Saturday, July 21, 2012

Refugees in Ramtha

I don't even know where to begin to describe what an amazing experience it was to go into the refugee camp at Cyber City, Ramtha, to deliver donations and supplies for the families living there! This was my hope before I came to Jordan, but I had no idea how in the world it would happen. Then I met a group of amazing new friends, who have put together a grass-roots campaign to help Syrians. Like most things here, I came to be associated with them through contacts with friends of friends of friends of friends. This is the way things get done in this part of the world. Forget sending an email, just talk to people and they will connect you with the right other people. My friend Tariq in Abu Dhabi introduced me (electronically) to his friend Sonabel. When we met, she told me about her good friend Riyadh whose work is organizing logistics for a Swiss Child Protection NGO. Riyadh was so kind and encouraging, and gave me 3 or 4 different ideas of how he thought I might get involved to help Syrians. One of those ideas was introducing me to his friend Kadar, with whom I became good friends.

Kadar's father is Syrian and her mother is Jordanian. Her three brothers live in the UAE, while her parents and sister live in Syria. They have not heard from her father for over a month now. He is well-respected in his community and was trying to make peace and understanding between two ethnic/religious groups when he disappeared. A family friend told them that he caught a glimpse of their father while he was in prison, but didn't have the chance to talk to him. Now they are waiting and hoping. The thing that I admire most about Kadar is her relentless determination to help others without preference or prejudice, and how she mobilizes those around her to pitch in together to accomplish the goal. Obstacles and challenges are no reason to stop or slow the work.

She began her humanitarian work a few months ago by showing up at the refugee camps with supplies and asking the guards to let her inside to make the delivery. They did, and she started talking to the people inside the camps and finding out what their un-met basic needs are. Many of them identified hygiene items as a scarcity (for example, most families run across the border after midnight with only the clothes they are wearing, so they do not have a clean change of undergarments). After identifying the needs which were not being met already in the camps, she then enlisted the help of a friend, Mahmoud to find the best price for the items, posted the report on her facebook page (click here for more details), and asked if anyone would be willing to donate or buy the requested supplies for the people in the camps. Because of her honesty and transparency in reporting details of every purchase, donation, and delivery, people know that 100% of what they donate will be used in the most effective way to help the people who need it most immediately.  Friends and colleagues began to join Kadar's project and now it has really grown.  Getting into the camps to make a delivery is not always easy to negotiate, but Kadar was able to make a connection with a small local charity called Sanabel Association which has been caring for orphans in the community (that's a sad story for another day), located in the 1967 Palestinian Refugee camp at Al Husn, just a few Kilometers from Ramtha. They were glad to have support and receive supplies from her group in Amman, and she gained greater access to the refugee camps under their name. For the last couple weeks I have been meeting with her and a collection of her friends at a cultural/artistic center in Amman to sort donations of clothing, toys, food supplies, diapers and organize them into packets that are easily distributed to families.  I have been very touched by the outpouring of generosity of time and goods by people in this community.  It is very inspiring. 

Before I left Abu Dhabi, I sublet my house to a sweet friend and have used the rent she payed to buy new supplies such as underwear, bras, diapers, and food stuffs to contribute. Kadar's focuses on  involving contributors in the process of  buying the items and/or delivering them to the recipients.  It forms a connection between people and helps contributors to feel much more fulfilled and connected with the recipients then just writing a check and then forgetting about it. People from the community have come forward to help and she has involved them in the project to the point that this has become almost a full-time job for her. I'm glad once in a while to work on some of the small tasks so that she can focus on the larger things that I cannot do because of my Arabic language deficiency (which I have started working on again...but it's slow going!)

Yesterday she invited me to accompany her to distribute the goods we had collected to the people in Cyber City camp in Ramtha. I was absolutely delighted! Upon arrival in Jordan, I realized that the chances of me actually seeing one of the camps with my own eyes was quite unlikely and I was even hesitant because I'm keenly aware of how conspicuous I am and how I did not want to draw the wrong kind of attention and create more problems than good. I kept reminding myself that my purpose here is to help people in the way that benefits them most, not in a way that gratifies my own ego or agenda. However, the opportunity to reach out and connect to people was something I really longed for!

