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.