Week 8: Not Tourists

This past week has made me simultaneously feel both immensely out of place and more integrated into Arab culture than ever before. This is largely because two paramount events took place: our excursion to the south of Jordan, and the end of Ramadan, or Eid. We were on a sort of “vacation” from our regular work with the organizations, and the break from the previous rhythm was a cause for reflection on how “assimilated” I feel after spending almost two full months here, but removed from my established monotony of wake, work, eat, and sleep.

The first test was our trip to the south, including Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba/the Red Sea. It was a measure for whether I felt like an American tourist bumbling around iconic sites under the guise of “volunteering,” or whether I was simply a local wanting to get to know my home better. Truth be told, I often felt like the tourist, especially in my weak efforts to order water with my nonexistent Arabic, or when I spent an afternoon lounging around in a bikini between four Middle Eastern countries (Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia), or even just when I was running around with my phone in front of my face, trying to capture everything on camera. The trip was incredible, but there were moments where I had trouble reconciling my wish to serve Jordan as wholly as I can, while still wanting to appreciate the beautiful country I was in through, for a lack of a better word, sightseeing.

The second test was the transition out of Ramadan, and participating in the Muslim holiday of Eid. Ramadan had been fascinating to witness (and briefly partake in—I fasted for a grand total of 3 days). The streets were empty by day, the work hours were shorter. My schedule adjusted to include hours of just lying in my bed, then iftar (the meal to break the fast), and then a transition to lying in front of the TV with the host family. It was very calm, and I witnessed none of the horrors of cigarette- and food-deprived citizens that I had been warned of. The night life flared up, and the few times I left the house after iftar, the streets were filled with everyone who had been sleeping away their hunger through the day. Being that we were still transitioning at the beginning of our trip to Jordan and therefore were never fully integrated to the lifestyle then, Ramadan began to feel like the regular Jordanian life, and I came to forget what life had been like before. However, as Eid was approaching, people began traversing by day more, as they shopped for Eid outfits and began preparing for family visits. The buildup was palpable. Even leaving Amman for three days for our trip south didn’t deter my building excitement for the end of a time of quiet reflection and unity among Muslims into a time of celebration. Finally, Eid arrived, and after all the hype and surrounding buzz, I felt—nothing. The first day of Eid, I just spent all day with my host family playing card games, smoking shisha, and eating snacks. While I enjoyed myself immensely, we didn’t dress up in new clothes and go visit every member of the family as I had expected. It felt like a regular day off. Maybe because I hadn’t fasted, or maybe because I’m not Muslim, but I didn’t have the holiday thrill I do on Christmas or my birthday, and because of that, I felt very isolated from the Jordanian community.

But as I mentioned before, I came to appreciate that, despite my initial uneasiness, both of these events were truly where I felt the most united with the culture around me. I realized that I was simply too self-conscious of the fact that I, a white girl with an offputtingly loud voice who’s taller than most of the people in this country and continuously dons an “American smile” (quote from a taxi driver), was characteristically different than everyone else in a way that I could not help. But to make sure you don’t leave this article without a strong dose of cheesiness, I wanted to bring up a moment in both of the pivotal tests that made me effortlessly feel one with everyone around me. First, in Eid, when I was walking by a park in my neighborhood. Following Ramadan, in which this park was dependably deserted at all times, I immediately noticed the gales of children laughing and people talking, and was stunned at how many people had used the beautiful day to go outside and spend time with their families and complete strangers alike (I have noticed Jordanians don’t like leaving their houses for leisure activities). They were all absorbed in being around each other, and didn’t even have time to stare at the obvious American walking by. As the joy of everyone around me and the sun and clear skies began to take hold of me, I forgot how much I stuck out, and was able to bask in the enthusiasm that everyone else was feeling, giving me the Eid excitement I had been yearning for and a sense of connection to everyone around me. The second moment, that actually came before but left an even greater impact, had actually been in Wadi Rum. We had spent all day driving around, climbing sand dunes, and just generally enjoying ourselves within the vast emptiness of the desert. Having been around oceans and in the Alps, I was familiar with the feeling of insignificance that such great products of nature can instill, and it therefore didn’t affect me in the desert… until the night. After dinner, we were taken out to lay in the sand and stargaze, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Back home, my backyard is filled with trees that bother your periphery, the sky is often filled with clouds, and there is always light shining nearby, so I could never feel bothered to look at the sky at night. This night, however, we were isolated from anyone else in the middle of the desert, and with the new moon approaching, there wasn’t even the moon’s light to distract us from the stars. It was one of the most beautiful sights that I had ever seen, but despite still wishing I could print the image of the sky in everyone else’s brain as well, I didn’t take a single picture. I forgot that there were people around me, forgot any Western sightseeing trivia that made this desert relevant to tourists (i.e. that the Martian had been filmed here), forgot how long I had been here or when I was leaving. I lost all feeling of significance, and felt one not only with every person, but even the land, stuck between infinite sand and infinite sky. It was a feeling that I now associate with a comfort with the country around me and my ability to absorb myself in my surroundings, allowing me to fully dissociate from the feeling of foreignness I had initially arrived here with.

