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When dialogue challenges the differences

An interview with Alessandra Fumagalli, a Comboni Sister, director of the Karak hospital in Jordan

From Busto Arsizio a step from the mausoleums of Petra. To help a group who are disadvantaged in two ways, being both Bedouin and women, and to achieve a dialogue between religions using actions rather than words. Sister Alessandra Fumagalli, fifty years old, speaking from the Jordanian desert, describes in this way the path that led her to direct the Italian hospital in Karak, opened in 1939 by the Comboni Missionaries a hundred and fifty kilometres from Amman, in the poorest area of the country.

You chose to live the dialogue with  Islam: how does your mission take place in everyday life?

It is a mixture between the consecrated life and the dialogue of life: we favour the Christian testimony when relating, trying to live with simplicity and working in the hospital with humility. We live side by side with the people, trying to purify the language, perceptions and judgements regarding different cultural and religious sensibilities. With the patients there is a silent dialogue made up of smiles and listening: we pay the same attention to everyone without being influenced by anything. It is a way of behaving particularly noticed by Muslims.

Who is your hospital devoted to?

First and foremost it is for women, and to those most vulnerable and discriminated against such as children, the local ethnic minorities, immigrants, yesterday it was refugees from Iraq and today it is the Syrians. We try to work for justice, peace, reconciliation: in a troubled area such as the Middle East we consider it a priority to create a space for dialogue in our general work. Our collaborators share our life, our charism, our aims. Moreover we also support those Christians left here: being with them means sharing their insecurity, difficulties and uncertainties.

How do you look after your patients?

Our hospital has been here since 1939. People know us, know that we are women consecrated to God and that we perform a voluntary service precisely because we have chosen to live in the service of God and the people. Of course, it happens that we are asked why it is that we are not married, have no children and live far away from our families. Our "independence" is accepted by men because we are foreigners. For those unfamiliar with the religious life it is difficult to understand this renunciation of family life.

What strikes you in your friendships with Muslim women?

We are immersed in a tribal culture, traditional and male-dominated; it often seems incomprehensible to us western women. The thing that I admire most in them is their ability to live in a positive way the negative situations they are in: they remain in the situations they find themselves in without running away. They trust in God and look for ways to make things work in their families. It may seem to us like resignation: but in reality sometimes we are more resigned, we terminate relations or abandon the field due to difficulties.

What limits do you advise in dealing with relations with people?

I think the biggest challenge is to manage our identity as Western women in a male-dominated culture: it is a fact that requires us to be vigilant and sensitive in our behaviour, in our language and in the way we relate. It was tiring getting to Karak to reorganize the hospital: I had to learn to communicate according to their framework, to take charge without wounding male pride, sometimes to accept the mediation of a man to communicate with some Muslims. I learned the hard way that you have to know the culture before you act. We are, however, in a privileged position: they know that the hospital is "Christian" and that there are nuns, but those who come to us are in need and this helps overcome mistrust. In seventy-four years we have left a positive impression and they respect us.

What makes you suffer when not being able to change certain situations?

The life of women is very difficult here. Thanks to the educational policies of Queen Rania girls have obtained easy access to university. However after university, their culture leads them back  to traditions, according to which first the father and then the husband govern their future. In the city, things are different, but here in the south - apart from study there is nothing - the cultural rules are very severe. My biggest sorrow is to see that so few women can have different prospects for their daughters.

Have you ever run into honour killings?

Honour killings are still practiced in Jordan, practiced by both Muslims and Christians, and this heavily influences the lives of women. In the last five years in Karak we have been approached by three young unmarried pregnant women: Jordanian law states that in these cases we are put them into direct contact with the Jordanian Association for Family Planning and Protection (Jafpp), which assists these women. This, however, does not prevent honour crimes, which can occur even after a long time.

What are the major difficulties you encounter in your work?

Here in the South, unemployment is high, tribalism still rules social life and religious fundamentalism has found fertile soil. The main difficulties, however, are related to the management of the hospital which by its nature and our choice remain non-profit making: we live in constant tension between ensuring efficiency according to the parameters of the Ministry of Health and having to make do under our financial conditions, which do not allow us to buy equipment that would improve the quality of our response when faced with the needs of the people. We face problems with little calculation and with great confidence in the fact that Someone will give us a hand in managing it all. There are, for example, experienced specialists who come to Karak once or twice per week. In this way we can continue to launch projects and to treat people.

What is your perception of what is happening in Syria?

Jordan is home to half a million refugees, but the authorities fear that this will increase. The people who live in the UN refugee camps live in a state of emergency and uncertainty: many Syrian refugees prefer to leave the camps or head to the south of the country. Here in Karak many families have arrived from Homs: we immediately opened the doors of the hospital, especially for women and children. The people are undergoing great trials; it is the young who suffer most. What transpires is that the situation in Syria is deliberately chaotic and the solution is not close: there are foreign powers which give precedence to their own economic interests, it is spoken about less and less and we fear that silence will begin to dominate.

What do you have need of?

Our hospital remains the reference point for the south: we have established a health care programme with Caritas Jordan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but our needs are continually increasing. We have hope in the support of our benefactors, especially for surgical assistance for refugees.

How was the resignation of Pope Benedict and  the election of  Pope Francis received ?

We were impressed by the attention that people reserved for these events. The resignation of Benedict XVI attracted great interest. And even among Muslim medical personnel there was a unanimous sense of admiration for the courage shown by Pope Ratzinger. One of them who had been in St. Peter's Square some years ago, was deeply impressed by this gesture, perhaps because somehow they had "known". The day after the election of Pope Francis we received the mabruk , that is, congratulations on the election of the new Pontiff. Here, too, his actions speak louder than words, than theological dialogue: the simple cross, his way of relating and his humanity have also been appreciated by people of Islamic faith who, like us, watched the event on television. And who, like us, have heard that it was God who is to show us the way.

Born in 1962 in Busto Arsizio, Alessandra Fumagalli worked for eight years in a well-known fashion house before entering  the Comboni (1990). After graduating and receiving her masters in Rome at the Pontifical Faculty of Education Sciences, the  Auxilium, in 2000 she moved to the United Arab Emirates, where she taught in a Catholic girls' high school. She graduated in Arabic studies in Cairo; from 2008 she has directed the hospital in Karak (Jordan).


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