Aileen Coleman A woman in the service of an adopted people

Aileen Coleman
A woman in the service
of an adopted people
Photo of Aileen Coleman at home with Cloud the Cat (Photos: Handout from Jacky Sawalha)
Jordan recently celebrated Mother’s Day, an occasion for many to remember one woman who lives in the north of the country and who was not only foster mother to nine babies in need, but also put Mafraq on the map as a regional center for the treatment of tuberculosis (TB). اضافة اعلان

Since 1965, Mafraq has been home for Aileen Coleman, an Australian national born in 1930, who graduated with a degree in nursing, midwifery and hospital administration. She has dedicated her life to a people and their culture that she has accepted as her own.

Her story would not be complete without the inclusion of the late Dr Eleanor Anne Soltau, a TB specialist who was born in Tennessee in 1916. Together, they founded Annoor Sanatorium for Chest Diseases (Annoor is Arabic for “The light”), which Aileen registered in the US as charity.

View of the front entrance of the Annoor Sanatorium for Chest Diseases, Mafraq.

It all began in 1957, when Coleman met Soltau while working at a hospital in Aroub, Palestine. They shared compassion for their bedouin patients, whose nomadic lifestyle often prevented a complete recovery from TB, an otherwise curable disease. This prompted them to move to Jordan in 1965 and treat bedouins closer to home.

Aileen found it hard to adjust to being a woman in a male-dominated society until she realized that she had to be the one to change, which “made coping a lot easier”, she mused. It was at this point that she shed her Western values, which considered the floor a place of “dirt and disease”, and accepted the bedouin custom of eating seated on the floor. She also stayed true to her belief – “I did not come here to Westernize, I came here to learn” – which is a sentiment expressed in correspondence she shared with Abu Hounaik, otherwise known as Glubb Pasha.

Photo of Aileen Coleman with her namesake, young Aileen, out in the badia.

With $25 between them and a large dose of faith, Coleman and Soltau departed for Amman where a meeting had been arranged with the minister of health at the time, Dr Ahmad Abu-Qoora. After they presented the idea of the TB hospital project, the minister asked them who they worked for. On hearing that they only represented themselves, after a long moment of silence the minister replied: “And how can I help you? Where would you like to go?”
“I did not come here to Westernize, I came here to learn.”
The minister recalled a conversation about the problems the bedouins faced in the north of the country and suggested that they look at Mafraq. With government approval, their fate was sealed.

In Mafraq, they realized that their options were limited, but in time found a suitable two-story house. After finalizing the paperwork, they began work on converting the modest building into a 16-bed hospital where they stayed for the next eight years, persevering in cramped conditions and with scant finances in the belief that their faith will overcome obstacles; they were rarely disappointed.

Coleman never worried about raising the vast sums of money for the annual budget. She only knew that somehow the donations arrived and that God would always provide. Such was the case when Lester Gates, an American farmer, visited Jordan in 1966 and offered to volunteer his services as a handyman for six months. He stayed for 22 years. It was Lester who convinced Aileen to build a place of their own. In 1972, he financed the purchase of a 107-dunum plot of land on the outskirts of Mafraq, as well as the construction of a 40-bed hospital, designed around a courtyard so that every bed could have a window view. And it was Lester who planted the 800 olive trees that provide the olives and olive oil for patients’ meals.

The Annoor Sanatorium for Chest Diseases, Mafraq, [view of the men’s hospital rooms at the Anoor...]

By the late 1980s their workload was increasing. Soltau had established an outpatient clinic in Ras Al-Naqab in the south, while Coleman developed outreach programs throughout the desert regions. Travelling constantly, they did not have a moment to spare. Little did Coleman know what personal challenge she was about to face when a terminally sick bedouin woman from Syria arrived with a young baby girl. The mother died shortly after and Aileen was asked to care for the girl that she named Noura, who stayed with her for three years. Thus began the many years of fostering babies in need as a result of the trust he tribal elders of bedouin communities had in her.

After Noura, Aileen looked after twin boys whose mother had died in childbirth, Anwar, now a storekeeper for the UN at the Zaatari refugee camp, and Munir who grew up in Finland; then Thuraya, a new-born baby girl in need of care after her mother died from heart failure who is now happily married and a mother in her own right and welcomes Coleman to her home in Safawi as the “raeesa” (or “boss”) on a regular basis.

Shortly afterwards, Aileen helped a woman who was left partially paralyzed after suffering a heart attack during delivery of triplets, one of whom did not survive. Coleman returned to Mafraq with two premature baby girls, “in a box”, in need of constant care. Despite the lack of sleep, the twin girls, Asma, now a happily married mother, and Ibtisam, a teacher, gave Coleman much joy; 30 years later, they continue to do so.

In 2007, Coleman stepped up again and took in Laith, who was returned to his family in the Badia five years later, and in 2013, she cared for an Indonesian boy who was born at the hospital and who she named Nour El Huda, “light of the one who will lead me to God”, until he was adopted in Indonesia one year later. They all had happy endings.

View of Aileen Coleman’s house with Cloud the Cat in the foreground.

Coleman was so devoted to her work that she never married. Even an offer of 10 camels and JD3,000 was not going to change her mission in life: caring for the bedouins who she counts as her very dear friends.

After Soltau’s death in 1997, Coleman took on the added responsibility of the Ras al Naqab clinic. Travelling from Mafraq to Ras Al Naqab once a week, she soon realized “how fast a Volvo can go!”

In 2012, at the age of 82, Coleman handed over the day-to-day administration of the hospital to Herb Klassen, the former administrator of the Ras al Naqab clinic, and focused on training students in collaboration with the nursing department of Al al-Bayt University.

By 2017, she thought her days as a foster mother were over. However, that thought was short lived when she discovered a 9-month-old baby girl in need of hospital care during a visit to friends in a remote village. After reaching an agreement with the child’s grandfather, which was written on paper and sealed with a thumbprint of pomegranate juice, little Nour returned with Coleman and stayed for eight months. Now five years old, she considers Coleman her “special grandma”.

Despite the challenges, Coleman role was “to love and love and love ‘em”, she says with a radiant smile that lights up the room.

Coleman was awarded the King Hussein Medal of Distinction for Humanitarian Services in

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