On Thursday morning, Kadar, Mahmoud, and I met at the cultural center and lugged about 25 massive garbage bags full of donated supplies up the hill and into a truck. It was an extremely hot day and we were soaked in sweat after just 1 hour of loading the truck. Then after saying goodbye to Mahmoud, Kadar and I hopped in the front with the driver and set off for Husn camp to meet with the leadership of Sanabel Association and Ahmed and Ahmed from Kadar's group who were already up north. The truck slowly crept up and over the mountains that separate Amman from Ramtha and Irbid in the north and it seemed to take forever to get there. We met at the Sanabel Association headquarters in Husn Camp and left many of the supplies in their store-room to be distributed as needs arise over the next few weeks. After some deliberations, we got into their van and drove over to Cyber City to make a delivery.

There are 4 make-shift “camps” for Syrians and Palestinians entering across the border at Ramtha each night (just across the border from the Syrian city Deraa).  More details here. Jordan has an open-door policy of allowing Syrian citizens into the country, even without documentation, but they are cautious about security issues in the border areas of Jordan. So in the early hours of the morning when families run across the border, the Jordanian military and police bring them to these camps where they stay for about a week while registration and security checks are completed. This is extremely important because there have been several reports in the last few months of malicious people infiltrating the camps and trying to harm the refugees...for example the Jordan Times reported a couple months ago about a foiled plot to poison the water supply at one of these camps (click here to read the article). After newly arrived refugees clear their security checks, families are discharged from the camp into the community when a Jordanian citizen comes and vouches for them, giving a guarantee of financial support. In theory it seems like 

Inside Umm Samir's room in Cyber City
a good idea to have Jordanians take responsibility for newly arrived Syrians to form a social support network, but in reality there's nowhere near enough financially secure individual Jordanian citizens to support the 140,000+ number of refugees who have come.  What often happens is that Jordanians sign and pay the fees to release a Syrian family,
Assembling Hygiene kits for Women @ Cyber City
but the Syrian families never meet their benefactors, so they are on their own after that. Then it's up to international and local NGO's to keep track of these families in the community, make home-visits, and help the newly arrived families to integrate, enrol their children in school, and find enough food and clothing to survive. The influx of so many new arrivals creates a huge challenge to local communities and has caused problems such as a rise in the price of food and rent because of sharp spikes in demand, and scarcity of fresh water. At this point, not one permanent UN refugee camp exists for housing/providing for these people, although one is under construction at the moment and due to open next week. Still, the new UN camp, with capacity to house approximately 5000-8000 people, will hardly put a dent in the vast need for shelter. And with the recent upsurge in violence in Syria, the number of people crossing the border night has jumped from around 50-100 per night to now between 500-1000 each night.

As difficult as the situation is for displaced Syrians, it is even worse for Palestinians who were living in Syria. As refugees in Syria, the Palestinians were given almost identical rights and opportunities as Syrian citizens. But when they come to the border with Jordan, they are treated very differently. It's a complicated political catch-22 where Palestinians without the right paperwork cannot stay in Jordan, cannot go back to Syria, cannot go to the West Bank, and are stuck in limbo. So they send these families to Cyber City where they wait indefinitely while governments and various UN agencies wrangle about what their future will be. While they watch their Syrian friends come into the camps and then get released to the community rather smoothly, they feel even more upset and trapped. For now, they are being housed in the camp at Cyber City.

Cyber City is an old factory with a 5-floor dormatory for the workers which was abandoned several years ago because it was deemed unfit for the workers to live in. Now there are 360 Palestinians and Syrians living in the same quarters. Each family is given one dormatory room with 2 beds (families in this part of the world are not small....sometimes 7-10 people are sharing a room) and each floor of the building has a communal bathroom and kitchen. The location of the camp is quite isolated and there is very little for the people to do but just await an uncertain future. The residents of the camp have grown frustrated with what they perceive to be unfair treatment of Palestinians compared to Syrians.  Added to this, there was a problem last week in which residents of th camp made observations and accusations that the people responsible for providing food supplies for their camp were stealing and they reacted by boycotting food and eating only pita bread and tea.  Residents said that in response, the agency tasked with providing food supplies for the camp stopped bringing supplies entirely.