– Julia


Week 7: Patience

Patience, I think, is the trait that has been most exercised and also most beneficial throughout my time in Jordan. I’ve had to exercise patience towards others, patience for myself, patience for my work, and I’ve seen patience exhibited countless times by the people that I’ve met, or merely encountered, here.

It isn’t easy to live in a country that’s entirely unlike your own in so many ways. I thought it was, however, for about the first month I was here. I think the relative ease of the transition compared to what I had expected, paired with the “honeymoon phase” of being here, made me feel as though I had successfully created a new comfort zone for myself without having to go far outside of my previously established one. As the rose colored glasses wore off, though, I began to become frustrated by the petty annoyances that I don’t experience in America, whether the insane traffic, the near-constant street harassment, or the constant need for paper money, preferably in small denominations, to pay the taxi drivers, despite the fact that many shopkeepers are reticent to exchange your big bills for small ones. As all of this began to get to me, I forgot that I’d had a great first month here, and wondered why it was so hard to adjust to life, after being here for a decently long time. It would have been easy to just remain frustrated, with Amman and with myself, but more productive was to be patient, with all of these people who are just living their life as they would in this country, which is theirs not mine, and with myself, as I tried to find a new equilibrium. Eventually, I was able to adapt my routine to avoid the traffic, block out most of the street harassment or find humor in the more flamboyant attempts to get my attention, and create a routine with the man at the dukkan where we (or at least I – it was probably one sided) joked (or seriously complained) about how annoying it was that I always gave him at least 10JD for a 0.25JD water bottle. Had I not been patient, I think those frustrations would have remained, when really, they were easily mitigated; it just took some time, energy, and the patience to allow myself to change.

In work, as well as in life, patience has been abundantly necessary.  While I’m used to offices that are intensely busy, full of constant meetings and phone calls, deadlines, and somewhat impersonal interaction, Jordanian business culture is so much more relationship based. People chat, they take the time to get to know their coworkers, they have coffee together and talk about their lives rather than their next assignment while they’re drinking the coffee. There’s a true personal connection, but sometimes it feels like that’s coming at the expense of accomplishing a ton. Sometimes, I get impatient. Why are people so unconcerned about what’s going on?!? But when I take a moment to think about it, to exercise patience, I see that it’s not that they’re unconcerned about the work, but they are also concerned with themselves, with each other, and with the relationships that they have with their friends and co-workers. It’s a desire for balance in life, not a lack of desire to accomplish work, and when I look back on a day, plenty gets accomplished, just not in a way that I’m used to. I think this way of working leads to a happier, more relaxed but still productive workplace, full of people that are patient with me when I struggle to convey a thought though I don’t know their language or get lost in the downstairs hallways.

Patience is one of the most important things someone can give others, and also one of the most valuable things to receive. I’m glad that I’ve learned so much about patience through my time here, and I hope that these lessons, which are only a small fraction of all that I’ve learned here, stick with me.

– Helena

Week 7: Portraits

My time interning with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies based in Amman has been an enriching, thought-provoking experience for me. Even though I take notes regularly at work and reflect internally often, I have always struggled to journal consistently. Inspiration, for me, is always fleeting and unpredictable, so you can imagine my horror knowing I would have to write a blog post at a pre-determined date as a contribution to our cohort’s blog. But luckily, now, at 5am on a day before work, I have managed to (hopefully coherently) put together some thoughts with a loose thematic focus on medicine, love, people, and art.

I think often that medicine can teach you to either love or hate people, and that I am lucky to have approached the discipline with the disposition of an artist. Being an artist teaches you to, easily and without resistance, fall in love with things – this has always been somewhat of a vice to me, but I hope (and think) that on my deathbed I will have been happy that I effortlessly discovered and found things to be beautiful, something probably amplified by the fact that I am passionate by nature.

At Duke, my formal program of study is Empirical, Social & Cognitive Aesthetics; because the title is so dense, what I started telling people is that I study why things are beautiful – how, from the levels of sensation, perception, and interpretation, we transform and organize our world into something that does not just make sense, but is rich in music, art, language, and culture, through the lenses of neuroscience, biology, and evolution. To me, beauty, pain, and change – among other things – are some of the experiences most universal to being human, to communicating, and to understanding each other.

Though I haven’t done it in awhile, I find portraiture to be the surest way that you will become someone that falls in love with everything and everyone. It is easy. The more you tire of drawing pretty faces, the more those faces that create interesting lines and shapes become valuable, and the more you learn to appreciate the mundane details of a face as features that are special. Portraiture can, and should, be intimate. As you discover the unique ways in which someone’s eyes crinkle and nose bends, I think you begin to practice literally taking people at face value – being able to appreciate whatever value is there, even if it’s not a kind of value that even they themselves would regard to be beautiful.

