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.