AMMAN, Jordan – Located in a leafy historic district of Jordan’s capital, St. Joseph’s Church has married Italian cuisine with Iraqi skills to provide unique educational opportunities for young refugees who have escaped religious persecution and violence. sectarian in their country of origin.
The church’s relaxing courtyard has become the location of Mar Yousef’s Pizza, a dining club often frequented by Jordanian church members, expatriate aid workers and lovers of delicious Italian cuisine.
The popular gathering place is the brainchild of Italian Father Mario Cornioli and Father Wisam Mansour, originally from Beirut. They felt the religious club needed another dimension at a time when Iraqi Christians were fleeing to Jordan from Islamic State militants invading their historic towns in the Nineveh plain.
“He serves pizza and pasta because I’m Italian,” Cornioli said with a laugh, “and you know we’re very famous for our good food.”
“I arrived in Jordan with the Iraqis about seven years ago,” the priest from Fiesole, near Florence, told Catholic News Service. He is part of the Fidei Donum (“The Gift of Faith”) program, ministering to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
“We have started emergency work at the church. Rooms have been opened to accommodate these guests in the different parishes of the country. The refugees then said, ‘Please Father, we don’t want to sit at home doing nothing.’ So we started thinking about doing something different from the usual carpentry and computer skills offered elsewhere,” he said.
“We wanted the training to make the best use of their time and ability and not waste their time waiting for their relocation to the West. The goal was for Iraqi Christian refugees to learn a livelihood skill, a vocational training that would help them in the future,” he explained.
Italian chefs first came from Italy to lead classes, turning their students into chefs and “pizzaoli”, or pizza makers.
“After five years, the quality of the food is still the same, maybe even better than when it started. We are therefore very proud of the project,” said Cornioli.
Twenty people are currently being trained and receiving money for their involvement. The payment “enabled them to live with dignity,” the priest said, stressing that the skills they learn will carry them into the future.
Aydin Kldan, 24, is one of 100 Iraqi men who learned Italian cooking. Born in Telskuf, 30 km north of Mosul, he and his siblings were visiting an uncle’s house when Islamic State militants stormed the town in August 2014.
“At the time, my mother and father traveled to San Diego to see my grandfather who was very ill there. My uncle had many friends in the government who called him, warning him to leave immediately to get security due to the very dangerous advance of these extremist fighters,” he told CNS.
Kldan, 17 at the time, and others quickly packed up and fled. He recalled how 14 people piled into two cars to escape. The usual three-hour journey to his parents’ home in Kirkuk took nine hours as they had to pass through dozens of police checkpoints and the roads were jammed with anxious Christians fleeing the militants.
Additional threats against his father’s business forced Kldan and his family members to seek refuge in Jordan. Their goal is to resettle in Australia or Canada.
For now, Kldan is learning to cook.
“I started here as a guy making shisha (smoking a traditional tobacco pipe) and then took reservations when my English got better,” Kldan explained. “Afterwards, I was an accountant and now I’m a manager. Sometimes I help cook, even make pizzas, when we have a lot of requests.
Other Iraqis make Italian ice cream and cheese.
“We all left Iraq for the same reason: Islamic State and militant threats. Although we have different personal histories, we share the same cultural background and are so close to each other. We are like a second family. We learned so much here,” Kldan said.
Some 100 Iraqi women have also received design and tailoring training from an Italian fashion designer and seamstresses as part of the parish’s “Rafidain” or Mesopotamia project.
“Some make leather wallets and bags and plan to set up a small pop-up shop,” Cornioli said. “Another sews bow ties and ties after learning from Italian women. We have printed silks, some imitating the colorful mosaics that line the exterior walls of the church, also created by the Iraqis. Silks and cloths are printed in Italy, which the Iraqis fashion into beautiful dresses.
In 2016, Cornioli oversaw the design and tailoring of an ivory-colored chasuble with an oriental yellow gold braid for Pope Francis. It was designed by more than a dozen Iraqi Chaldean Catholic women who asked the pope for prayers for peace.
Australian doctors Yi-An and Yokemei Neoh said they frequent Mar Yousef Pizza because the place “ticks all the boxes”, including great pasta, fresh salads and delicious ice cream, all served in a beautiful and clean environment. “Everyone is very polite, professional and attentive,” they said.
Seed funding for the project was spent and various UN agencies assisted during the pandemic so that the training could continue. Cornioli said the challenge is to become self-sufficient.
“We need to keep training the refugees because every year there is a turnover as they travel to resettle in the West, and new ones come seeking training. We have success stories. Our chefs have found work easily when they have traveled to Australia and elsewhere in various capacities. What we are doing has had a big impact,” he said.
“People are very happy to come here and they appreciate it. Moreover, we too are very happy. It’s really a nice place to come and it feels like an Italian family atmosphere.”