Thursday, August 23, 2012

Departures Lounge


It seems so strange that this day has finally come. Since I arrived in Jordan 6 weeks ago people have constantly asked me, “Until when are you in Jordan?” and I don't even have to think anymore before automatically answering “August 23rd.” But it hardly seems real that 6 weeks has already passed (I feel like I just got here), and at the same time, Amman seems so comfortable and familiar and it's hard to believe that I have another life in Abu Dhabi.




I'm sitting here in the departures lounge surrounded by adorable children, trying my best not to cry in front of the other passengers. The tears are not so much because I'm sad to be leaving, but more because of how grateful and full my heart is to have had this experience. I have connected with countless wonderful people who have inspired me to be more generous, more resilient, and more determined to never give up, no matter how insurmountable the challenges may seem. Really, truly my life has been so blessed! I'm also so thankful for the internet and facebook which makes it so much easier to maintain the connections with friends and which makes saying goodbye a little more bearable.



A few minutes ago in the bathroom in the airport I had an interesting conversation with a young girl (probably 9 or 10 years old) who was returning with her family to Dubai from Jordan. I didn't expect her to speak to me (a strange woman) at all, let alone in perfect English. She said, “How did you like Jordan?” I told her that I had really had a wonderful time during my stay here. She said, “Yes, I really wish that we could stay in my country, but we have to go back to UAE now.” It was like she could see the same difference in authenticity between life in Dubai and life in Jordan. I thought about the other kids that I had met in the camps and what they would give to trade lives with her and escape their current situation and go to Dubai, yet she understood that there are benefits to life in Jordan that you can't find among the shallow glitz and glamour of the UAE. I discovered the same this summer.

This summer has been an interesting experience of starts and stops. It seems that when it rained, it poured with volunteering opportunities (some days I was literally running between one side of town to the other). Other days were very lonely and quiet (a good chance for reflection I suppose, although I must admit that I wasted a lot of time laying in my flat listening to BBC radio reports of the situation next door in Syria). There were days of too much socializing and other days without enough. After about 4 weeks here, I realized that this summer is the first time I have stayed in one place for an entire summer in about 7 years. I wondered if I could handle the feelings of restlessness. But things picked up again and being engaged in good projects with great people made the restlessness and loneliness disappear. I feel disappointed that my Arabic is definitely not where it should be (learning languages is the bane of my existence...it just does not come naturally or logically to me). Nevertheless, I understand much more now, and listening feels familiar and comfortable and I hope to continue to build on my vocabulary with my students and friends in the UAE.

The work in Kadar's group will continue without me, and I will try to stay involved in worthwhile humanitarian projects  around me in Abu Dhabi.  I guess the overall lesson I've learned is that life is a work in progress. As much as I love closure and finishing up a task or project, that's not the way life goes usually. Unfinished goals turn into good new goals. I already have my “To-Do Abu Dhabi” list ready, including finishing up this blog! :) Thank goodness for a couple weeks before school starts to readjust to life in the gulf and reflect on the meaningful things I've learned and experienced this summer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Eid in Amman


Finally Ramadan came to an end, and with it came Eid holidays. I was lucky to be invited by my friend Somaya to join her family for Eid festivities one afternoon. Somaya came back a few months ago from a Fullbright fellowship in Michigan where she taught Arabic language and culture. We met at the Abdali flea market on one of my first days in Amman, and exchanged ideas about the similarities and differences between the way of doing things in the Middle East and the West. She is a fantastic young woman.

I arrived at her house and her mother offered me home-made Mamoul (date cookies) and tea. Her 3 sisters were home, and a family friend was visiting (this is Eid tradition to visit family members and friends during the 3 days celebrations). Her very sweet father brought out a stack of about 300 pictures of the trip his wife and he had made a few years ago to their family's home village nearby Jerusalem, and explained each one with animation. Her mother let me come to the kitchen and watch her make Mansaf (the quintessential Jordanian meal). I chatted with Somaya and her sisters, and then her brother (who was home from Riyadh Saudi Arabia) came and discussed the similarities between Jordan and the Gulf, and his plans to become engaged during this trip home. We shared a lovely Mansaf meal together.



