How many people spend their 19th birthday at Za’atari? A couple thousand.

July 24, 2014

The first time I went to Za’atari was on my 19th birthday. It began as an average Tuesday at the mercaz: the kids came, we sorted them out and taught them English, and sent them off. After they left, we piled in a car and drove to Za’atari to serve an iftar.

It’s hard to try and paint Za’atari. It’s the fourth largest city in Jordan and the 2nd biggest refugee camp in the world. It holds 81,000 refugees and was opened only 2 years ago. Like many Palestinian refugee camps that have been so long established, it is slowly turning into a city.

At the entrance to the camp are signs giving acknowledging those who have helped make the camp possible. Underneath the tall and proud signs, outside the gate of the camp, were boys in ratty clothing scattered about begging for money, helping load and unload trucks, and wheeling wheelbarrows back into the camp. “Don’t give any of these boys money,” Samara warned.

We picked up our guide and drove to our destination: a tent called the “Shakespeare Tent.” The Shakespeare Tent is an art initiative founded by one of the stars of Bab Al-7ara, Nawar Bulbul, which acts as a theatre and provides acting classes, and where we would be serving iftar. We met the chef and saw the kitchen, which consisted of a pot the size of a swimming pool of mansaf – a traditional dish made of rice, chicken, and vegetables – and a fire source.

As we left the tent, I saw one little girl (the only one we saw out) chasing after a boy who was yelling at her “you can’t catch me!” In that moment I swear I was her – running after Jonathan, determined to out do the boys and not be “a dumb girl.” She pulled her eyebrows together and caught him, and he fell into the dust. He stood up embarrassed, looked at his sniggering friends, said something angrily I didn’t understand and walked off. The girl smiled proudly, and I went up to her to introduce myself. Her name was Raneem, from Dar’aa, and was 13 years old.

When I asked her what she liked to do, she replied by opening her mouth and singing. We were sitting on the floor eating mansaf in the Shakespeare tent in Za’atari, surrounded by the poorest of the Syrian refugees, and here was this little girl with a voice of silk happily singing to me. It was surreal, and I was so entranced by her I hardly noticed the applause of 10 people around us who had stopped eating to listen.

After dinner, some of the actors (including my new friend, Raneem) put on a play that re-enacted the start of the revoloution, with the 7 kids who spray-painted on the wall in Dar’aa. The entire play was silent, and the only sound during the play was that of the mother, who let out a wail over the body of her dead son that pierced my flesh and struck my bones, turning my heart to ash. The play ended with a funeral procession carrying the boy to his burial, and the mother passing out in the arms of her husband.

I was so stunned I could hardly clap. Sherin, the madame’s and I were in tears, yet we were the only ones. Samira looked around and said, “They have no more tears to cry. For us it is a play, for them it is their life.”

When the time came I didn’t want to leave, and I painfully had to turn down Raneem’s invitation to come have tea in her tent. On our way out, we drove down the street they call the “Champs-Elysees” of Za’atari, and I understood what they meant by Za’atari morphing into a city. It is the main market street and sells everything you could possibly dream of, from clothes to shoes to food – there’s even a Zain store.

On the one hand it was happy to see people making the best of their situation and creating lives, not existences, for themselves. But it was also sad to have to see people forced to make their lives in a place like Za’atari. I left Za’atari with a beautiful painting painted on the back of a cardboard chocolate carton Hussein had given me for my birthday, and the best bread I’d ever eaten in my life from a bakery on the side of the road of the Champs-Elysees.

When we got back to the mercaz – exhausted, sweaty, dusty, and gross – I returned to a surprise party thrown for me on the 2nd floor. We danced, I got cake in my face, and we all had fun. I have never been so touched, and seeing everyone wishing me a happy birthday and celebrating with me was absolutely beautiful.

The next day we went back to Za’atari, this time with Fareeq Mulham to do a carnival in conjunction with the Qatar Red Crescent. We spent the night dancing, singing, and playing games with the kids who were equal parts wild and unruly, and sweet and innocent. We clearly stood out, and the kids ran to us, curious to know whom we were and what we were doing there.

I saw one little girl crying in the corner, and I went up to her to see what was wrong. She told me she was dizzy – no doubt from fasting all day in the heat – so I took her to get some water. We drank and talked and when she felt better we went back. The carnival was over and it was time to leave, so they were letting the children out of the caravan and giving them each a parting gift.

“Excuse me, Aya didn’t get a gift.” “No, all the kids did, she’s lying tell her to go away there are other kids who need one!”

Her face fell and her eyes were crushed. Despite all the heartbreak we saw at Za’atari, it was then that a story Hussein had told me of a father telling his unruly son, “Do you know where bad kids go? TO ZA’ATARI!” truly struck me. Here was this sweet, trusting girl, who was being denied her toy because I had put her in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through no fault of her own, her heart broke and she was forced to bear the burden of those meant to protect her. I explained the situation to the guy in charge and he gave her a toy, and the lightest of her burdens was lifted.

Leaving the children again was more painful than the day before, and I left Za’atari not entirely sure my days’ conscience was clean.



