How Many Arabs Does It Take To Make A Pancake?

Thursday July 10, 2014

On Tuesday we met a woman named Soulaf Abas. She arranged a meeting with Madame Samara and introduced herself as a professor of art at Indiana State University, in Amman for the summer doing a humanitarian mission trip. Her project included gardening and art therapy, and she had come to the centre to paint murals on the physical therapy rooms and do art with the patients.

She came and we started on the second floor painting the walls. They painted flowers, their names, boats, and eyes, and though they were shy at first before long everyone was having a blast.

In the middle of the painting, Kahart (the Kurdish woman from Afreen) passed out. She had been fasting when she wasn’t supposed to, and was on the floor shaking. The children were gathered around watching, and Faiza told me to distract the kids. I took the kids and said, “Come on! Why don’t we paint some trees and suns?” They came with me and we joked around and I tried as hard as I could to make them smile and laugh and forget about the woman seizing on the floor with two doctors attending to her.

These children had seen more in their 7 years of living than anyone should have to bear in a life time, and there they were: standing over Kahart, faces blank. It didn’t even look like they processed what was happening, they may as well have been watching a caterpillar climb up a plant – mildly curious, yet emotionally detached and distant. It chilled me to see such young children who should be innocent and carefree stare so blankly at a woman writhing in pain.

That night Madame Samira (one of the 5 women who run the centre who had arrived from Manchester the night before) sent us to buy the fixings for pancakes. We mixed it up and all that was left was to cook them. Simple enough, right? Wrong. It took 4 women and 5 men (3 of which were doctors) all crowding around a tiny stove, yelling directions on how to properly make pancakes, and in 15 minutes we had made 3 – two failed ones and one that looked good, if not oddly deformed.

“The batter is all wrong. It needs more milk!”
“You can’t flip them like that. Its like THIS.”
“That pancake is too big! Let me do it.”
“Just give me the pan. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

The cooking was a blast and everyone enjoyed the pancakes, so all the frustration and arguing was worth it – though having to clean pancake batter up off every surface of the kitchen was a pain.

I spent most of so7oor talking to Abu Ibrahim, who had been to the doctors that day and was feeling better. He has pins in his right leg as a result of a crushed femur, and is slowly losing his mind. He’s a Lebanese man who was injured fighting for the Free Syrian Army, and was healing at the centre under an alias. He told me his war stories of fighting side by side with Arafat (“The hero of the Palestinian people, and my good friend of 24 years!”), fighting in Bosnia, his sweetheart in Germany, and spending a year in Brazil. He told his stories with a smile and laughs, and was fond of saying at the end of every story “fuckin’ people…HAHA!”

He spent 20 minutes trying to marry me to his son. He showed me photos of him and talked about him like he was in the house next door – I found out later that both his sons had died two years earlier.

Despite his mental state, he really is a sweet man with a heart of gold. “You, Hussein, and Sherin are my children. I love you like my daughter.” He also is the only one of the men I’ve heard say they regret fighting. He says it got to a point where he didn’t even know who or what he was fighting for, he just killed. With a disgusted look he’d say “these soury noury…they can’t even hold guns! They fire backwards, left, right, upside down, it’s a mess. They just die. Fuckin’ people. Come, look…I’ll show you pictures of my country!”


Party in the Park

Monday July 7, 2014

On Monday night the centre was buzzing with anticipation. The men washed up and put on cologne, and I saw the women wearing makeup for the first time since I was here and dressed up beautifully. We brought all the women and men down and loaded ourselves into two buses that would take us to the party in the park. After 20 minutes of singing in the bus (of course) we arrived atop a hill overlooking Amman.

The park reminded me of Tuwaiq Palace in Saudi, with similar architecture and paved with the same sand coloured stones. We sat out on the patio and listened to the muezzin recite the adan as the sun set. We broke our fast to a feast, and at the end sat back to enjoy a singing show while the men smoked shisha.