Sanabel Association Delivery of bread for residents of Cyber City
 The situation was becoming quite dire, so we brought with us many packets of bread. After visiting the camp and assessing their other needs, we used donations from friends in Abu Dhabi and friends of Ahmed in Kuwait to buy 2 weeks worth of dry/canned food staples, fruits, and vegetables for each family in the camp, as well as milk for the children. Hopefully the government/UN agencies will sort things out before this food runs out, but if they don't we'll be back again. Luckily because the Sanabel Association is only 1km from Cyber City, they can keep a close eye on the situation. While the political/refugee situation is far from being resolved, I hope that Ramadan will be a little happier for residents of this camp.   

Umm Samir and her generous gift of watermelon
One thing that touched my heart very much was that as we were preparing to leave the camp, Umm Samir, one of the ladies who helped Kadar and I organize and distribute ladies' hygeine supplies, approached us with a plate full of cold sliced watermelon. My heart was just overwhelmed by her generous action. Here were people who had barely eaten anything that week, offering to us the best of what they had left. It is not something I will forget.

Children came out to bid us farewell as we prepared to leave the camp, and they were so sweet. I can't even begin to imagine the traumatic things they have seen and experienced. Many of these families were displaced within Syria two or three times before finally fleeing across the border (some dodging snipers' bullets as they attempted to cross to Jordan). Yet they still smile! I wish I could do more improve their lives and forget what they have been through! Next time we go to Cyber City (if I am lucky enough for a next time), I hope to bring some soccer balls to give to the boys and volleyballs to give to the girls and engage them in some games. I am so limited in my ability to communicate with them verbally, but perhaps this might help me to connect with them and bring them a little happiness.

The next project will be to visit the three other camps in the coming weeks. Their living conditions are much less permanent, although they are spending much less time there too. Luckily their food situation is secure and they are being fed by the UN and Jordanian government. But there seems to be a need for hygenic supplies, especially clean underwear, and also care packets for mothers who are preparing to deliver babies in the next month. I'm looking forward to helping with these projects and hope to visit those other camps too. By the end of Thursday, I felt so tired and sweaty yet happy and fulfilled when we finally arrived home. Truly my life has been so easy compared to so many people in this world! I am inspired by the example of people who face such adversity and keep going and smiling. I'm also feel so lucky to have made new friends who are dedicated to working tirelessly to lift and help others. They inspire me to be my best self, and that's a wonderful blessing!

Friday, July 20, 2012

To Fast, or Not to Fast?

Delicious falafal sandwiches have become a staple in my diet

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to whether to participate in the fasting part of Ramadan. Two years ago when I moved to Abu Dhabi in the middle of Ramadan, I participated in the last two weeks of fasting (after I arrived) and it seemed to be a good experience aside from the fact that I didn't know anyone, so I usually ate Iftar (the fast-breaking meal) alone and missed out on the communal spirit of fasting. This year I think that it will be different. I've made wonderful friends here and I believe that there will be plenty of opportunities to share after-dark social time with others. I think that it would be more meaningful if I actually fasted with them instead of eating all day and then joining them to eat again in the night.

I have heard many people tell tourists not to come to Jordan during Ramadan because of the way that everything slows down. It also makes it difficult to organize day trips and treks in the beautiful Wadis, forests, and coastal areas here because drinking water in public is forbidden. But I'm very glad to be here for Ramadan. I think it's a special time of the year. One of the things I'm looking forward to most is the fact that people will not be smoking during the daytime. I know that this makes most people really grouchy during this time of the year. I don't have anything against being around smoke, but Jordan is full of smoke indoors which I'm not accustomed to. I'm looking forward to a little break from it! The other wonderful thing about Ramadan is the beautiful celebrations at night....the community comes alive and everyone stays out late to socialize. It's a unique and nice time to be here.