My Arabic teacher here in Jordan told our class that in order to speak, you must listen, that in order to write, you must read. I think this is analogous to portraiture too – that if you want to create, you must observe; to do, you must watch. This practice has made me infinitely more observant. It has widened the scope of my appreciation for living things, and it, often to my detriment, makes me prone to become hopelessly passionate about things which I do truly, authentically, find beautiful.

So, in the spirit of loving, I set out to draw my host family. My relationship with the family as a whole and as individuals has not been without trials. I come back from work exhausted – “Katir tabanah, bidi anam” (“Very tired, I want to sleep”) is an integral part of my Arabic inventory; I’ve also seen our family’s dynamic change with the introduction of Ramadan and daily fasts, which I have tried my best to participate in. And although they live comfortably, the tension caused by the extra stress my roommate and I put on resources, like water and internet, punctuate our interactions. That said, despite the inevitable challenges associated with integrating into an unfamiliar household, I have enjoyed our late nights drinking coffee with our parents, playing soccer, shopping, and sharing meals and photos with our siblings – our attempts to communicate across broken English and Arabic have also been endearingly embarrassing, and I have learned a great deal through this.

In this post, you’ll find my pencil rendered portraits of my host mother, nephew, and youngest brother. We have a large family – there are nine people living in the house right now if you include my roommate and me – so I’ll update future blog posts with portraits of the rest of the family as I finish them. I think my family may have originally expected the portraits would be closer to stick figures, but now that I’ve shown them the first two, I am being bombarded with requests, so hopefully over the remainder of my stay I will have a complete series.

kelsey blog pic

Drawing these portraits has been a good daily meditation of sorts for me. I also did a sketch series last summer when I was interning in Prague. After long days at the hospital, I’d sit down with my work notebook and sketch impressions of the cityscape – passersby would watch me a lot, so it ended up being a nice way to meet people (I even met a Duke alumus doing this!). This time around, my sketching has been more of an exercise in close observation and patience, which is reflective of how I am trying to approach my internship in Amman. I like to think that as I’ve practiced this, I’m also becoming more conscientious about being patient, being an observer when appropriate, and approaching every refugee I interact with during fieldwork or every employee I work with in the office with the same love and patience I need to create a portrait.



Week 6: Looking Inward

Our discussion last Saturday began with each of us opening up about our worries, hopes, and expectations for the trip. Others mentioned their expectations of getting close with their homestay family, making close friends, or having an impact at their organization. I, on the other hand, emphasized how I tried very hard to have no expectations, to not come in with preconceived worries or notions about what life in Amman would be like. I tried to do this because I was surrounded by voices both at Duke and back home that strongly questioned my choice to come to Jordan. Despite my best efforts at controlling my biases and their affect on my perception of Amman, I believe now that I have failed. Even looking back on my first blog post, Hair, I noticed that it was essentially a counterargument against the bias I held towards the position of women in Jordan and in the Middle East in general.

I have this general discomfort with the gender based separation of spaces that is prevalent here. One of the most enjoyable moments in Amman thus far was watching the champions league final with several of my colleagues at a café. However, the only women in the entire café were the other Duke Engage participants. One of the waiters asked if the women with us were Russian, which in Amman is code for prostitute. This, all after our friends had to call around to find this single café that would even allow women to watch the game in the first place. This moment, among other instances, seemed to confirm my biases and preconceived notions about the society of Amman.

This is compounded by the subject of my research at the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University. I am fortunate to work for two amazing women, Dr. Hana Al-Gallal and Dr. Sara Ababneh. Dr. Hana was heavily involved in the Libyan revolution that ousted Qaddaffi, then eventually became the minister of education but resigned because she disliked the new path of the increasingly Islamist government and its restriction of women’s rights. Dr. Sara is great as well, she speaks several languages, and has engaged me in some truly fascinating discussions. My initial research with Dr. Hana actually helped to both reject and confirm some of the notions that I had towards the position of women in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). I read pieces on how heavily involved women were in the Arab Spring but had largely been excluded from the process of rebuilding their nations. I also learned about Islamic feminism, a truly intriguing movement that uses feminist interpretations of the Quran to promote the value that Islam in fact supports gender equality.

The most elucidating piece I read made a point on how the west uses women’s rights and the treatment of women to “other” different nations or societies, especially the MENA. This piece began to help me to come to terms with my discomfort I had been feeling in Jordan.  My research with Dr. Sara has really opened my eyes to how my bias and “othering” of Jordan has occurred. Dr. Sara has me researching honor killings in Jordan but as a comparison to honor killings in America, and how the number of such killings, proportionally, do not differ much between the nations. Her overall message to me was “what does America’s obsession with honor killings say about America itself?” Initially, this was very difficult research to do, not because information was hard to find but because it was so upsetting once it had been found. The fact that many honor killers have reduced sentences because of the legal code of Jordan as well as family complicity in the killing was truly disturbing. I became more and more disenchanted with a culture where this was tolerated, and more and more discomforted by the instances I had personally seen of women occupying a secondary space in Jordan.

