For the first week of this year, I traveled with 22 other young women with Helping Hand for Relief & Development (HHRD) to the country of Jordan. During this trip, we met, visited, and worked with Syrian and Palestinian families who have fled their homes and have been relocated there. This is Part 2 of a 3-part series of my time with HHRD in Jordan on this humanitarian trip.
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Today was an especially exciting morning, because the primary reason for our first visit at Hweijah camp was to deliver a Mobile Learning Center for the children. HHRD works in numerous ways through their Education Support Program to fund a Syrian child's ability to go to school. In Hweijah camp, it is not possible for the children to have means to leave and go to any sort of school, so HHRD can work to bring education to remote locations. They also raise funds to outsource certified instructors for these mobile schools.
Kids of all ages were absolutely thrilled that a school was coming just for them. Some even wore their uniforms today because they were so excited. I bonded with one little girl, Madria. She immediately wanted to show me her English skills by playing a clapping game and counting to ten. After the game in English, Madria wanted to teach me to count to ten in Arabic. We worked on this together, where I helped her with her English and she helped me with my Arabic. We made a great team.
New School for the Children
It was through my time with Madria that these kids taught me so much. Their passion for learning and appreciation for school made me realize how unbelievably grateful I should be to have the opportunity of receiving an education. We all complain about school so much at home, and I felt so ashamed thinking back on my attitude towards it. Most of these kids’ biggest dream in life is to be able to study. I want them to be able to achieve all their aspirations and I hope I can be a part of helping them along the way.
As the school was being finalized into place, we formed a tunnel for the kids to pass through for their first walk into their new classroom. Everyone ended up running in, because they could not wait to see it on the inside. Soon, the new school was packed with all of the children and we distributed school supplies and backpacks to get them ready for their first day.
We noticed that one boy stayed behind and didn't join the rest. His name is Ali. We found out from Br. Hesham that Ali suffers from extreme low muscle tone in his legs, so he cannot walk properly. In this way, Ali is very shy. It turns out that Ali was very excited for the school and he wants to become a police officer when he grows up. All he wanted was a whistle, just like the police officers. One of the HHRD staff members gave him his whistle and Ali smiled.
On the way to our next visit, Br. Hesham pointed out to us that we were going to be passing by the Syrian border. This was eye-opening to see, because he told us what it was like before the conflict. Syria used to be such a rich country, a place that Jordanians used to love to visit. It was cheaper to live there than in Jordan, so people would cross the border just for the day to go shopping or to even just have lunch. The border is now open again. But people do not tend to go into Syria anymore, because of the dangers associated with the government and other forces there now.
We then arrived to visit a single-family living in Jaber camp. Immediately when we arrived, they served us tea. They insisted that we all take some, showing incredible hospitality. This family lives in slightly different circumstances, because their son has a disability. This is why when we were able to install a bathroom for them, this one had an actual toilet. They invited us inside their tent for us to listen to their story.
They described Syria as a dream. Because of all that they have been through, they said they hardly remember it. We asked them what they needed most. They said that all they wanted in life was to see their children grow up healthy. They also said that they would love to have us stay for lunch because they wanted to cook for all of us. Cook for all of us? With the amount they have, cook for around thirty people? There was no way this was possible. But they still wanted to. They still offered. Because their hearts are so good and so generous. As we were hugging the mother goodbye, she began to cry. She told us that each of us reminded her of her daughter, who she lost.
The fact that these people treated us like we were family goes to show how incredible their characters are. They truly are some of the strongest people and stronger than I will ever be, not letting go of this character even through the worst of times.
The Story of Oum and Abu Hamza: An Everlasting Love
For our last visit of the day, we had the honor of spending time with the most loving and caring couple I’ve ever met. Oum and Abu Humza have been married for over forty years. But more than just being married, they also have been deeply in love and are still going strong. I have never seen a man of Abu Humza's age as youthful and energetic as he was. He is known famously throughout the HHRD team for his positive and bright spirit, constant jokes, and poetic-like words that are so beautiful that they are often hard to translate properly into English.