So how do I do this? I want to fast, and in some ways the solidarity aspect will help me to connect more with my muslim friends. On the other hand, it may exclude some possibilities to socialize with western or Christian Arab friends. I realized need a more significant motivation for doing this than just for solidarity. Growing up, we fasted for 24 hours once per month and gave the money we saved from not eating 2 meals to those without. This year I am going to try to blend this tradition with the slightly different Islamic concept of fasting. I will fast during the day, eat one meal at night, and make a small daily donation that I would have spent for food to buy food to donate to refugees who are struggling in this country. And then I will celebrate iftar with friends without the pangs of guilt knowing that this is their 1st meal of the day while it is my 4th. I think that this will be strong enough motivation to keep me going. I just thank goodness I don't have to give up cigarettes this Ramadan!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jesuit Refugee Service

(Sorry no pictures yet....I will add them when I have the time...the blog entries are just stacking up and I have to get them posted before I lose momentum!)

Before coming to Jordan, I contacted Saeed, a friend of my friend Khaled who lives in Irbid, to ask him about possible volunteer opportunities up there. Saeed is a dedicated young man who loved volunteering and saw a need to involve youth in community service in Irbid, so he took the initiative to form a group called “Irbid Youth Volunteers.” He was really generous with his time and information. He suggested that he had just been contacted by the NGO Jesuit Refugee Service to help with a project to reach out to Syrian families in the community. The influx of Syrian refugees has been spread into the community, which is better for integration, but makes helping them a bit difficult. When Syrians come across the border, they are housed for a few days at several make-shift transit facilities along the border in Ramtha or Mafraq. After security checks are made by the army, they are released into the community after about a week to make room for newly arrived families. To date there are no formal “refugee camps” sponsored by the UN for housing people in the long term, although one is under construction and will open soon. But such a camp can only house 5000-8000 people, and there are currently 140,000 Syrians living here in Jordan, so that will hardly make a difference. So most of the refugees live in the community. Many have relatives living in Jordan (the two countries were almost like one country for most of history). Those who don't have relatives struggle, and so local CDOs and a few NGOs strive to reach out and identify who is here, who needs help, and meet the needs of people. In many cases, the influx of refugees into the communities in the north of Jordan has put a big strain on the local economy...increased demand for food and housing has driven up prices, while most refugees are unable to formally work. The sudden increase in the population is also putting a strain on limited water supplies here. As one of the only stable countries in the region, Jordan has been a safe haven for refugees for many years. Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, and now Syrians have all made their way to Jordan for survival. Also because of its central location and stability, many NGOs have their regional bases here in Amman.
Sponsored by Jesuit Refugee Service, Saeed and his group began to work with Syrians in Irbid just as I arrived in Jordan. I had hoped that possibly I could contribute to the effort, but it became apparent that my lack of linguistic skills and foreign passport would create a barrier to connecting with people. One of the things that I admire the most about what JRS is doing is that they are engaging volunteers from the other refugee communities to reach out to the newly arrived refugees. They can connect and empathize much more effectively than an outsider like me. Saeed introduced me to the country representative for JRS, who suggested that with my background in education, I might be more valuable to them as a volunteer in their other project: a refugee education initiative. I was delighted to meet with the project director, Frances, after arriving in Amman. She described the work they do, and it seemed like a good fit! JRS has been running free classes in English for hundreds of refugees to improve their opportunities to find work once they are resettled in a western country. But there is a special new initiative that they are working on right now called: Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, or JC-HEM. It's an initiative by Regis University, in Colorado to offer a bachelor's degree program through distance education to refugees in various parts of the world. Higher Ed is a barrier for many refugees because they don't have citizenship in the countries where they reside, and this program aims to remove that barrier. In September, 19 students here in Amman will begin their studies toward a bachelor's degree while others in Kenya and Malawi participate in the same online classes. Succeeding in online classes (which involve 5 times as much reading and writing as in-person classes) will be a tremendous challenge for these students, most of whom are stronger in listening and speaking because they have learned English predominantly through the media or conversations with english speakers. This is both a tremendous opportunity for them, but also a tremendous challenge. So JRS in Amman has been running intensive workshops for the last month to strengthen the reading and writing skills of these students, and they asked me if I would come and do some workshops with them about academic skills.
This last week I met the students, who are absolutely delightful! They range in age from 19-60 years old. Some of have had some higher education in their home countries, others have not. I just enjoyed being with them so much! They face tremendous challenges (especially balancing family life , work, and now education). I wish so much that I could stay and be their academic advisor because they were so responsive to the advising lessons we did together this last week! They will not hold classes during Ramadan, but it's likely that I will be able to hold some office hours there at the center for those who want to continue the academic momentum that they have built. I'm just waiting for the news from the project director about how they will structure Ramadan services. I feel really lucky to have met them and hope to continue to be involved with them in the future.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Imagine a Country"

While searching for volunteer opportunities with organizations benefiting refugees, I was lucky to have the chance to get involved right away. During this first real “week” that I’ve been here, I volunteered to travel by bus to Jerash to help at a summer camp for Palestinian children in a refugee camp sponsored by the non-profit group MEFI (Middle East Fitness Initiative). It was a lovely, wonderful experience.

