Longtime youth pastor and activist Edward Walsh and his wife, Marian, a retired schoolteacher, will soon embark on a two-week trip to Amman, Jordan, where they will volunteer with a project that provides aid to the often-forgotten urban refugees displaced by the wars in Iraq and Syria.
When they return home in early October, the couple hope to raise awareness about the “invisible refugees” who make up 80 percent of displaced people but are often left out of media coverage because they are not confined to UN camps, according to Walsh.
“It was recognized that it’s these refugees that aren’t getting the help. The UN isn’t paying attention to these. They’re getting no help from international bodies,” Walsh said. “The governments of Lebanon and Jordan are having to bear the financial impact, and it’s the NGOs and the nonprofits that are having to pick up the weight of that.”
The couple will work with the Collateral Repair Project, a nonprofit started in 2006 by two American women who wanted to connect citizens of the U.S. and other coalition countries with Iraqis who suffered from war in their country. Walsh said that the organization takes a “holistic” approach to providing aid with not only food and housing but programs to rebuild the sense of community lost to violence.
“It seeks to meet the needs of the whole person as well as the family unit,” Walsh said. “And that’s not being done by hardly anybody else.”
Marian Walsh, an elementary school teacher for 31 years, hopes to work with women and with children whose families can’t afford to provide them an education.
“I’ll be a really good gopher for whatever else needs to be done,” she said.
Edward and Marian, both in their early to mid-70s, will stay in a hotel in downtown Amman surrounded by shops where they will be able to take care of their basic needs. About 50 miles away, just over the Syrian border, there are 70,000 refugees who are being blocked from entering the country. There, Edward said, women are dying in childbirth, disease is rampant and there is always the risk that the violence will follow them.
Jordan has become a target for the Islamic State because of the government’s close ties to the United States. Knowing of this threat, the Walshes will rely on locals and the Americans who know the area to help them avoid danger.
“There are a few shopping centers there that are very Western,” Walsh said. “And those are the kinds of places that if ISIS wants to really hurt Jordan that’s where they would hit, so you just don’t go.”
The idea of getting involved in the refugee crisis came to Walsh about a year ago during a conversation with one of his students, Jacob Khouri, a native of Jordan. Khouri told him about his concerns for his home country, which was encapsulated for Walsh in the now famous photograph from a year ago next week of a soldier carrying Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian child whose lifeless body washed up on the Turkish shores after the boat he was in capsized.
“It just rips your heart and soul out, and yet so much of the world was not paying any attention of this,” Walsh said.
After that conversation, Walsh said that God was calling him to get involved.
“It’s what they call the fire in the belly, if you got that I don’t care how old you are,” Walsh said.
The Walshes received a blessing for their trip last Sunday at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church where they said they built strong roots as members. Pastor Nancy Petty, who has known the Walshes for about 20 years through the church, said that the congregation pitched in to help the Walshes buy equipment they need to communicate from overseas because, Petty said, once you’re a member, you’re always a member.
“I knew that the church would want to support them in any way that they could,” she said.
At the commissioning ceremony for the trip, Petty said that she was reminded that there are people who take service seriously.
“The people in the pews have these pictures in our minds, but we feel helpless and say, ‘What can we do? How do you even begin?’ And here you have two people who say, ‘We are going to this place where these people are,’” Petty said. “Our hearts have been so moved and we might not be able to go, but we can listen and learn and do whatever we can.”
This trip is only the beginning for the Walshes. The next step is bringing stories and experiences back to the United States through journals, photos and videos which they hope will lead to more support for future projects of this kind.
Walsh hopes that sharing the stories of these refugees will destroy the “walls of Islamophobia” that have been built by politicians seeking to scare people for political gain.
“We feel that by our going and being there it gives more credibility to our words when we return,” Walsh said. Marian added that the stories of the children are the most powerful.
“Everything becomes more valid when it has a face,” she said.
Gavin Stone: 919-829-8937