Sunday, July 20, 2014


I don’t think I’ve ever known what it meant to be Palestinian, in any sense of the word. Emotionally, bureaucratically, physically, even by blood – it was a hazy and loose definition that has played a profound role in my sense of personal and societal identification, despite never knowing what it meant.


I’m proud to say I’m (half) Palestinian. I take pride in Palestinian art as if I had created it with my own hands. I sing the songs of Palestine as if they had sprung from my own soul. I bear the weight of sadness as if it were my own heart shattering, my own father lost. I cherish each piece of evidence of Palestine –as ambiguous as that may be – as if it validated my very existence.


Yet my feet had never stepped foot on the soil of the land I yearn to call mine. My eyes only saw photos, the sounds of Palestine came out of YouTube, and the mourning child wasn’t in my front yard – she was on the television. My heart longed for a land my family had been gone from since 1948, a year etched in every Palestinian’s heart.


66 years away from this land of crusades, religion, civilisation, and war. Yet I, like many others, still live under the shadow of the Palestinian narrative, emotionally tied to a land that has faded into mysticism, grounded only by the stories passed down to me.


At 8 am on July 18th, the Palestine my heart and mind had conjured up since childhood was standing at Allenby Bridge about to meet the West Bank. Fast-forward through 8.5 hours of detention, questioning, shuffling from room to room, more questioning, more waiting, rude soldiers, hot weather, and weary travellers, and Sherin, Hussein, my Israeli visa, and I walked hand in hand under pictures of Arafat and Abbas into Palestine.


Hussein’s grandparents own a beautiful restaurant in Jericho called Mount Temptation Restaurant, and generously welcomed us into their home with lunch and a shower. After washing up and dinner with Hussein’s family we went out to Jericho’s city centre for the evening. In the middle of the traffic circle was a park, packed with people who were protesting what was happening in Gaza. The streets were draped with black flags, and eloquent, elder city leaders were giving impassioned speeches in front of young men waving the Palestinian flag.


As we stood in the crowd cheering, a little boy threw a firecracker at an old man sitting on a bench, and was picked up by a policeman. Everyone smiled as the boy was taken away, and Hussein nodded and said, “That’s awesome.” The fact that the police took him away means they’re doing their job and actually maintaining civil order. If the Palestinian Authority can keep their people in check, it’s one less excuse for the IDF to march through the streets of an Area A sector.


We spent the next day in Ramallah, and I swear that city stole my heart – I want to live there one day. Near impossible to describe, though characterised pretty well by the people we met: Two Irish guys who were travelling around the West Bank building skate parks. The guy in the fattayer store singing Abdel Kader that pulled us into his store for a dance party when he saw me humming along, and sent us off with bracelets of the Palestinian colours. The guy at the corn stand who was about to give us free corn when we forgot to pay (don’t worry, we realised before we were far and went back – he just laughed). The dressmaker who had devoted his life to preserving a piece of Palestinian culture by studying and collecting the embroidery patterns characteristic of each city, and employing women to hand-stitch the patterns on to some of the most beautiful jalabiyah’s and abaya’s I had ever seen.


On the bus back to Jericho we sat next to two girls, Zeena and Haya. Zeena had just finished university and was working as a translator, and Haya was still studying – both majored in English Literature. We needed one more seat on the bus, so they shoved a folding chair in the aisle and we bonded over laughing at how ridiculous the one guy in the aisle looked, and next thing we knew they had invited us over for argileh and coffee, and ended 4 hours later after a sohoor of kusa and shorba. After talking to Zeena’s mom, she said something that stuck with me. “We all have a story, Sarah, and they are all the same. It is a part of us, even if it has never happened to us. But you can either let that story drive you, or make the decision to pick up a pen and write.”


We went to Palestine when Gaza was on fire, and the souls of Palestinians everywhere ignited by the injustice. The night we left Ramallah there was a huge protest in the Kalandia refugee camp (a strange thought – a refugee camp for Palestinians in Palestine) that ended in a clash with the IDF. I saw the wall for the first time, art and barbed wire and checkpoints. I saw the Israeli settlements for the first time, cities that look like a suburban development architect got lazy and created a town out of cookie cutters, sticking out harsh and mechanical atop the rolling hills.


It was all expected, and not what I was afraid of. Truthfully, I was scared that the Palestinian piece of me, that stands tall and proud, would be called out on its ignorance and it would be yet another place I want to belong to, but don’t. That the Palestinian piece of me “wouldn’t count” because my family were one of the millions who fled, who didn’t hold their ground, who became “Lebanese.” That my empathy would be worthless, because I don’t experience the weight of occupation and oppression every day. Yet every time I met someone who asked where I was from, they replied to my “Haifa” with “ahlan wa sahlan!”


I remember being stunned by it. Now more than ever Palestine is divided. Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Muslim and Christian. Blue card and green card. Inside Palestine and in the diaspora. Yet they welcomed us, embraced us as their brothers, and didn’t ask questions, because Palestinian doesn’t mean blood or nationality or what square metre of land you live on – it’s an identity. It transcends armies and politics and brings me, Zaina and Haya, and the Irishman who has no connection to Palestine beyond a desire to help and a love of skateboarding together. It is that identity – not Hamas, violence, or rockets – that has kept Palestine alive, that has brought thousands to action, and that will keep “Palestinian” alive.

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.