However, this was because I had forgotten about what Dr. Sara told me, I had to think about what my discomfort but morbid fascination with this topic and the more general treatment of women in Jordan said about me. I noticed that after Iftar usually the men will go sit in one room and the women will sit in another, but is that so different than it is in America? The cafés or the funeral reception for a General, which we were invited to by our host father, occupied solely by men, do these spaces not persist in the United States as well? I began to think about myself, I am in a fraternity, a traditionally male space, but I have no such discomfort with it like I do with the spaces here. I have been searching my mind trying to determine what justifies one and maligns the other. My beliefs have been constantly reinforced by media portrayals of Islam and the Middle East or common narratives promoted by politicians who try to make the MENA seem lesser by emphasizing women’s rights. It is imperative that we don’t limit our critique to other societies that we find problematic, but to look inward turn those critiques on analogous institutions and traditions that we blindly accept.

– Ben

Week 6: Untitled

Disclaimer: My attempts at deep rumination here in this post have been rushed as time, though a social construct, waits for no man as lazy as myself. I therefore apologise in advance for the following stream-of-consciousness type bunch of garbled text.

Jordan is a hodgepodge of cultures, ethnicities, closely-related dialects, and cuisines. The reason I mention the former sentence is because it can also be said of my home country, Pakistan. The way people hear someone’s last name and gather a rough estimate of their family tree from it, how dialect differences have to be clarified in our language classes, and how eating a meal down the street from one’s own home brings a host of different flavours to one’s mouth all remind me of Pakistan. I wanted to use this blog post to just ruminate on the afore mentioned hodgepodge as someone from a country that can be described similarly.

What makes Jordan distinct from Pakistan in terms of being a mixture of cultures is that these cultures haven’t really been given time to mix; they’ve just been tossed together particularly in terms of how recently some of the large ethnic/identity groups of the country have moved into the region, and how they all converge in Amman. Pakistan consists of the major provinces Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh, that is, without getting into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Kashmir, or Gilgit Baltistan. Each of these is dominated by a particular ethnic group; Punjabis in Punjab, Sindhis in Sindh, and so on. In Jordan however, I’ve seen what it would’ve been like if all of these ethnic groups had been tossed into one city and without the decades of national assimilation that they have today. Palestinian flags are almost as common as Jordanian ones here in Amman, and Syrians are quickly becoming a third major group in the country. The interviews I’ve seen, articles I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with the newcomers to Jordan all indicate that in terms of identity, the refugees are as confused as anyone trying to figure them out. Some people who just moved here say Amman is their new home, while others who have been here for years are looking for the slightest chance to return home, wherever that may be. Some have a strong belief and trust in the power of the king and the government, while others display sentiments that the Arab Spring rose up on. In Pakistan, it’s all Pakistanis; a homogenous bunch of green flags and distrust for the government.

Moving away from the bigger picture, Jordan has also been interesting to observe as a Canada-born, Pakistan raised, Punjab-residing Urdu speaker with refugee grandparents from India and Afghan ancestry. My host-mother here is of Palestinian descent, while my host-father is Jordanian, and every one of their three sons lives in the United States. Seeing their interactions with a family friend of Syrian descent, for instance, was fairly interesting. He spent some parts of the evening decrying U.S intervention in Syria while ‘dad’ tried to explain all of the U.S money that goes into keeping Jordan afloat. I’ve noted moments when people comment on each other’s dialect, slight differences in demeanour, and even openly discussed how weird some stuff families of their ethnicity do. I was invited to my boss’ daughter’s birthday and, as she and her friends are between the ages of four and six, the parents of the children also attended the birthday. I was lucky enough to sit at a fairly diverse table which put in relief what I have been noticing to a slight extent this whole time; in Jordan the differences in language and demeanour are small oddities and points of discussion whereas back home they define the borders to national provinces. Here, differences are like little quirks to a person’s personality, whereas back home it defines another as ‘the other’. It is shocking to realise that I never knew ethnicity didn’t HAVE to be slightly polarising, and that cultural differences didn’t HAVE to result in some degree of separation from the now unfamiliar other.

It’s probably not as fantastic as I make it out to be. I’m sure there’s some Syrian kid being bullied in his middle school for saying certain words differently but, thus far, I think Jordan has taught me a lot more about me, and my relationship with my ethnicities and home, than I thought it would. My definition of open-mindedness changes every day, and that’s quite fitting when I think about it.

– Omar

Week 5: Breaking Normal – The Farm

Since being in Jordan, I’ve discovered my fascinating ability to adapt and create a “new normal” within days. It’s incredibly easy to forget how different my life is during these 9 weeks, compared to a summer in Philadelphia or at the Jersey Shore. There have been days that have gone by without me consciously acknowledging that I’m in Jordan. It’s a weird thing, but it’s a beautiful thing.