The day after that, my last day in the country, we planned to make a carnival for children in King Abdullah Gardens camp. I was out and about the day prior to that, and spontaneously met my friends Kadar, Mahmoud, and Hashim at the Souk, buying supplies for the kids. I joined them for a time. Later that night we assembled more than 750 bags of treats for the kids in the camp. Unfortunately later that night I ate something that made me feel really, really sick. I didn't eat anything the next day, and went on the trip to the camp (though I knew it might

 be a bad idea.  I felt really sad that I wasn't full of energy like normal. We played some ball games
 with the kids, Mahmoud dressed up as a clown and entertained them, and then we painted their faces. All the girls requested butterflies, and all the boys wanted the flag of the Syrian Opposition. At one point, while I was amidst the crowd watching Mahmoud the clown, a woman came with her small baby (probably only 2-3 months old) and told me that she had survived the massacre at Houla. I can't even imagine what it's like to see the things she has seen!

It was pretty chaotic and by the end of our visit, with the people in the camp (who grow more and more restless every day that they spent cooped-up in this small place) gathered together in the middle of the camp to stage an impromptu rally chanting, “The people want a change of regime!” I thought for a moment that the Jordanian army guards would be upset, but they remained relatively calm about the situation. I think that they are growing used to this. It was nice to see familiar faces at King Abdullah camp, and others who recognized me from my prior visit and came to greet me. Life is hard there, and I hope that soon they will be able to return to their homes. I hope for the chance to visit them in their own country when things settle down. In shallah peace will return to their country soon!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Afaf


When I moved into Helene's apartment during her holidays for Ramadan, I inherited a sweet friend who has been so kind to me. I only hope that I have been able to reciprocate some of the kindness she has shown me. And, I really hope that life will treat her kindly, because she deserves it!

Afaf was born in Jerusalem into an Christian Palestinian family. She lost her mom before she could remember her. Her bond of love with her father was especially strong because he was both father and mother to her. Her young life in Palestine (which Jerusalem was a part of) was full of happiness, but things changed in 1967 when Israel expanded into Jerusalem. Things fundamentally changed. The irony of the situation is that the expansion of the state of Israel is supported to a great extent by Western Christians, while Christian Palestinians like Afaf's family have suffered just as much as Muslim Palestinians. Back before the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, life seemed idyllic. For the most part, Palestinians of all religions lived relatively harmoniously. But that changed after the 1967 six-days war, when Jerusalem became occupied by Israel. Competition for scarce resources usually does exacerbate differences between groups and jealousy. By 1969, her father was worried about Afaf's well being, so he sent her to live with her older sister in Jordan where she finished her schooling.  She has lived in Jordan ever since, although she has to return to Palestine and then re-enter Jordan every so often.

In Jordan, life is much harder compared to the West Bank. The cost of living is high but salaries are not. The land in Jordan is not as fertile as the land in Palestine, and it's more of a struggle to survive. The social networks of the past are broken because of migration. Life is not easy. But I admire the way that Afaf finds opportunities to reach out to others. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of her kindness. She is an amazing cook, and I've been so grateful for her generosity in cooking amazing dinners for me (I am going to miss her wonderful Salads!). I have quadroupled the size of my Arabic vocabulary of food-related words thanks to her!  And I have been inspired by her spirit of generosity. The Tabbouli that she made and donated to our charity Iftar turned out to be a favorite of the guests!  I'm grateful for her unrelenting efforts to pull me out of my shell on days when I just felt like hiding at home. I have learned from her that it's not important how much you give to others, but how much of your heart you give to others that really matters. It's a lesson I am so grateful to have been reminded of!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

To Be Good for Goodness Sake

As this 6 weeks in Jordan draws to a close, I have begun to reflect on the experiences I've had. I feel profound gratitude for the wonderful opportunities to connect with great people. During bus rides this week I have been reading a book about Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Literacy, and have made some discoveries that I hope will help me in my personal life and also help me reach out to my students when I return to Abu Dhabi. It has reminded me of the importance of the underlying motivations behind our actions. This is something that I struggle with and have plenty of room to improve.

The last time I volunteered for an extended period of time was in South Africa in 2004. That was before the advent of Facebook. I kept a journal of my experiences there, but never published it publicly. I sent journal entries to a few family members and friends who were interested in what I was up to, but the rest of the world was ignorant to my whereabouts. This experience in Jordan has been much more public and that has brought with it new challenges. I think that it's important to raise awareness about injustices in this world and to try to inspire people to take actions to make a difference in the world. But with posting on facebook, I have felt uncomfortable about receiving public praise. While I'm grateful for the encouragement of family and friends, it is so much easier to receive it in private than in public. I think that many of us struggle with seeking for the approval of others too much and if I am honest with myself, I must admit that I fall into this category. But I never want my idealistic actions to be motivated by a desire for public recognition. I want to be motivated by my love for humans. But I must admit that the lure of public acknowledgement and approval is very seductive.

