Utah couple’s Mormon mission: Ease Syrian suffering

Amman, Jordan - Crawling through the desert by night, a Syrian woman — with her husband, brother and seven children — makes her way toward the border to escape into Jordan. Snipers, watching from a nearby hillside, fire on them, killing her husband and brother.

Another family flees the horror of Syria’s civil war, the father carrying his 2-year-old son with his wife by his side. Syrian soldiers take aim. They miss the man and instead hit the young boy, killing him. They seize the father but release the mother, who cradles her child’s lifeless body for a seemingly endless bus ride to find help.

These are the tragic tales LDS humanitarian missionaries Jim and Karyn Anderson hear nearly every day as they work among Jordan’s surging population of Syrian refugees.

It is a world away from the bucolic and tranquil life the Utah couple left in Farmington, where Jim was a bank president and Karyn a nurse. When they accepted the call to serve their church in any capacity, they scarcely could have imagined themselves supervising gravel work in a windy, dusty, teeming refugee camp or comforting escapees from a brutal conflict.

But that is what the Andersons, a couple in their 60s, have been doing for the past six months.

Syria’s unrest erupted in March 2011 with an Arab Spring-type uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Intense battles ensued between Assad loyalists and anti-regime rebels. More than 34,000 Syrians have been killed in the escalating violence, according to the Syrian Observer.

Jordan’s open-border policy grants refuge to all those escaping the warfare. They hail from both sides of the conflict, heightening tensions in the camps, where people don’t shy away from talking politics.

U.N. Refugee Agency Liaison Officer Ali Bibi says more than 215,000 Syrians have taken shelter in Jordan. This wave strains Jordan, the fourth-poorest country in the world, which has to house and feed tens of thousands of newcomers.

"Major infrastructure developments are occurring on a daily basis," Bibi says, "in addition to the support of food and nonfood items."

The camps also are moving to dry-food rations, which the refugees can cook themselves.

"Jordan is doing its best," he says. "We need the international support to move forward in supporting Jordan in assisting with transition commodities."

That’s where the Andersons and other aid workers come in.

Miles of misery » When the LDS couple arrived in Jordan in April, they went to several cities in the north, where refugees — hungry, hurting, disoriented and with only the clothes on their back — cross the border.

"We spent a little time visiting some of the wounded who had come across, those that were in prison, tortured," Karyn Anderson says. "We saw one young man, 18 years old, who had fled when the attacks came in his area. When he [went] back, his mother, father, two sisters and brother all had their throats slit."

Karyn tells of a man who had been in a Syrian prison camp, where guards, to teach him a lesson, cut off his toes. Later, they hacked off his foot. Then they cut up to his knee and then his hip. Finally, they severed his leg, emasculated him and threw him to the streets.

"So his comment was, ‘You know, look at me, of what value am I to anyone?’ And we said, ‘But you’re alive,’ " she says. "Those are hard situations to comfort."

Now the Andersons focus on Jordan’s largest refugee camp, Zaatari, a sprawling tent city about two hours from Amman that houses more than 35,000 people. Near the northern border city of Mafraq, the camp is essentially in a desert, where hot, dusty gales uproot tents and send families scrambling.

"We saw it before the first tent went up, and our impression was, ‘They can’t move people out here,’ " says Jim Anderson. "There wasn’t water. There wasn’t a town nearby. There wasn’t a way to allow them to be mobile."

In representing LDS Charities, a humanitarian outreach agency for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Andersons work with many aid organizations, especially the Jordanian Hashemite Charitable Organization (JHCO), which oversees all Syrian relief efforts and partners with the U.N. to run the camps.

The Andersons say they assess needs and "fill in the gaps," providing help where they can — more in the form of "hand-ups," not "handouts."

Fighting the dust » Ayman al-Mufleh, JHCO’s secretary-general, is grateful for the Utah couple. "We are proud to work with them," he says, pointing to LDS Charities as a "valued and trusted partner."

Before the Zaatari camp opened about three months ago, Jordan was trying to absorb refugees into society. But they overwhelmed an already-weak economy, so the government launched a large-scale camp. By the time Zaatari came online, it had 8,000 refugees waiting.

Now camps are mandatory for all Syrian refugees. Guards and police help keep the peace.

On a chaotic day one, the camp didn’t have restroom facilities, washing areas, even water. Now it has restrooms, operational kitchens and some semblance of order. UNICEF and Save the Children provide schools and expect to be able to handle 5,000 kids by December — still a fraction of the nearly 14,000 children in camp.