My new normal consists of taking cabs to and from work, eating large meals at 7:50 pm and 3 am during Ramadan, speaking exclusively in Arabic with my host parents, being the only female(s) in a cafe after 9 pm, and so, so much more. The culture is so different and immersing myself in it has been a treat. But when you get into a routine, it’s easy to forget your purpose.

I’ve learned so much from working at the Jordan River Foundation and living in Amman. I’ve met incredible humans and seen multiple lives changed–yet beyond my research and personal growth, there’s a yearning to have a concrete impact on this population.

In that sense, the farm has been an enormous blessing to me and our Duke Engage group, and inshAllah we can be a blessing to the farm. We’ve traveled up to al-Mafraq, a city near the Syrian border, a few times to explore the farm and meet the refugees. In the early afternoon, we arrive to a large, fruitful, well-organized farm bustling with workers trying to finish before the worst sun of the day arrives. Just outside of the farm, a few dozen tents make up a community for the Syrian refugees who work on the farm. It’s extremely difficult to describe these people in one word–they’re refugees, they’re hard-working, humble, compassionate, frightened, and hopeful.They’ve left their home country, fleeing war and moving towards a better life for themselves and their children. They’re people.

After becoming familiar with the farm and building relationships with the refugees, our group decided on our goal: to help the farm with basic needs and future sustainability. When you ask someone living on the farm what they need, they hesitate to ask for anything. After prying, they’ll mention how the mosque needs air condition and a water cooler, and how the children need new clothing. I remember thinking to myself, “This is good, these are things we can help them with”. And so we are.

We’ve started a fundraising campaign that has raised $1,373 to date. This is amount is enough to buy the most necessary items and to kickstart some new projects. This week, we hope to provide the women working on the farm with the supplies and knowledge to make jam, and possibly sun-dried tomatoes. This sounds simple, but any way to create more revenue and sustainability for the farm will create a lasting benefit. Our group acknowledges that in four weeks, we’re gone from Jordan indefinitely, so we have to try to create change that transcends our time here. We’re giving them fish, but we’re also going to give them tools to fish themselves.

A constant thought I’ve had while developing this project, and especially while asking people to donate money, was “why should they help THIS group?” On the issue of refugees alone, there are countless established camps and prominent organizations that one could donate to. But the difference is that we are able to help this group of people. In our short time here, we have the means (with the help of generous donors) to make the lives of the people on the farm drastically better. It doesn’t take much, but we can do it, and we should.

Helping the farm has brought so much joy to myself and my Duke Engage cohort. The people are so deserving, which makes us so eager to bring them good news. In the next few weeks, we hope to do our part in helping this farm– and in a larger sense, giving back to the Jordanian community that has given so much to us in our time here.

– Lindsey

Check out the fundraiser here:

Week 5: Taxi Cab Drivers of Amman

 It’s five weeks in and, of all the experiences that I originally anticipated having in Amman, I never would have placed “Daily Conversations with Taxi Cab Drivers” at the top of my list. Oddly enough, they’ve been the highlight of my trip thus far. Of course, that’s not to say that our group excursions around the country, my internship at the Jordan Red Crescent, or even my homestay family haven’t all provided unique and especially life-changing experiences. They absolutely have. Water hiking in Wadi Al Mujib, swimming in the Dead Sea, learning the historical significance of Ajlon Castle after spectacular countryside hikes, and touring the countryside in Al-Salt have provided some of the most incredible sights and experiences I’ve ever had. Working with Syrian refugees at the Jordan Red Crescent and with our group project on the Al-Mafraq farm has undoubtedly rekindled my passion for humanitarian work and for the refugee cause. And the relationship that I’ve formed with my host family has been nothing short of sincere. Yet, believe it or not, none of these have come close to being as eye-opening as some of the stories I’ve had the chance to hear and the simple conversations I’ve shared with taxi drivers over the past month and a half.

The majority, if not all, of taxi drivers exclusively speak Arabic– only some speak extremely broken English. Language barriers haven’t been much of a hurdle though since I grew up speaking Arabic with my Syrian father and Palestinian mother. Although at times my Arabic comes out broken, I generally don’t have (much) trouble communicating and drivers (typically) can discern what I’m trying to say from my thick Syrian-American accent. Of course, like other foreigners, I’ve sometimes found myself in situations where the driver won’t turn on the meter and attempts to charge me egregiously high prices, or times when drivers will circle around the block to up-charge me a few JDs. But, most of my drives around the city have encompassed nothing but deeply personal conversations. I’ve been surprised how quickly some conversations evolve from awkward, small talk into extremely comfortable personal conversations about nearly every topic imaginable, from soccer, to culture and religion, to even what the U.S. is like.