Jerash is an ancient Roman city (originally called Gerasa) was built in 333BC during the reign of Alexander the Great and eventually became one of the cities of the Decapolis. The Roman ruins are still being excavated, but are mostly unearthed, including the impressive “Hadrian's Gate/Triumphal Gate”, which is visible immediately as you drive into town. Behind it is a hippodrome (where there are occasional re-
enactments of chariot races and sporting events), an oval-shapped forum, two amphitheaters, 2 temples dedicated to Zeus and Artimis, remains of a large public bath complex, an ornate fountain,
a long colonaided street lined with hundreds of Roman pillars, and remains of a handful of Byzantine Era Christian churches.  Overall it's quite beautiful and overwhelming to wander the streets and consider how many thousands of people lived in this city during its 1000 year lifespan from 300BC-700AD.

On the outskirts of modern Jerash, only about 1km from the ancient ruins, lies “Mukhayim Gaza,” or Gaza camp. It was one of 6 refugee camps opened in Jordan following the 6-day war in 1967. At the time, there were already 4 refugee camps in Jordan housing Palestinians who had fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
 Jerash Gaza camp was built to accommodate people fleeing violence in Gaza and several Palestinian villages which were destroyed by the Israelis. Since then, Gaza camp (like the others) has become a permanent residence for generations of families. Cement houses have now replaced the tents, but the communities are still underprivileged.  In Gaza camp, sewage flows down the gutters of the streets, even main roads are barely big enough for one car and are often not paved, and donkeys can be seen from time to time transporting water. 

 There are approximately 30,000 people living in Gaza Camp Jerash, with only one school for girls and one school for boys, funded and administered by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency). The schools are so crowded that kids have to attend school in 2 shifts: 7am-11am and 12-4pm, and are often crowded in classrooms with 40-50 students per teacher. Bless their hearts, I don't know how the teachers do it!! Unlike other Palestinians living in Jordan, residents of the 1967 refugee camps are denied Jordanian citizenship because they are considered citizens of Palestine. As such, they don't have access to the economic and educational opportunities outside the camp.

The Middle East Fitness Initiative is a non-profit group that tries to improve the health and well being of individuals living inside the camp. It was spearheaded by a couple of Fullbright Fellows. MEFI partnered with a local CDO (Community Development Organization) in Gaza camp to sponsor the three-week-long day camp and called for volunteers to help support the staff. 

 The aim was to enrich the lives of 50 girls and 50 boys from Gaza camp, and the role of volunteers was to give them more individual attention than is possible in a regular school as well as expose them to outsiders. Activities were also designed to develop their creativity, physical fitness, and academic skills. The CDO involved a staff for the camp comprised of women who were counsellors and young women who were Junior Counselors, assigned to each group of 10 girls.

I showed up to volunteer for the last week, and enjoyed the 4 days I spent there. It gave me an opportunity to practice my very basic Arabic skills with the kids (few of whom speak English). I got very good at saying, “Ana Asfa, habibti, La Afham” which means, “I'm sorry, my dear, I don't understand.” The kids were sweet as well as full of energy. Perhaps the most meaningful connection that I made was with the teenage Junior Counsellors.  They are bright, optimistic, sweet young women who did a great job of teaching and mentoring the young girls in their groups. I discovered that Sheheenaz and Nadrine play on the Gaza Camp school basketball team, and were excellent, active leaders and role models for their girls. Marwa is responsible and mature past her age, and has great leadership potential. I hope to keep in touch with them and take chances to encourage them to achieve their dreams, despite challenges.