Just being out of the centre had a marked difference on the patients. They were cheerier and conversation flowed more smoothly. They were even happier than the night before when a famous guest, Marwan Bulbul from the Syrian TV show Bab Al 7ara, was visiting. Despite the glamour of a TV star visiting, and the women being allowed to eat in the yard with the men, this atmosphere was somehow more genuine, and sweeter.

It was beautiful that something we take for granted like going to the park was such an adventure and happy time. Yes, I know it’s cliché, but it really put things in perspective for me. In order for everyone to get there, we had to carry the patients in wheelchairs down in their chairs, help people with crutches, make sure everyone had their meds and crutches, the amputees all put on their prosthetic legs (which most of them don’t like because they’re often clunky and painful), and load everyone on to the bus. It nearly took an hour to get situated and explained why we simply can’t do this every day – especially for the women on the second floor.

The Cheeriest of Warriors

Saturday July 5, 2014

My first weekend in Amman was spent getting to know the patients at the centre. We had iftar with the girls on the 2nd floor, and as they became more comfortable with us started opening up more.

There are three young girls on the second floor: Youmna, Safaa, and Warda. Youmna is 5 years old and absolutely adorable. If a bunny had a voice, it would speak like Youmna (and say “Sarah spin me, spin me!” over and over), and have the dimples to match. Safaa and Warda are sisters (age 5 and 9) and are night and day. Where Warda is loud and energetic, and fond of hugs and kisses, Safaa is much more reserved. Once Safaa gets to know you though, she will insist on sitting on your lap and being carried with you wherever you go.

Then there are the three teenagers: Rama, Bara’a, and Fatima. Rama is 21, has been married 3 years, and is pregnant. Her husband is named Fahadi and she’s constantly on the phone talking to or texting him. Bara’a is rather shy, though once she opened up she took me around the house and taught me the names of everything from fan (marwaha) to eyelashes (irmoosh). Fatima was the first girl I met, and within 5 minutes of meeting her insisted I dance with her. I wasn’t sure if I should at first – Fatima is one of the only ones not an amputee or in a wheelchair, and I didn’t want to make the other girls upset. Yet she insisted, and Bara’a DJ’ed while Sherin and I danced with Fatima. Soon Safaa and Youmna joined us and hopped around dancing to Nancy Ajram.

There are 8 women as well, though most of them keep to themselves. Soumayya has her 1 year old son living with her, and I swear I’ve never seen a baby smile as much as baby Fahad. A new patient came to stay at the centre named Kahart AlAsad, a Kurdish woman from Afreen, who studied in Dara’a. As she told us her story, Sherin and I sat in stunned silence. She was the commander of an all male battalion in the Free Syrian Army, and had been shot by a sniper from Assad’s army. She was at the centre under an alias for a week to heal before leaving to be snuck back across the border to stay with her family in Afreen.

“How come you joined the army? Wasn’t it shameful for you to be fighting as a woman?”
“Yes of course. But I don’t care, let them talk. I know what I have to do and I know what I’m doing is for the good, Allah knows my heart let him, not them, judge me.”
“Did your husband support your decision?”
“At first no. He said he didn’t want me out fighting, it wasn’t safe. But I was determined. Every day I trained with the men, like the men, for hours in the cold, heat, and rain. Finally he said ‘okay, okay, you’re serious, you can do this.’ Syria must know that women are strong, we are fighters, we are able. I went up the ranks and became commander.”

She showed us pictures of her battalion, her four sons, and videos of her interviews with Al Jazeera. She warm eyes, the kind that seem to smile when they twinkle, and seemed happy to have someone to listen to her. When we asked to take a picture with her, she happily agreed. She hobbled to her room, put on her battalion jacket, Free Syrian Army scarf, and held up the peace sign insisting we do the same. “This is all we want – peace. And…no more Assad!”

Of the men downstairs, with the exception of a few refugees who were volunteering at the centre, and a few of the younger boys who had been injured as civilians, most had been fighters from Dara’a, Aleppo, and Homs. The centre, since it is so conservative, prefers we spend our time with the women though we eat sohoor and sometimes iftar with the men downstairs. They laugh and joke, and even though I don’t always understand the jokes (and no doubt some are about Sherin and I) their lively spirits are contagious.