But Abu Humza has been recently diagnosed with leukemia. And his family has decided not to tell him this, for fear that his spirit would be lost. So, he does not know. But his wife does. And the way she talked about him and his condition, it was so clear to us how much she loves him more than anything in this world. And she said to us that she would do anything for him. Likewise, he constantly said the same about her. He even used his poetry when describing her to us, calling her his eye, his love, and his pearl that he found in the sea.
When they first met each other, and fell in love almost instantly, Abu Humza's father was opposed to their marriage. But Abu Humza actually stood up to his father, and was willing to sacrifice everything to be with her. Throughout the tension, they used to communicate with secret signals. He even said that he was willing to fight his father for her. Eventually, his father accepted.
We were so curious, so we asked for advice: "What made your marriage so successful? What is the secret to a strong, life-long relationship?" They said that the key for them was honesty, trust, and genuine and mutual respect for each other. In an area of the world where the Western perspective back home has been skewed to think that all people living here are conservative and oppressive, this couple proves this belief incorrect. Yes, there are significant differences in the political regimes of some of these countries' governments. But the culture surrounding social oppression lies with the authoritative figures, not with the majority of people in the nation. Abu and Oum Humza truly believe in an equal and loving partnership, and in the empowerment of the family as a whole. This is the Islam I know and most Muslims see, but what so many others don’t realize.
They told us that they have been blessed with eleven children. They also told us that three of their sons were killed in Syria. It was incredible to see not only how loving they are towards each other, but also towards us, people they just met. Before we even stepped foot in their home they told us they would like to welcome us from the bottom of their hearts. They called us their daughters. And they told us that every centimeter from the road to the very back of their home belongs as much to us as it does to them.
Months after I returned home, I received incredibly sad news that Abu Humza had passed away on June 28th. It was an absolute honor to have met such a loving, kind, and generous individual and my heart breaks for his wife and family. He has had a positive impact on anyone who had the chance to meet him. I hope that he is at peace and his family is granted with patience during this time. And it is more important than ever to never forget this man, this family, and this story. And use their voices to advocate for these families back home.
Reflecting back on the day’s memories and experiences from them, I think today was a day of immense learning. I’ve learned more on this day than I have in my entire life. The children from the camp where we set up the mobile learning center in the morning, especially Madria, taught me how to be truly grateful for the education that I am blessed with and renewed my excitement for school forever. The family we visited afterwards taught me genuine hospitality and generosity with everything that they offered us and how they were willing to sacrifice for their children. And the beautiful couple of Oum and Abu Hamza and their entire family showed me what true love means and how to never take family, friends, and the ability to smile for granted.
The inspiring people that we met and spent time with today gave and taught me so much more than I could offer them, and for that I am eternally grateful and forever indebted to spend the rest of my life trying to give back.
Stories of Palestinians: Inside Settlements of Jerash
Wednesday, January 8, 2020
For the majority of this trip, we met Syrian refugees in orphanages, camps, and settlements. Today we were travelling to a city in Jordan called Jerash, where over 40,000 Palestinian refugees are settled in a camp also called the Gaza camp. The Jerash camp is one of ten Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan that was set up during the 1960s as an emergency relief shelter. As the conflict persisted in Palestine, the camp became more of a settlement in permanence and remains to this day as the poorest Palestinian settlement in Jordan. Tents turned to concrete shelters.
The conflict in Syria has persisted for years now, but the Palestinians have been living in these conditions as refugees for decades. The Gaza camp looks more like a city now than a refugee camp, but it is in extreme poverty. I could see it with my own eyes. It was hard to believe that a settlement as massive as this has been in effect for over fifty years. We were told that Palestinians in Jordan have even fewer rights and more struggles with the government than Syrians. It is harder to find work, as the Palestinians are also considered foreigners. Many don't have the proper documentation to be identified and valued in Jordanian society. They are not even allowed to have health insurance.
We drove through the camp and reached a hilltop where we would see the length of the entire settlement. And in the back towards the mountains was Palestine, within arm’s reach. Imagine being able to see your home in the distance, but knowing that you cannot return by any means. This hardship is the same for Syrians. In some of the camps we visited before, I could see Syria from the ground level.