In a given week, I rely on taxis as my primary source of transportation to get around the city. And, at face value, the taxi-cab situation in Amman is very typical: white and yellow taxis flood the streets as they attempt to navigate the frustrating, disorderly Amman traffic and unpaved streets. But, beyond this superficial veil exists a harsh reality. In a country plagued by an unemployment rate of nearly 30% and upwards of 15% of the population living in poverty, being a taxi driver is anything but a voluntary career choice. As Ahmed, the last driver that I rode with yesterday, put it, “being a taxi driver isn’t a career; it’s a job only for the unemployed.” Many of my conversations with drivers have naturally revolved around this topic.

But, the majority of conversations have been about extremely personal life stories. A significant portion of the Jordanian population is of non-Jordanian origin so, often, drivers will tell me of their journey to Jordan and how they long to return to their country of origin. Others will proudly show me pictures of their children and speak of how they work tirelessly to support their children. One driver showed me a craft of the Palestinian flag that his younger daughter had made for him for his birthday, and then gifted me it so that I would “always remember where my mother is from.” Often, drivers will question my knowledge of the Arab culture and my religiosity, doubting that I actually fast during Ramadan. At other times, though, I’ll hear emotional stories that I never would expect to encounter during a simple taxi ride.

Last week, one driver began sobbing as he told me of being imprisoned in Israel for 10 years for “a crime he didn’t commit”. He even proudly displayed to me the skin on his back, which was covered with lacerations that he claimed were from “daily whippings”. He told me that, after being released from prison two years ago, he was sent to Jordan where he picked up his cab job to help support his wife and their baby daughter, and to also pay for the PTSD medications that he takes on a daily basis.

During another drive, a different cab driver and I had been speaking for nearly an hour (literally) while stuck in traffic. He was a 4th grade English teacher and spoke with pride of his two younger children. Coincidentally, as we got deeper into conversation and I mentioned that my Arabic Professor from my university is originally from Jordan, he asked for my Professor’s name and actually happened to know him. By chance, my driver and Professor had studied together at the same university nearly a decade and a half ago. A week later, my Professor happened to be staying in Jordan for a portion of the summer and a few students from our group and I went to go have iftar with him and his family, where he confirmed that he knew the driver from his college studies. Over the past month and a half, I’ve found one of the most amazing aspects of Jordanian (and the larger Middle Eastern) society and culture to be how everyone happens to know each other. The society is very close-knit and neighbors visit each other on a daily basis. Strangers invite strangers to come join them and their families for iftar every night. On numerous occasions, drivers have even invited me (out of courtesy and not seriousness, I’m assuming) to join them that evening for dinner or for a conversation over some coffee at a café later in the week.

Over the many cabs I’ve taken in the past month a half, I’ve definitely received an inside perspective on many of the realities, challenges and excitements of living in the Middle East. Although this blog post doesn’t completely detail the conversations I’ve had, there is so much more to share and I’ll definitely be elaborating in my next post.

– Khalouk

Week 5: Please Donate!

This week, we launched a CrowdRise campaign to raise money for a group of Syrian refugees who are living on a farm in al-Mafraq, Jordan. Please, read the description of our project below and consider donating, if you are able!


Since the spring of 2011, Syria has been been embroiled in a brutal, calamitous civil war. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 9 million Syrian civilians have been forced from their homes since the outbreak of conflict. Of these displaced families, nearly 1.3 million have found their way into Jordan. Though many of us are familiar with the newsreels of overcrowded boats and sprawling camps, the media narrative often fails to convey the sheer resilience of these refugees.

In particular, the 10 families living now on the al-Mafraq farm come from varied backgrounds. Having previously resided in camps such as al-Aaatari- and before that the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus- the refugees here are a hardy and generous group. Currently, they live outside the farm in a camp set up and- in exchange for their labor in tending to the farm- receive a small salary, food, electricity, and a place to stay.

We came to know about al-Mafraq farm thanks to our relationship with the Hashemite Fund for the Development of the Jordan Badia, a local NGO responsible for rural development. Though the farm is impressive with healthy crops and delicious fruit trees, the living conditions of the refugee workers consisted of re-purposed UNHCR tents and makeshift shanties. Additionally, the farm laborers have to weed, till their crops, and maintain farm facilities under a blistering sun and arid, desert conditions.

Regardless of this adversity, they maintained an overflowing sense of hospitality upon our arrival. Despite the fact that many of them were fasting during Ramadan, they continuously offered us coffee and water to quench our thirst. As we continue to develop our relationship with the refugees of al-Mafraq farm, we are asking for your support in order to raise funds to provide more amenities and basic necessities to make the lives of these refugees a little more bearable. After touring the farm, we found that, despite their big hearts and positivity, the residents of the farm are in dire need of certain services. With your support, we will be able to provide these refugees with:

– Air conditioning units for the few trailer units on site, including the farm mosque – water coolers and filters

– materials for farm toilets so that we can construct outhouses on site – sustainable shelters to replace degrading tents

– food, clothing, and child supplies for the 30+ children on the farm

All donations will be deposited directly into a Hashemite Fund account and will be managed jointly by the Hashemite Fund and the DukeEngage team. Once funds are accumulated, we expect to immediately begin purchases from local organizations. Installations and distribution will be organized by the DukeEngage team. We look forward to hearing from you, and thank you for your support

Week 4: On the Issue of Foreign Aid

Despite a slight Ramadan lull (to be expected when the air is suddenly clean of tobacco haze), work began to pick up this week. Given events in the U.S., I was glad to have a busy slate to keep me from poring over updates on the New York Times. My projects this week at work ranged from translation of Arab League documents into English to the beginning of writing a (somewhat daunting) USAID grant for my organization’s operational costs.