Dust, Wind, and Heat

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The morning began with the TOEFL placement test. I met up with Mohannad and Cerine, another volunteer he had met at the hostel he was staying at, in the morning to prepare for the students. The first batch of students came in with trepidation. They came in their best clothes, anxious, determined, and polite.

When we graded the tests, the results were varied from already passing the TOEFL, to not so good. But nevertheless, the spirit of the students was admirable. They would come up to us to turn in the tests, and many would say “Hello professor Muhannad, my name is ______ and I am from ________ and my dream is to become a ________. I really hope this will help me get scholarships! Thank you so much for your work.”

In the middle of the second batch of students, I got a Facebook message from Tesneem saying she was on her way to pick me up. Where are we going? “Oh we’re just going to deliver a couple boxes of food to refugee families.”

We then got on a bus. And drove. For an hour and a half. To a small town of refugees, both Palestinian and Syrian. I had no idea where we were going. The bus ride went by quickly, and loudly, with the boys from Fareeq Mulham singing the whole time. They sang everything from Syrian folk songs, to the theme song of the TV show Captain Majid, to national anthems, to political chants, and finally to a song cheering for Brazil’s football team. I wondered why they kept pointing at me and asking if I liked the songs about Brazil, until I realised that somehow me trying to say “my mom was born in Brazil” translated to “my mom is Brazilian.”

We finally got off the bus and arrived at a distribution centre for refugees. I was struck immediately by two things: Firstly, the sheer number of people. They were crowding around, holding their laminated refugee card numbers, pushing to get the slip of paper that let them get a box. Secondly, the stares. In a room of 200 women, I was the only one uncovered. I had on loose jeans and my volunteers’ shirt (covers up to my elbows and below my butt), but I have never felt more naked in my life.

We opened the truck and began distributing the boxes. The girls’ initial job was peeling stickers with the teams’ logo and some information on them and putting them on the boxes. Time went on, the sun grew stronger, the dust got thicker, and the wind got faster. People became hot and pushy, and what was once an orderly process grew frenzied. We loaded box after box out of the truck and the line seemed never ending. Every so often, above the din of people we would hear “YALLAH YA SHABAB! (Come on boys!)” from one of the team.

By the time we finished, sweat literally dripped off our faces (no I mean it…I shook my head and a drop of water fell on the floor in front of me) in the middle of Ramadan – no water for another 4 hours. At the end I heard two women talking behind me. One was Syrian and one was Palestinian, and they were talking about their stories. After the Palestinian woman left, the Syrian woman turned to a friend and said, “look at us. We’ve become as bad as the Palestinians, and our own leader did this to us, not the Israeli’s.”

On the ride back, the boys sang again. Where their energy came from, I have no idea.

That night I went to a potluck dinner with Mohannad and Cerine at the apartment of a friend from their hostel. After 3 days of struggling to express myself, and nobody understanding neither my English nor my broken Arabic, being with English speakers was a relief. The dinner was on the roof of her building off Rainbow Street on Jabal Amman, and had the most beautiful view of Amman. I met the most incredible people – humanitarians volunteering, backpackers travelling, students studying abroad, and Jordanian residents. Everyone was friendly, warm, and welcoming beyond belief.

“How do you know Laura?” (The hostess)
“Oh, I met her in front of my office. I was getting into a cab she just got out of.”
“Oh, I don’t know her. I’m friends from college with someone who roomed with her at the hostel.”
“She’s my cousins crush.”

These people who had just met were talking like they’d known each other years, and were so welcoming that within minutes I felt like I’d known them years too. I was honoured to meet such intellectual, worldly, interesting, and kind people.

Sherin arrived that night and I met her at the apartment. We hung out with the girls from the 2nd floor until 3, and finally got to bed at 4:30 after filling her in on my trip, utterly exhausted from my day.