We had the opportunity to visit the homes of two Palestinian families living in Jerash. For the first home, we were scheduled to complete some renovations for the family living there. Thus, we actually got to see what the inside of one of these concrete shelters looked like, as well as get an idea of some of the work that HHRD helps out with. For the average family, there were only three rooms (not including the bathroom): a bedroom, a kitchen, and an open space that connects the two. The entire inside was made of hard concrete, with cracks in the walls and uneven surfaces on the floor. There was no door for the bathroom, so they often have to use a sheet to establish any privacy in the home. For this home, we spent some time painting the walls to make the inside of the house more suitable to the family. While we were doing this job, I noticed the children of the family running in and out, carrying supplies. It seemed like they were very busy running errands or doing housework to help the family around the house.
The next family we visited was a single mother who lives with her two young sons. Her husband recently died due to kidney failure and this left her alone to try to raise her children without any income. She told us that the only way she has the means to survive is through reliance on non-profit organizations such as HHRD. She sleeps with her boys in one room. Her father told her that this was temporary and not to settle too much. But he passed away afterwards. And so they are stuck here. One of her sons wants to become a teacher and the other a civil engineer. They barely have enough to get by. We were able to give the kids toys and give the family some food and supplies. I really hope that her boys are able to grow up with those aspirations and can achieve them in the future. But how? They need more help, desperately.
The last place we visited in the Jerash camp was an orphanage for girls. It was beautiful to see all of these bright young girls with smiling faces, greeting us in the hallway of the activities room, where we would be spending some time together. They were as young as five or six years old to as old as perhaps fifteen. These girls have all lost their fathers. We were told to have a seat and a few of the girls got up in the front of the room for a performance.
They were acting out a play for us about a mother. In the play, a young girl tells her mother that she is going to graduate from her studies and wants to celebrate. Her mother is so happy for her and asks the girl what she wants as a gift. The girl asks for a new car. The mother tells her that unfortunately she cannot afford a car for her and offers to give her a Qur'an instead. The girl gets frustrated with her mother and starts yelling at her, saying that she could get the Qur'an anywhere and is upset that she can't get the present she wants. Her mother tries to hand her the Qur'an but she furiously pushes it and storms away. Four years later, the girl is in America, successfully working and making money. She hasn't spoken to her mother all this time. She finally feels that she should apologize to her mother and decides to call her. The girl's sister picks up the phone. She asks to speak to her mother, but the sister tells her that their mother fell ill and passed away recently. The girl is shocked by this news and immediately feels guilty about how she left things. She returns home to an empty house, where her mother is no longer there to greet her. Crying, she sees the Qur'an that she refused from her mother on the table and picks it up. She opens the book and finds the keys to the car her mother got for her as a gift. The keys were in the book all along, but the girl never found out until all those years later. This was based on a true story. The play ends.
This performance given by the four girls in front of us was so intense, heartfelt, and well-done. These young girls have so much talent and they were so creative in telling their message: the importance of appreciating a mother. The play was so emotional that the girl that was playing the "sister" began crying during the performance. It was clear at that moment for us to all feel gratitude and sadness for what we are blessed with. We each went around the room afterwards telling one word that describes what a mother meant to us. It was incredible to see how much effort this organization puts to empowering the youth, especially those who have lost so much and have so little. To still teach the importance of appreciating what one has, to have respect, and to flourish talents and potentials.
The name of the girl that played the main character in the play was Shaymaa. Her performance was particularly exceptional. Shaymaa told me that she is thirteen years old and in the eighth grade. She is very outgoing and wanted to talk to me in English. She was very well-spoken in both English and Arabic. She also loves to sing. She sang for us and we found out how amazing of a voice she has. I hope that Shaymaa is able to pursue her talents in acting and singing in the future. She deserves this opportunity.
We divided into groups and spent some time completing fun creative projects with the girls, such as face-painting, coloring, and making different models. It was inspiring to see how engaged they were with the projects and how much fun they were having with the opportunities that the organization has provided for them. When it was time to leave, they each gave us a hand-made 'Thank You' card for coming to visit that they made beforehand. My heart was overwhelmed, and I have this card on my bedside table to this day.
These young girls are just like young girls back home in the states, with love for music, arts, along with talents and passions that give them unlimited potential. They should be able to have access to ways to unlock and explore these potentials, given the harsh life they live. There is so little opportunity living in the Gaza camp. Our support will provide them hope.
Please Donate to HHRD’s Palestinian Relief Fund.