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.

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