Carnival of Hope

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

This morning the women showed us around their workshop (which is incidentally right outside my door). One woman, Rawaa, showed me sympathy and was patient with me as I tried to converse with her in Arabic. She showed me her station, how she makes her shawls, and told me about her life in Syria. The women were eager to show off what they had made, and rightly so – it was really beautiful stuff. Shawls, tops, pillows, towels, vests, toys, bags… you name it, and they have crocheted it. We talked about bringing their stuff back with us to California and hosting a bazaar and fashion show, and they loved the idea.

Mouna left to go to lunch with an aunt, and said “don’t be so shy, fix the wifi, and go and meet your neighbours!” I had promised myself that’s what I would do, and so after an hour of worrying, looking up words I might need in the dictionary, asking Faris to make sure what I wanted to say made sense, and being a coward, I finally did it. I went down to the first floor, and as confident as I could I said “momken tsa3adny ma3 al wifi?”

I didn’t fix the wifi, but I did manage to meet people. I started talking to the manager and he was patient beyond belief. We talked about our projects, me teaching the boys English, and me learning Arabic. We worked out a nice system where he talked to me in English, and I replied in Arabic so we could both learn. Two of the residents, Tarek and another whose name I’ve forgotten, sat on the couch opposite us smiling, and laughing every so often (presumably at my Arabic). Amer took me around the apartment and introduced me to the residents, though very few said more than “ahlan” to me. Amer brought Malek out with me to talk to me, while he went and did work.

Malek is a 22-year-old living in the apartment. He is originally from Der Zor, but studied electrical engineering in Aleppo until the revolution forced him out. He’s the only one in his family in Jordan. He was very encouraging with my Arabic, and made sure I understood that it was “okht wa7ida” and not “wa7id okht.”

A man named Mohannad came out after we had been talking for a while, and introduced himself as the founder of “Project Bukra,”(go like his Facebook page!) and in desperate need of a volunteer. He came to Amman after realising that there was so much potential in the Syrian students, and scholarship opportunities available, except for the students lacking in English and TOEFL skills. He had found trained TOEFL teachers, and volunteers for the Basic English level and a classroom (he was to use an empty room on the 2nd floor), and all he needed was one more volunteer to replace the one who cancelled her flight at the last minute. He asked if I would be willing to do it, and happily I agreed. So, that’s what I will be doing tomorrow. A 9 am placement test, and a few hours of teaching English to a class of 10 students. I’ve never taught English in my life.

When Mouna returned, we went to the carnival run by Fareeq Mulham. Hundreds of laughing, screaming children were picked up from around Amman in buses, and brought to a small amusement park-like place above a supermarket. It had a few small rides, a trampoline, a carousel and things like that, and there was a group doing live entertainment.

The kids were all adorable, running, laughing, and playing. When it came time to break the fast, the kids sat down 3 long tables in the back and we ran up and down handing out water, juice, and sandwiches.

“I want orange juice! I want apple! Can I have grape?! I don’t have a straw!”

Keeping track of it all was exhausting. I met a really sweet girl named Ola who introduced me to everyone and helped translate when I was really lost. By the time I got back to the apartment, I was dead, and Mouna left to Paris. I was alone until Sherin arrived.

Let There Be WiFi!

Monday, June 30, 2014


Yesterday was the first day of my internship in Amman, and I’m not sure I’ve completely processed it all yet. I’m living in an apartment building that’s owned by two wealthy Syrian women who have converted it into a care house for a non-profit called Syrians Among Borders.


The first floor is all men who have been injured and are now being taken care of and going through physical therapy. The second floor is the same but for women, and on the third there’s an area for the women to sew and crochet, a small beauty salon, and our bedroom.


Since it’s Ramadan, the building is rather quiet for the most part. The men downstairs have intense training sessions for two hours after Iftar, and the women come in the mornings to do their work until 3. After the women left on my first day, Samara (the woman in charge of the building) came over to talk to Mouna and me about the program during our stay.


“Should I talk in English?” Samara asked.

“La2, la2, hiya tifham 3araby.” Mouna answered.