I have struggled most of my life with this issue of “goodness.” As a teenager, I resented when others labelled me as a “good girl.” As a young adult, upon arriving in South Africa, the children somehow picked up on this gave me the African name “Nokulunga,” which means "good girl" in isiZulu. I spent the next 1.5 years in South Africa coming to terms and then embracing that identity. Now that I am in my thirties, I have realized that being good is good, but more important is the motivation behind being good. I want to be good because I love human beings and desire their happiness (or at least some respite from their struggles in life), not to be good so that others will notice me. I think that this is one of the most important lessons I've learned this summer. Over the last 5 years, I have gone through some really turbulent times in my life where the core of my identity has been shaken up. I had hoped that this experience would help me to rediscover my core values and priorities and then align my life with them. I admit that I have not done that perfectly, but I am grateful for the progress made, and hope to continue this next week, when I return to the daily grind of life in Abu Dhabi.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Returning to the Camps in the North

This week I have kept busy with preparing for a charity Iftar dinner (I am organizing the food donations), marking students' writing (very interesting!) and preparing for lessons on time-management and learning styles for students in the JCHEM program. Then a sudden opportunity presented itself at the last minute to accompany Kadar and three other friends to Ramtha and Mafraq in order to deliver supplies and assess further needs. I was originally not planning to go, but at the last minute, Kadar's friend who was going got sick and she asked if I would like to come. I was delighted to return to the North to accompany her.

Our first stop was at the Cyber City camp, which was the one that Kadar and I had visited about 2.5 weeks ago. It was a relief to find the situation there much better for the residents. The controversy surrounding food supplies had been solved and the UN is now providing them with an assortment of healthy food supplies to cook with. They are faring much better than the residents of other camps because, although crowded, their rooms are solid and permanent (not tents) and they have fans to cool down the indoor temperatures.

Our second stop was at King Abdullah Gardens. The name seems to conjure up a lush green space with flowers and other plants offering shade. This is hardly the reality. There is not one green living thing in the compound. The camp originally was established as a transit facility with trailers to accommodate families while security checks were run. Then after a week or two they were released to the community to fend for themselves, with the assistance of community members and some NGOs. Last week with the opening of the Zaatari camp, the first “official” UN sponsored refugee camp in Jordan due to the increasing waves of people crossing the border by foot each night (now between 1000-2000 daily), the policies have changed, and Syrians are no longer being discharged from camps into the community, but they are staying in the camps indefinitely. This is both a blessing and a curse. Living in the camp makes it easier for Aid agencies and UN to make sure that their basic needs are provided for (instead of families fending for themselves and relying on the kindness of strangers), yet the downside is their lack of freedom and total dependence on whatever they are given by the UN. Because the number of people needing shelter exceeded the number of trailers available, more recent arrivals to King Abdullah Gardens live in bedouin style tents made from thick woven tapestries.

We pulled up to the “gardens” and Kadar spoke with the guards at the gate, who let us drive in. As we drove past the entrance, a woman walked past with what appeared to be a newborn baby (not more than 2 months old) in the hot sun. Mahmoud, one of the members of Kadar's group has taken responsibility for organizing Antenatal care packages for ladies who deliver babies while in the camps. The packs contain diapers, wipes, talc, blankets, clothes, and Halawa for the new moms (it's an Arabic sweet that is traditionally eaten by new moms.) I could see how valuable these supplies would be for women who left the camp for 1-2 days to give birth and returned back to these difficult conditions with a newborn baby in less than 1 week.

