Letter Home from Amman, Jordan

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Human Rights: Foundations, Challenges, and Advocacy Spring 2014 program:

Jordan 1Kathmandu was a hard city to leave behind.  I’m no urban studies major, but there is a certain energy to the winding narrow streets, the fractals of courtyards that direct the vibrant car and foot traffic bustling colorfully beneath the smog, and the spaghetti wires above the iconic Himalayas on the horizon.  But leave we did.  And it was the compact white buildings popping out of the hills of Amman like tofu in a desert salad that greeted us.  Not that we really knew it yet, arriving at midnight as we did.  But the bright lights of the city and the shining ruins of the citadel reassured us all that we weren’t in Kathmandu anymore. With its highways and, as our coordinator Dema assured us, 11,000 taxis, it’s clear pretty quickly that Amman is not a walking city. (Although sometimes when your taxi breaks down on the thru-way it becomes one.  And sometimes you and your fellow two Americans become a mini spectacle pushing it to safety in four lane traffic.)  While, the lack of sidewalks doesn’t help keep the mounds of hummus and ful from taking permanent residence on your person, it means that the few places where you can and do get to walk around start to feel like home pretty quick.  When I think back on Amman, more than Kathmandu or NYC, it’s these places that felt like mine.  I’ll remember the 7-8 dinners I ate at Hashem’s and the 8-9 plates of kanafeh I scarfed down at Hababehs after.  I’ll remember the late nights working (and/or drawing on the chalkboards) of my favorite cafe on Rainbow Street and sharing music, food, stories, and philosophies with the staff and customers there.  How saying goodbye felt like leaving real friends and ended with an invitation to visit their homes in Damascus, in a few years, when they return, inshallahJordan 2I’ll remember walking around downtown from the ancient roman amphitheater up the winding stairs into the East Amman hills and popping out to the rambunctious shabab lining the courtyard of the beautiful black and white mosque.  I’ll remember getting lost in the streets of Wihdat with little intention and much interest, to be given note card after note card of addresses and directions to organizations and people who still to this day allude me, getting caught in the chaos of an ending school day and interrupting at least 15 different neighborhood games of soccer in the matter of a kilometer or two, and being stopped by a few concerned citizens wondering why we were there, reminding us it wasn’t the safest to be walking around alone, all of which was of course prefaced with a genuine ahlan w sahlan, you are welcome.  And that’s what I’ll remember most about Jordan, and what still rings through my head when I dream about the people and places and language I came to love, for all its faults and challenges, for all its beauty and wisdom, the thing that radiates off the streets and buildings and faces of Amman is ahlan w sahlan.  You are welcome.

Food in Jordan is great on the taste buds and hard on the waistline! Pita all day every day, plus a lot of hummus, ful (fava beans), falafel, rice, yogurt, chicken, lamb. Tomatoes and cucumbers are popular and – lo and behold after Nepal – fresh fruit, that we could even eat without peeling! Jordan 3We loved enjoying Jordan’s variety of spices and choosing our favorite falafel and shawarma places across town. Traditional Jordanian culture requires that you eat as much as physically possible as a guest in someone’s house; as our coordinator said when she brought us to her parents’ home, “If you love me, you will take seconds and thirds!” We also enjoyed an immense amount of tea, Nescafe and Arabic coffee throughout our four weeks. Food was definitely one part of Jordan we’ll all miss; we probably said “zaki” (delicious) more than any other word all month!

Throughout our stay in Jordan we encountered many incredible guest lecturers tackling a wide range of topics and issues. Some of these lectures were fantastic, including one from Sara Ababneh regarding Jordan’s challenges in the women’s movement. We all really appreciated her willingness and enthusiasm to share more about the process of development of NGO-type structures created to support women, while also addressing other issues such as the government’s role within these groups. Additionally, you could see her passion for the topic with every word she spoke, which is such an important aspect to have when you’re in a culture that can seem so restricting in some of these areas of study. Another lecturer we had was Sabri Rbeihat, who was one of our last lecturers. She gave us some very interesting points to consider, including the concept of creating and implementing joy more thoroughly into Jordanian culture. He was very open and discussed a variety of subjects in ways that many of our past lecturers and hosts at site visits had not.