One of the more interesting moments of the week, however, came when I was invited to a nearby hotel for a meeting with a group of Danish CEOs. In the aftermath of JCI’s cooperation with the Confederation of Danish Industry, representatives from DI were touring a group of said CEOs around the country to show them potential investment opportunities. Of course, JCI was there to provide the best possible perspective on the potential for FDI into the country. What made this group of CEO’s different, however, was that they all represented various humanitarian aid-oriented companies. Their products ranged from sustainable toilet systems to cheap shelters.

It goes without saying that the need for such goods is paramount in Jordan. Besides the fact that the country hosts over 2 million refugees, it also suffers from crippling resource shortages that hinder opportunities for growth and humanitarian support (more on this later). As it turns out, this group of companies was here in order to observe these problems and figure out innovative solutions to them. Now, I won’t pretend to be anywhere close to an expert on foreign aid, but my experience at this meeting highlights one of the many difficulties that comes along with corporate humanitarian work.

To say that these companies were here strictly on a humanitarian basis would be a false assertion. To say on the other hand that they were here with a profit seeking motive would also be inaccurate. Instead, their mission seemed to straddle the two seemingly contradictory motives. As it turns out, they were here with a negotiated grant of aid from the Danish government to provide humanitarian assistance to Jordan’s refugees. In order to have this grant be politically feasible, however, the money apparently needs to go towards the operation of Danish companies in Jordan.

Herein lies the conundrum. While it is by no means a bad thing that the Danish government has opted to fund the work of Danish companies to help Jordanian refugees, this mechanism of corporate humanitarianism leaves much to be desired. Namely, because these funds go directly from the Danish government to Danish workers, there is little chance for capacity-building among Jordan’s local industries and companies. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, Jordan’s economy suffers from crippling levels of youth unemployment. One of the main causes of this unemployment is the chronic under-development of local industries and businesses—all of whom are vastly underprepared to utilize growing labor supplies in the kingdom. It’s a classic case of teaching a man to fish vs. giving him a fish. Unless the issue of jumpstarting Jordan’s economy is addressed, no amount of humanitarian aid will make a large enough dent in the country’s deficits and refugee problems. In the end, then, it appears that this solution is more Band-Aid than actual panacea.

Though employing this corporate model of aid is certainly better than the alternative of no aid at all, it seems to have already had a crowding-out effect on local Jordanian aid efforts. Though I have nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I have already seen this first hand when it comes to looking for supplies for our own small aid project.

We first came into contact with the families at the al-Mafraq a little while ago. The 10 families living now on the al-Mafraq farm come from varied backgrounds. Having previously resided in camps such as al-Zaatari- and before that the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus- the refugees here are a hardy and generous group. Currently, they live outside the farm in a camp set up and- in exchange for their labor in tending to the farm- receive food, electricity, and a place to stay.

When we visited the farm last week, we found that its condition left much to be desired. Though the residents of the farm do receive food and water in exchange for their work, their living conditions consisted of repurposed UNHCR tents and makeshift shanties. Additionally, the farm laborers have to weed, till their crops, and maintain farm facilities under a blistering sun and arid, desert conditions. Regardless of this adversity, they continued to maintain an overflowing sense of hospitality upon our arrival. Despite the fact that many of them were fasting during Ramadan, they continuously offered us coffee and water to quench our thirst.

As we begin to try and help these refugees, we began to look into their needs. Among requests for food and clothing, we received behests for deliverables like air conditioners, water coolers, sustainable toilets, and cheap, easy-to-set-up housing. As I sat down this week to search for suppliers for these items, it became increasingly clear to me that no local Jordanian suppliers could be easily found. Now, this may be because there simply hasn’t been the need for them. That doesn’t seem likely. Instead, it’s hard for me not to make a connection between the aforementioned funding model and the lack of demand for Jordanian-made humanitarian goods. Because all these goods are imported anyways from well-established and well-funded companies in other more developed countries, the demand base has never been enough to seed home-grown businesses. Now, this may all just be a load of bunk, but I feel like I might be on to something here. In any event, someone with a strong background on development/aid literature probably knows the answer to this.

On a somewhat related note, I wanted to mention a whimsical incident on the home front that makes the issue of resource limitations feel very real. Our house’s water supply comes from a water tank at the top of our apartment building. Due to water sharing policies, this tank is resupplied by the government once a week through underground pipes. Under normal conditions, this system seems to work pretty well. Indeed, as long as you’re reasonable about your water consumption, there’s rarely any problem.