We parked in front of the main office of the camp and Kadar went inside to have meetings with the different leaders of the camp to see if she could establish a good rapport with them and get ideas about the unmet needs of the people inside the camp that we could help to meet. Meanwhile, the three others of us from the car waited outside the camp office. There was a group of camp residents milling about, and as much as I tried to blend in, it just wasn't going to happen. At first there were stares, then it was the teenage boys who approached me. They asked me if I spoke Arabic, and I told them that I understand a little, but I don't speak well. Then they started asking complicated questions, to which I

responded a statement which I have grown very
used to using, “Ana Asfa, la afham” (I'm sorry, I don't understand). So they searched the scene for an interpreter, and brought back a tall red-haired boy (about 16 years old), who had done well in his English class back home in Syria, but even he and I could not understand each other. Several other boys resorted to communicating through their mobile phones...showing messages containing love poems in english on the screen. I laughed and wondered where they had gotten these cheesy poems, and why? Just in case they needed to try to flirt with some foreign strangers? Although for the most part they were very sweet and harmless, I could see the crowd of boys around me growing bigger and bigger, so worked my way to the other side of the car where there were some teenage girls, with whom I felt more comfortable. The boys followed, but at least now the crowd was mixed! It's a amazing how much I have come to appreciate female company after living in Abu Dhabi for 2 years. Female company has become my comfort zone.


After another 15 minutes of misunderstanding each other, I was approached by a young man with a sweet smile who looked to be in his early 20s. He greeted me in English and translated for the group. After answering a few personal questions that he translated for curious others, I asked him a little bit about himself. His name is Mohammed, and he's a 3rd year Economics student at Damascus University. Inshallah the fighting will end soon so that he can finish his education. He explained that they are getting restless in the camp. There is nothing to do there but think about the revolution. The food is uninspiring: rice and meat everyday without variation. Still he smiled and announced, “You will be my guest in the new Syria!” This hope is all they have for an end to the monotony of their lives in the camp. I sincerely hope that I will meet him (and many other dear friends) in a free Syria soon.

Another man I met, Osama, was working as an English teacher in Damascus before he finally had to leave. The friend who was with him was from Homs, Bab Amr district...his eyes were red and distant. He didn't speak much, but clearly he has been though hell these past few months. Other men asked: “Please, can you give us money? Food? Guns?” Uh...I told them I would try to work on the food issue, but I'm afraid the other two won't do much good in their current conditions. After diagnosing the state of things in the camp, Kadar's group and Sanabel began to sponsor cold water and some more fresh foods to supplement what the people at the camp were eating.

A few minutes later, I noticed a lady about my age with a beautiful face. The others brought her to meet me because she is also a math teacher (after one of my responses to a personal question). Fatima told me her story: She is a math teacher from Deraa. Ten days ago she spent 4 days waiting near the border until it was safe to cross it by foot with her 3 small children. Her husband is a physical therapist and was still working at the hospital in Deraa. She was feeling restless and useless...school should be starting soon, and there are around 700 children in the camp...if only they would allow her to work! She helped to translate more questions from the crowd: “Do you have a husband?” “Do you love him?” “Do you support Real Madrid or Barcelona?” Do you pray? Do you cover your hair when you pray? Why not? I thought their questions were very interesting and cute. During a subsequent visit to the same camp, I met Fatima again. This time her husband had come, and brought his brother's child with him. The girl's mother had been killed and her father was fighting with the FSA, so her uncle and auntie had become her caregivers. Fatima's husband was also feeling restless and so eager to work. It's such a shame that with his many years of experience and specialized medical training, they can't connect him with a position where he could work to meet the needs of others in the camp or the community! I imagine staying for just a couple days in this small camp with literally nothing to do, and I think I would go absolutely stir crazy! I don't know how they are surviving, but I know that it's making the people increasingly agitated and hateful toward the Syrian regime and more likely to start unrest in the camp. Things are under control, but I could tell a difference between my first visit to King Hussein Gardens camp and the last trip I made to the north on my last day in the country 3 weeks later. The restlessness and frustration is building....but fortunately for the residents of this camp, things are not half as dire as our next stop, which was the “new” Al Zaatari camp in Mafraq.

The government of Jordan walks a fine line trying to take care of people who have fled from neighbouring countries (Iraq, Palestine, Syria), without being dragged into the various conflicts. I think that everyone agrees that Jordan getting embroiled in any regional wars would be catastrophic. It's the only reasonably peaceful, neutral country in the region. However, how Jordan goes about maintaining neutrality is a subject of a lot of debate and criticism depending on who you talk to here. Because the situation in Syria was so volatile, Jordan held out as long as possible (about 17 months) before allowing UN to build a formal refugee camp. Thankfully, Jordan follows an open-border policy for neighbours, so
 Syrians who crossed the border Illegally were given shelter, even if they did not have passport or visa

documents. Jordan maintained several make-shift transit camps in the northern cities near Irbid, Ramtha, and Mafraq to receive and register newly arrived Syrians. But they kept the transit camps very quiet and refused to call the people refugees for fear of becoming a target of the Syrian regime. Eventually, as the number of people became too big, they were forced to acknowledge the need for UNHCR to make something bigger.