One activity that we did in the camp was particularly poignant and sweet. The project we were working on was an imaginative assignment where each child had to create an imaginary country, and then draw pictures of it and describe the National language, foods, flag, etc.... Immediately they all wanted to draw Palestine. In their minds it is an imaginary, wonderful country that they have never seen but heard stories about, passed down through generations of their families. We had to work hard to encourage them to use their creativity to imagine a new country, but after a while they came up with brilliant ideas, such as a country whose national food is "Sudanese Foul (beans)" and another whose national food is strawberries (and the flag had a strawberry theme too.)  It was pretty cute!

Today Palestinians make up over 60% of Jordan's population. Many have given up the hope of returning and made a life for themselves and their children here, accepting an identity as Jordanian citizens (especially the younger generation). But for the residents of Gaza Camp Jerash, they are still dreaming of returning to their homeland in Palestine. For their sakes, I hope that one day they can return to a place where they are not so crowded and confined. In the meantime, I hope that they will gain access to the same opportunities to live happy, productive, meaningful lives that all young people deserve.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Marhaba Jordan!

The fact that the airline would not accept credit card payments for reservations made online should have been my first warning sign. But it was a good price (better by far than other fares), and the arrival time was before dark. So I visited the airline office and bought the ticket with cash. The second warning was that the flight was leaving from Terminal 2. If you’ve ever flown into or out of Abu Dhabi International Airport, the odds are that you probably arrived in the glamorous new terminal 3 if you flew on Etihad Airlines, or to the well-kept Terminal 1 if you flew on another carrier. Terminal 2 is not even located remotely close to the other terminals. It’s almost 1km behind them, past the airport offices, past the cargo departments, and back in the very back. It’s the oldest terminal for all the small obscure airlines, such as Pakistan International Airways, Uzbekistan Airways, Air Turkmenistan, and Royal Falcon (my carrier for this trip). Last summer I got a steal of a deal from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul on Pakistan International Airways, out of Terminal two. The flight out was great. Then the entire route was cancelled mid-summer while I was still somewhere in the Balkans and there was some drama involving whether I would make it back to Abu Dhabi in time for work. That was my last Terminal 2 experience, but I thought perhaps it was an anomaly. I learned this week that it was not.

 I received a call on my mobile phone from the Airline the morning before my flight. The polite man on the other end explained that my flight had been delayed from 6pm to 10pm, and to please arrive at the airport at 8pm. I thanked him and hung up. My Jordanian friend Mahmoud kindly offered to give me a ride to the airport, and we raced to make it there by 8:30pm. He dropped me off, said goodbye, and I ran into the terminal, only to find that the departure time noted on the boards was 12:20am. I called Mahmoud again (thank goodness for mobiles! What did we do before them?) and he graciously offered to let me wait at his place near the airport until it was time to check in again. When I checked in again, there was a huge line of men of passengers queuing for flights to Pakistan and Bangladesh.  I moved through immigration to the departures lounge, where I was the only person from the western world among about 500 passengers waiting for middle-of-the-night flights to interesting places. Thankfully I had dressed conservatively because I looked extremely conspicuous already. I was surrounded by men who looked like they had just come out of the mountains of Afghanistan, and ladies in ornate south Asian attire while others wore niqabs or burqas.

 While I sat patiently waiting for my flight, and adorable little boy who looked to be about 18 months old (that's him in the picture, though it doesn't do justice to his cuteness!) came running over to where I was sitting, put his little head on my knee, and looked up at me with a huge, beautiful smile that melted my heart. It was such a precious experience. His embarrassed mother pulled him away a few times, but as soon as he could get loose again, he came running back over to repeat the process.  It was so sweet because usually children of other nationalities are a bit freaked out by this foreign looking woman and don’t naturally just snuggle up to me, but he had not qualms.

Hours passed and there were no announcements about our flight. 12:20am came and went with no motion and no announcement. Then 1:20am came and went…with children starting to get really cranky. Flights started leaving for South Asia, but nothing was going on with ours. Jordanian customers started inquiring and getting a little bit testy. By 2am, customers were pushing toward the gate entrance and arguing with police and the one dutiful airline representative: my friend the operations manager who had sold me the ticket a few weeks before. When he moved the crowd would move with him in a herd, getting more and more upset. I thought perhaps we might have a “Jordanian Spring” right there in terminal 2 that night. There were still no announcements about our flight, but at about 2:45am, the pilots and flight attendants came waltzing through as if they were right on time and nothing was out of the ordinary!   Finally we boarded for a 3am departure. Crazy! Luckily this pacified the angry passengers sufficiently to diffuse the situation and the rest of the flight went smoothly.