Enjoying Amman with friends

Enjoying Amman with friends

One of challenges we faced in Jordan was that the government has a large say in what these speakers can and cannot tell us, therefore something that we experienced a lot was people dancing around our questions. When this happened we didn’t automatically tell them that they didn’t answer our question correctly, instead, we took their lack of an answer and used it to understand why they may have skirted around it in such a way. However, it was extremely kind of our guest lecturers to take as many of our questions as they did because we sure did have a lot! All in all, the lectures that our Country Team had set up were amazing and gave us good impressions of the love that the people in Jordan have for that country. They also showed us that, yes, there are matters that need to be addressed and now we just need to figure out how to go about doing that while simultaneously respecting the royal family and the culture within Jordan.

In Jordan we also had the opportunity to visit two very interesting government institutions that guarded the human rights of Jordanians in different ways. The first institution was the Center for Security and Crisis Management, a newly formed government security center led by Prince Hussein.  Upon entering the new building for the center we received a lecturer from the Vice Chair of the Center, who was also gracious enough to answer our questions about how the center works to protect human rights in Jordan. Some of the goals of the center include assessing risk, developing capacity programs based on those assessments, and developing peace and stability programs. Overall the site visit was extremely informative and gave us a better understanding of how the Jordanian government works to ensure the security and safety of its citizens. Another site visit that we went on was to the Family Protection Department, a governmental agency that provides support to women and children who experience sexual violence and domestic abuse. At the Department we also listened to a lecture about the goals of the department and how they accomplished their goals in serving Jordanian families. The great work of the Department definitely helped to protect the human rights of vulnerable women and children.

Zaatari Refugee Camp

Zaatari Refugee Camp

Jordan hosts a very large refugee population of Palestinians, Iraqis, and now Syrians.  We spent time speaking with refugees from all three countries as we learned about refugee rights and how they play out on the ground.  Zaatari is the largest of the Syrian camps, hosting over 100,000 refugees.  Operated by UNHCR, the camp also has a large presence of various international NGO’s.  We were incredibly fortunate to not only enter the camp, but to speak with Syrian families in the modest tents and caravans they now call home.  We saw firsthand how difficult it is for agencies to provide services, and, most importantly, how difficult it is for families to live in the camps.  We also visited a preschool and kindergarten operated by Save the Children.  Delivering toys to the children was bittersweet.  It was a joy to deliver the toys, but heartbreaking to know that the children went “home” to overcrowded tents and caravans.  Even their playground nursery rhymes included lines longing for a return to a safe Syria.  The day included a visit to Syrian families who’d left the camps to work on farms in the area.  Both in and outside the camp, it was sobering to see the extent to which the war had destroyed the once peaceful lives of Syrian families.  The current generation of Syrian children ultimately pays the highest price, having witnessed horrible atrocities and losing access to basic education.

We visited Iraqi refugees living in poor neighborhoods in East Amman.  Deemed “visitors” by the Jordanian government, they live in very modest apartments as opposed to formal refugee camps.  Their stories were harrowing and served as a potent reminder of the consequences of US foreign policy abroad.  Finally, we visited a Palestinian refugee camp.  It wasn’t a camp like Zaatari, but rather a neighborhood with apartments, shops, and schools for Palestinians.  Nonetheless, there is chronic poverty and very limited social mobility for Palestinians, many of whom were actually born in the camp.  We were confronted with the challenges posed by a chronic refugee population, where children are born as refugees, leaving them stateless and limited in the opportunities they can pursue.

Enjoying mud masks at the Dead Sea

Enjoying mud masks at the Dead Sea

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Floating in the Dead Sea

After three long days of visiting Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees, we took a much-needed break and journeyed to the Dead Sea. Many of us marveled at the fact that only a few short weeks before we had watched the sunrise over Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth, and then watched the sunset over the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea. We spent the afternoon floating, sunbathing, and covering ourselves in mud. It was a beautiful afternoon of laughter and reflection that helped us refocus and decompress after a long and emotional week.