This week, however, my roommate forgot to pull the plug on the toilet stopper by accident. This meant that quite literally all of the water in our tank flowed through the toilet and back into the system, leaving us with no water for the rest of the week. Beyond this initial dismay, we had to call a water truck to come early this morning and haul its water delivery pipe up 5 stories to refill our tanks. When all’s said and done, there was no harm at the end. It was just another reminder that, even for the most privileged of us, water scarcity is never very far away.

– Aateeb

Week 3: The Farm


Today, a few of us left Amman to visit the Badiyah region northern Jordan. Mafraq is ten miles from the Syrian border and the closest town to the Zaatari refugee camp, the largest in all of Jordan. According to the UNHCR, Zaatari is home to nearly 80,000 people seeking refuge from war, though many I spoke to here have quoted numbers closer to 100,000. They’ve stopped accepting more refugees because they’ve run out of space, and some former residents have decided to continue their lives in Jordan elsewhere. We visited once such place, a farm that has allowed refugees to set up camp on the property and work for their lodging.

Arriving at the farm at first was presented no surprises. I saw a picture very similar to what news coverage of the refugee crisis has trained me to imagine. Outside my window, I saw makeshift tent that had long surpassed their intended use. They were supported by weak wooden structures popping out like skeletons from beneath dusty tarps. A settlement had been formed right off the road to Amman. Having fixed my attention to the crumbling shelters, however, I hadn’t noticed what was right beyond them: greenery stretching to the horizon.

When we got out of the van, we were greeted warmly and led through dozens of rows of healthy grape trees. I don’t think I had seen leaves on the ground since I had arrived in Jordan. It was a quick path through to the other side though, where immediately the foliage was replaced by water bottles, plastic wrappings, and aluminum cans. We followed a man to a cluster of tents and were welcomed by a woman and her daughter, who I would guess is around 4 years old. She was adorable and she wore a pink sweatshirt with the girl cat from AristoCats on it, her hair was in a Dora bob, and she was swarmed with flies. Her mother had a beautiful smile that she kept throughout the time that she hosted us.

She led us in to the first tent, the floor of which was covered completely by thick and delicately woven rugs. On one side of the structure hung decorative red tapestries that matches the carpets, and on the other hung coarse white tarp with blue patterned UNHCR logos. This tent was used only for visitors. They served those of us who were not fasting for Ramadan water and incredible coffee, and waited for us to proceed.

I had no idea what to say. We were four students accompanied by our program’s host-family coordinator, who acted as our translator. All I could manage to ask, in my developing Arabic, was “What do you need help with?”

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but she didn’t have a list of things that needed fixing for when Duke students visited for a few days. And I, in a situation where I felt out of place and like I was imposing, wasn’t able to use conversation to ease the tension and get to know her before getting straight to the point. I was absolutely aware of how wrong it seemed to enter into the space that they had been living in for two years and assume that there was work for us to do. I felt so awkward about not being able to establish a connection before addressing that we were volunteers. She was nothing but gracious, though, and accepted our intentions wholeheartedly. In Jordan, we all use the phrase “inshAllah” very often, which means “God willing,” and expresses hopefulness for the future and acknowledges that without God’s help it cannot be done. This situation was no exception.

She called her husband and her son, our age or likely older, to join us. Both had just finished their day of work on the farm and entered with such charismatic expressions, wanting to help. We introduced ourselves more properly this time, and did our best to explain again why we were there. After a few back and forths, he made it clear that we were welcome to help anytime, but that there wasn’t anything specific that he could think to give us to work on besides manual labor on the farm. Deciding that this would be a good way to figure out what else we could help with, we happily accepted.

We met with the manager of the farm, who along with the father of the first family we visited gave us a tour of the grounds. The farm is incredibly expansive and very well kept, and I saw all the produce and vegetables that I had been eating since arriving in Jordan. Rows of trees of apricots, peaches, saturn peaches (an incredible discovery of mine since arriving in Jordan), plums, and apples were separated by paths of white fish tank rocks. Their watermelons are being grown under different conditions as part of an experiment, including as melon hybrids, and when we commented on their impressive size, they claimed that they would grow to be twice as big. Around eight massive plastic greenhouses covered their tomato crops, they have 300 sheep, chickens and goats everywhere, around 10 camels and one white horse. It is an astounding production. I was in awe of the beauty and size of the place, and getting to spend time with the men who showed us definitely allowed us to bond with them. Our friendship now consists of agreeing on how delicious the fruits are and pointing at different plants to learn their names in the other’s language.

We are all optimistic now about what we can do to making a lasting impact on the community. We are considering bringing outhouses and water to the fields, an AC unit for the mosque, and mobile homes to replace the tents. This weekend we are regrouping with our program to discuss moving forward and how we can best improve one or two aspect of their lives. InshAllah, we will be back with some good news about our project and the people that we have met and will meet through this experience.

– Luisa