo.
As it was, all I could make out of the Promised Land was the vague contours of the topography. The rest was covered in fog.
I was disappointed. I wanted crisp clarity.
I wanted to see for all the children of Za’atari and Azraq what Moses had seen for the Israelites: a future.