The one good thing about being delayed for so long was that we arrived by 6am, so the buses between the Amman airport and downtown were running again and I didn’t have to pay 30 Jordianian Dinars (about $50) for a night taxi to get to the city center. I finally made it to town and passed out in my hotel room shortly after. When I woke up, I discovered a flea market being set up just across the street from my hotel. Fantastic! So after a brisk walk around the neighbourhood, I re-outfitted myself with a bunch of great used clothes for 10 JD (about $15). At my hotel, the owner and his son were eating a traditional Bedouin dinner cooked by his wife and they invited me to join them. It was a delicious mix of onion, tomatoes, eggplant/aubergine with a few chilis, eaten with soft Arabic bread. Desert was sweet melon. Later that night I met a couple of Jordanian Couch surfers for dinner and a walk around “Rainbow Street” the trendy section downtown. While there I bumped into my friend Khaled from Abu Dhabi Couchsurfing who happened to be in town visiting his family. He had given me great advice prior to leaving Abu Dhabi, and it was such a funny coincidence to see him in this new context. It's really a small world! That night I went to bed exhausted, but happy to be here, make new friends, and get going with volunteer projects.

The next day I met Sanabel (Sona), a lovely mutual friend of my friend Tariq in Abu Dhabi. I love her adventuresome spirit and hope to get the chance to know her better and go for some adventures together this summer. She is an Electrical Engineer (she fought hard to get her family to approve) who lives in Amman but goes home occasionally to Irbid (in the north) on the weekend. She offered me a ride with her, which was wonderful, because I got to know her and hear about her life experiences as we traveled.

My stay in Irbid for the weekend was nice. I found a guesthouse with a wonderfully friendly manager, Abu Tariq (older gentlemen here are referred to as “Father of __(oldest son’s name)___” instead of their first name). Abu Tariq came from Lebanon as a young man in the 1970s during the civil war. He married a Jordanian lady and they now have 3 kids. He used to go home to Lebanon frequently before, but now that things in Syrian are quite bad, he’s cut off from his extended family. He was so gracious and kind, and really looked out for my safety (so important as I was staying/traveling alone, which is a really foreign concept in Jordan).

At my guesthouse I also met a fellow-traveller Ahmad who is from Deraa, in southern Syria. He was accepted to a Master’s Degree program for Teaching English as a Second Language in England and is waiting in Jordan for his visa to be processed.  So far it has taken nearly a month with no news of an interview. He’s just waiting and hoping that things will come through. We had good discussions about the situation in his country and his hopes for the future. Before I left, he ordered Mansaf, the most famous traditional Jordanian dish (the Syrian style is very lovely too!), and would not let me pay a thing for it. This is the kind of generosity that is interwoven in the fabric of middle eastern life. Time and again I have to fight with Arab friends to let me pay/provide a meal once in a while because of their overwhelming generosity, regardless of circumstance in life. In fact, Abu Tariq invited me to come and join with his family for an Iftar meal during Ramadan and meet his wife and 4 children. I was so honoured.

In Irbid I met with a couple of friends of friends to see what opportunities exist for volunteering up there, and got some very good ideas from them.  Because of its proximity to the border, there is quite a large population of Syrians mixed throughout the community. There are also other groups in need…Irbid is surrounded by several Palestinian refugee camps where life is still very difficult after all these years, as well as several orphanages. The only challenge is that because Irbid is a bit more traditional and less accustomed to having foreigners visit, and it will take a longer time for this foreign woman travelling alone to break through and connect with people in meaningful ways. If I had 6 months to stay here, I'm confident that I could get involved in very meaningful ways. But with only 6 weeks, it seems better to find existing projects to contribute toward instead of starting from scratch. At the end of the weekend I came back to Amman feeling very optimistic about opportunities to get involved and the wonderful people I have met so far.