The U.N. strives to erect hundreds of new tents every 24 hours to accommodate the tide of refugees, which rises and falls depending on the bloodshed in Syria and has been as high as 2,500 in one day. While the strain is great and conditions dismal, Jim Anderson sees improvement.

"There are so many dedicated charitable people working," he says. "I have a great admiration for what Jordan is doing for these refugees."

The biggest headache may be the dust, the sand and the winds. Besides invading the food and the tents, the swirling dust makes everything look the same, disorienting children and families who can’t find their new homes. Women use their headscarves to cover their babies while men frantically tie down loose ends and possessions.

LDS Charities recently partnered with its Jordanian counterpart to haul in 20 trucks full of gravel to tamp down the dust. Refugees took buckets of it to spread outside their tents. Anticipating the rain and mud of the looming winter, the Andersons are working to distribute even more gravel.

Another challenge comes when divvying donations. The sheer number of refugees makes it hard to have enough for everyone, and any perceived slight can get ugly.

"A series of riots over living conditions last month caused thousands of dollars of extensive damage," The Jordan Times reported. Refugees torched warehouses and tents and injured guards.

"Just when you think you’ve solved one problem, the camp expands [dramatically]," says Karyn Anderson, "so you go to Plan B tomorrow. It’s just a continual challenge."

This is not exactly how the Mormon couple expected to spend their "golden years."

A different mission » LDS couples, usually after retirement, can apply for volunteer, full-time missions. In the Andersons’ case, the church called them.

As soon as Jim announced he would be ending his career as president of the Bank of Utah in June 2010, an LDS Church official asked if he and his wife would like to go on a mission. When later told it would be in the Middle East, they didn’t hesitate. Jim retired Dec. 31, 2010, and a month later they were on their way.

The couple spent two weeks commuting to the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo and attended orientation sessions at the church’s humanitarian center in Salt Lake City.

They were assigned to Beirut, where they spent 14 months distributing hygiene kits, providing beds to a women’s prison and performing other tasks. Then they were transferred to Jordan.

Jim’s business background and "get-it-done" attitude have proved vital in organizing, coordinating and implementing daunting multiagency projects.

Karyn’s nursing skills and her travels with Operation Smile — a children’s charity dedicated to treating facial deformities across the globe — has given her much to offer as well.

"We have backgrounds that are conducive to being volunteers," she says. "We [were] raised in that culture of giving service."

Yes, it’s hard to be away from family, they concede. Between them, they have 16 children and 35 grandchildren — four of whom have been born since they started their mission.

"Did we ever think we’d come on a mission like this?" Karyn asks. "No."

Though they are Mormon missionaries, the Andersons do not proselytize. Their aim is to foster good will and create relationships with people, communities and countries. Similarities between Mormonism and Islam have helped them bond with many in the Middle East.

Once, at a conference dinner, after turning down a drink — devout Latter-day Saints, like Muslims, do not drink alcohol — a host turned to them and exclaimed, "You! You are like a Muslim!"

When they discover the Andersons are Mormons, many Jordanians immediately turn to talk of U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is LDS.

Tears and joy » Throughout the experience, the Andersons have found allies in unlikely places. The Moroccan government set up the first hospital in the camp and staffed it with Moroccan doctors, some of whom had been trained in Utah by the National Guard. It was a surreal moment for the Andersons when they were sitting in a medical tent in Jordan and looking at pictures of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square that one of the doctors had on his laptop.

Karyn relishes these human connections.

She recalls passing out hygiene boxes in Mafraq, when a woman came up to her and pointed at the logo on Karyn’s shirt and then at the matching logo on the kit.

"She asked, ‘Is this you?’ And I said yes and tears just ran down her face and she hugged me and kissed me Arabic-style and then she wept in my arms," Karyn says. "Her home [in Syria] no longer existed and her family was gone."

Though most of their work is with Syrian refugees, the Andersons also have set up vision clinics, provided wheelchairs and given neonatal-resuscitation training. They even teamed up with Brigham Young University Arabic students, who staged a puppet show to train volunteers how to teach kids about the dangers of smoking.

All told, LDS Charities has provided more than half a million dollars in humanitarian aid to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, the Andersons noted. It has distributed infant formula, diapers, hygiene supplies and school kits. And, with cold weather approaching, thousands of blankets, coats and boots are awaiting shipment.

The Andersons expect to complete their mission in the next two months, but don’t yet know the exact day. Jim says Mormon officials have told them to stick around at least until the winter donations arrive and their current projects wrap up.

Only then can they think about leaving one desert country for another: their Utah home.

James Stack is a math major at the University of Utah, with a double minor in Arabic and Middle East studies. He is spending this fall in Amman, where he is doing an internship at The Jordan Times.