One of the highlights of our time in Jordan came when we left our rigorous schedule composed of site visits, classes, guest lectures, and research and departed for our excursion to the south. We loaded up and set out for two days of living with Bedouin families in the Badia, or rural part of Jordan, and visits to Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba.


Sunset at the Dead Sea

Sunset at the Dead Sea

It’s amazing the connections we can make with people within less than 24 hours of meeting them. This is how most, if not all, of us felt after our Badia homestay visits. We left Amman in the early morning for South Badia, where we were all assigned to host families of about 2-3 girls to a family, while all the boys stayed together, hence we coined the name “Badia boys” for them. For most of the girls, we lived in Ulmarasas village, on one street, with different members of the same extended family. This village had roman ruins for us to explore, extensive plains with flocks of sheep grazing in their midst, energetic and playful children who collectively moved from one home to another, but above all lots of love and hospitality from the community members at large. The sense of community and the value of family were fully reinforced as we joined families in their daily routines of making and eating meals from the same tray, talking over cups of tea with their relatives, and even lending a helping hand to mothers milking goats. Within a few hours of meeting us, these families warmly welcomed us into their homes and treated us as part and parcel of their families. We were sad to say goodbye the next day but as most of the students said, “When we come back to Jordan, we are definitely coming to stay with our Badia homestays.”

Jordan 9The next morning we said goodbye to our families and hopped on the bus to Petra. Petra is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, and it is magnificent. We walked through narrow canyon corridors with shades of red painted into the sandstone, and the curves of the walls created unexpected streams of light. After standing in awe of the treasury (the most famous site), some friends and I came upon a staircase leading to an overlook high above the canyon floor. We started walking up the steps snapping pictures, but after awhile we ditched our shoes at the bottom and climbed up the rocks. All the while we were followed by a guy riding his donkey–a kind of Bedouin Jack Sparrow–who provided us with a constant hilarious commentary about how we must be Bedouin if we were walking with bare feet. Needless to say, we had some good laughs, and like any good person you would find in the Badia, he kindly pointed out his cave and offered us tea.Jordan 10

After our mind-blowing day in Petra, we headed to Wadi Rum. When we arrived the late afternoon sunlight was hitting the tips of rock formations, creating a luminescent red glow on the miles of outstretched sand. We hopped in trucks and drove around with our hair flying, leaving tire tracks that will soon be hidden by gusts of wind. We then climbed up to a high point and watched the sunset over the desert. There were excessive amounts of laughing and hugging and picture-taking. The landscape was beyond stunning in the fading orange light. We stayed in a camp site, or “glamp site” as we have dubbed it (glamorous + camping = glamping). We spent the evening dancing, eating food cooked in gigantic pots buried in the ground, and singing around the camp fire, complete with a s’mores competition. We gathered in groups and had heart-to-hearts, stargazed on top of a mountain, and did handstand contests in the dark. The next morning we woke up and descended upon a herd of camels like any good tourists would, and rode them around for about an hour.

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That afternoon we arrived in Aqaba, where we boarded a boat and headed out to the Red Sea. We were surrounded by four different countries–Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia–and it was fascinating to scan the rocky hilltops, city skyline, and sandy beaches wondering where exactly the lines were drawn. The color of the water was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a mix of emerald green and aqua. We jumped in the water and snorkeled as our guides cooked chicken on the barbecue. We spent the rest of the evening listening to music, dancing on the roof, and watching the sunset over the jagged hills.Jordan 13

For some of us, Jordan is characterized by the challenges we faced and the difficult human rights issues we encountered. For others, it is the lasting friendships, deep bonds with homestay families, stunning scenery, or the incredible women who ran our program and kept us laughing when we weren’t sure we could continue. Challenges and triumphs aside, Jordan pushed us to learn, grow, question, and explore—both as individuals and as a group. As we leave behind the places and faces that now hold a sense of home, we are sincerely grateful.

Two countries down, one to go!

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