In the beginning of August, the first formal refugee camp was created at Zaatari, a desolate, dusty, forbidding place in the dessert outside of Mafraq. The camp opened quickly to try to satisfy the needs, but unfortunately it was riddled with problems from the moment it opened. The camp is in a very inhospitable dusty plane where sand storms blow dust into and through the tents. The tents themselves are like little greenhouses in the sun that get hotter and hotter as the day progresses. In addition, the water tanks get increasingly hot during the day so that by Iftar (time to break the Ramadan fast), the water is ready to make tea with, but not suitable for quenching thirst. Our brief visit to Zaatari was in the first week after it opened, and things were understandably chaotic at the outset, but unfortunately in following month, not much changed except for the camps' population swelling to 6000 people, with new refugees arriving each night.  The day after our visit, the Jordan Times published an article that summarized the situation quite well: Jordan Times:Efforts Underway



We stayed at Zaatari only briefly that day. As we entered, there was a convoy of trucks bringing in supplies , and there were many NGOs and officers of UNHCR present (more so than the other camps), however it was a disorganized scene. There was a visiting delegation from Saudi Arabia there making promises of funding to improve the camp in front of news cameras. Kadar went to talk to officials while the three others of us waited outside on a carpet under one of two canopies provided to the refugees for shelter. We sat on the carpet, trying to be inconspicuous. A sandstorm whipped through and coated all of us in dust. Everyone breathed through their shirts and babies cried. I took out my camera to snap a photo and some young boys noticed it and
approached me after the dust died down. For about 10 minutes I let them use my camera to take pictures of our new group of little friends until Kadar came back and told us it was time to go. The camera was the most
 fun toy they had played with in a long while. I wish I could have given these boys each a disposible camera to document what their lives there are like. It would paint one amazing story! Soon it was time to go, and I bid them goodbye. It was sweet to connect with them, even if just for a brief moment. I have followed the reports of progress at Al Zaatari camp in the news ever since, and things do not seem to have improved much, despite the promise from donors and NGOs. Even the president of the association of engineers has recommended moving the camp to a more hospitable location, but so far after one month things are still quite bad, with camp residents attempting escapes from the refugee camp to try to fend for themselves outside the camp. I don't blame them.  Read here for more information on the state of things in Zaatari Camp at the end of August 2012 from a Jordan Times Article.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A heart breaking with sadness


I write this with a heart full of desperation and sadness, hoping that perhaps putting it in words will stop the physical pain that this sadness causes inside me and maybe, just maybe I can stop crying and get some sleep tonight. I don't have great faith that it will help, but what what else will!?!

I thought that coming here and doing what little I could to serve and lift others would help me heal the wound In my heart from helplessly watching the daily news and also watching friends being impacted by the injustice and cruelty in the world. I thought that by fasting this Ramadan in solidarity with those who are imploring God for peace and an end to the suffering...not just here, not just in Syria, not just in Burma, not just in Sudan, not just for breaking hearts because of lost loved ones, not just for missed opportunities, not just for lack of freedom...it might open the ear of God and somehow make him hear my cries. But it only gets worse. Every day I realize that the suffering is so much bigger than me, with my limited ability to speak, my limited means, my limited ability to heal their wounds, bring back the dead, open the embassies that deny visas to those who need safety, or even open the ears, eyes, and heart of God who seems so distant and silent. I can't even put my arm around a grieving mother because I can't speak her language enough to comfort and express my sympathy. God, why did you give me this empathetic heart and then make me incapable of using it to lift your children? WHY?!?!

I thought that by coming here I could do more...I thought that perhaps I could turn my small contribution into something more significant and meaningful. I have been made painfully aware of the magnitude of the injustice and cruelty in the world and my helplessness to do anything to stop it....regardless of how much I give, do or sacrifice it's infinitely bigger than me or you or governments or NGOs or the UN, or perhaps even God himself.  I wish I could go back 15 years and change my university major to counselling and learn a few foreign languages, so perhaps I could reach them and help them overcome their pain, even if I am helpless to stop it. Then again, it would be impossible with my inability to create boundaries between myself and others (for good and bad). For heaven sakes, I haven't even been exposed to the worst of the suffering and I'm already shredded inside! What can be done?  I feel so helpless....so utterly helpless!