Ok. Sure. No problem, I’ll follow along I guess…I swear, I’ve never concentrated more in a conversation in my life. It jumped so quickly from Watan’s work, to having a bazaar to sell the womens’ work, to the world cup, to Samara’s husband who is in Nigeria I thought there’s no way I’m understanding this right.


But, I managed, and I thought, “well this isn’t so bad, I can manage.” Naturally though it went south from there. I walked out on the balcony and looked down, and in the yard below I saw a young man who looked to be in his early 20s, and a young boy (maybe 8 or 9) studying together in the shade. The boy was in a wheelchair, his whole right leg in a cast and the left was so skinny it made his knee seem out of place. Two separate IV’s were pumping into his arm, and the man was teaching him English.

“How are you?”

“I am good. I am healthy. I am ta3ban. Matha ya3ni ta3ban bi engleezy?”


“Yes. I am tired because Ramadan!”


We left the apartment and went to an apartment that was home to a charity called “Faree8 Mulham.” It is run by a man named Atef, and hosts 8 -10 Syrian refugee university students (who also work in the charity). Before going, Mouna said “I met these boys last night, you’ll love them, they took me back 20 years. Super funny, super nice.” We got to the apartment and they were sitting in the living room watching Bab Al7ara, a Syrian TV programme. We were bombarded with questions, and comments, and jokes, and I sat there stunned, unable to comprehend such Syrian, colloquial Arabic.


Mouna took it all in stride, joking back with them, charming as always. They called her Om Faris, and she effortlessly took on the role of friend and khalti. She translated for me when she could, and with her help I managed to understand most of what was going on. Thank God for Mouna.


Before Iftar, we left, picked up Tesneem (another volunteer), and went to the home we were to serve Iftar dinner at. We got out of the car and all these children appeared, running and screaming and playing and laughing. I’d guess there was anywhere between 20 and 800 children in that building. Have you ever tried counting children who have wings for feet?


We went in and met the families and laid out the food. According to Om Mazen, a woman who seemed to be in charge, the apartment was home to 18 families. Most of the women were widows, whose husbands, fathers, and sons had died in the revolution or were still fighting, and many of the children were orphans. We broke our fast with dates and water, and dug into the food. Watan supplied the food, and I was shocked to find out that only $200 fed so many people.


After Iftar we sat and talked to some of the mothers, and they were all eager to talk to us. I was terrified to use my Arabic, so most of the time I sat there and just listened (I’m sure they thought I was a mute, or deaf, or both). My go to line whenever anybody tried to talk to me was “ana asifa, bas ana bafham aktar min ma be7ki, wa mista7iyeh.” (“I’m sorry, I understand more than I can speak and I’m shy.”)


One woman told us of how her husband was shot in Homs, as she watched and had to flee with her 2 young daughters. I almost wished I couldn’t understand her.


After Iftar, Atef, Mouna, Tesneem and I went to get kanafe and sweets from a bakery. We drove up the mountain and ate our kanafe with the twinkling lights of Amman, and Beqaa refugee camp (a Palestinian camp) below us. Tesneem and Atef, a young couple in love, recounted the story of how they met, and the songs Atef used to play to her to express his feelings. Back at the apartment, Mouna told me when Tesneem called to volunteer, Atef immediately told all the other boys “back off, she’s mine.” Now they call him Abu Jamil. Tesneem’s father’s name is Jamil, and their first born son would be named Jamil out of a sign of respect – so the boys call him Abu Jamil so all the other guys know “ok, Tesneem is taken.”


We returned to the boys’ apartment to watch the Algeria vs. Germany game. Hanging out with them, watching the game, I swear I could have been in Saudi. Cigarette after cigarette, the level of commitment to the game, and hearing “YALLAH YALLAH IL3AB!” while they waved their Algerian flags made me strangely homesick. They showed us videos of pranks they had pulled, and general tomfoolery on the streets.


By the time I got home, my head was spinning. Meeting all these new people, hearing such heavy stories, and all of it in Arabic? I was ready for bed. I had hardly said 3 sentences all day because I was so nervous (it doesn’t count if you say the same one over and over), and I decided enough was enough. Tomorrow, I speak.