It’s the first time in 4 days I’ve had a moment to step outside. I am in Amman, and spending some time in the camps on the Syrian border, to assist in the development of a staff care program for the many humanitarian responders working with the refugees fleeing Syria.
Having been indoors for several days, I am instantly inspired by the warm sun, bird songs, and call to prayer that begins to resound from some not to distant speaker. I have always loved to hear the call to prayer. I don’t understand it, but I hear the spirit. As I walk through a mostly residential area of Amman, I am struck by how peaceful and calm it feels. We are not even an hour’s drive from the border Jordan shares with Syria.
I have been to Jordan once before, as a tourist, and it can be a deceptively simple place. There is not as much obvious diversity in landscape as other places; it is a fairly new place so the architecture isn’t always as interesting as it is in some of the surrounding, older places like Damascus and Jerusalem. It can appear bland. There are some interesting nuances in the landscape, though, if one really observes well.
For instance, watching Lawrence of Arabia on the plane flight home, I saw the scene where he is almost dancing as he explores the freedom of movement his new outfit (he has been gifted with a traditional white robe) affords him. He is swooshing across a sandy landscape that is interrupted only by craggy rock mountains. If you look closely, the mostly red sand that covers the higher elevations literally stops at borders where the sand is suddenly pale beige or tawny brown. It’s a dramatic color dance within a deceptively monotone swatch of earth.
I knew instantly that this landscape is Wadi Ram, because when I was there, I was delighted to be able to collect 3 distinct colors of sand within a few feet. There are not many other places like that!
Dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, I learned much more about the true nature of Jordan.
Bedouin hospitality culture is at the root of Jordan welcoming so many refugees. In this ancient tradition, a guest arriving to your desert dwelling is offered three days of rest, food and shelter. There are approximately 2,000 refugees arriving nightly, to the Zataari camp I visited, from Syria.
Jordan is reeling from the impact of this crisis. It’s estimated that over a million refugees will flee Syria by the end of this year, if the conflict continues. They are going to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The Zataari camp on the Jordan/Syria border only opened in July and has over 120,000 refugees now. It’s busting at the seams. While there, we saw a map of the camp and in just 6 weeks, it has increased by over 200% in size.
When we visited the camp, we spent time with families who have been in the camp since autumn. The grandmother, 88 years old, had to be carried by her son from their home in Daraa, where the revolution began. Because she has knee problems, she has a difficult time using a toilet, and needs help. In the camp, only latrines are available, and the rapid explosion of arrivals (on one night while I was there, almost 4,000 new refugees arrived) means there are not enough, and not clean enough, hygienic facilities for the refugees. Imagine having to carry an elder in your family to a filthy latrine to go to the bathroom? Most of us would consider that an affront to our dignity. It is an affront to our dignity, and this would not be tolerated in many of our communities. Yet the world falters in its promises to send the aid committed, and a handful of countries—Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey with some aid from The Saudis and other Gulf countries, support this growing community of people fleeing hell.
I cannot help but think of the response some Americans had to the increase in border crossers from Mexico, during one of the most dangerous periods of violence in border cities like Cuidad Juarez. People were waking up to dismembered bodies and missing women, and the US responded with Civilian militia patrols and a wall. This is not to question the need to manage our resources and protect our land and people; it is to suggest that the depth of hospitality and social responsibility demonstrated by a country as resource poor as Jordan might be a model for accepting the realities of a truly global community where suffering is widespread. We are connected, and as I often say when I am teaching my movement therapies for trauma classes: If you think you are here for yourself, you’re wrong. We are here for each other. That’s “rule” #1 in the post-trauma restorative process. No-one heals alone.
I am hoping to return to the Middle East several times this year to assist with this humanitarian tragedy. I encourage those of you who can to donate to organizations supporting the people of Jordan and Syria: Lutheran World Federation, The Mennonite Central Committee and UNICEF are all doing good work with very limited budgets. You can earmark your donation for the Syrian Refugee Crisis. If you do, thank you.
When I visited with the 88 year old Grandmother, we did not have common spoken language. She gestured enough to tell me that some nights, when they were in a tent (they had just moved to a much sturdier 4 walled structure provided by Lutheran World Federation) she had to endure rain or even snow falling on her. It was cold. She is a healthy woman who has never had knee problems before; now, walking is very difficult because of the pain in her joints, a consequence of those long cold nights and the hard journey to Jordan. She has never lived anywhere but Da’raa; she wants to go home. I have worked with enough elderly refugees to know that the greatest heartbreak is to not be able to finish out ones life in ones community. We of the once dominant white culture seem to hide our elders in nursing homes in the United States. In other more socio-centric cultures, they are honored, acknowledged, and listened to. They have a place.
If the predicted one million refugees from Syria really do arrive to the expanding refugee camps in surrounding countries by the end of this year, that’s a million more people than there were before this war began who have been uprooted and ripped from their place. March 15 is the two year anniversary of the start of this civil war. Some speculate it will drag on for years; some of the refugees in Zataari believe they will go home in a few weeks. They rely on news from family still there and there are reports that al-Assad is hiding in a mountain fortress, and will soon have to escape Syria if he wants to live. They hope this is true so they can return to their homes. It seems unlikely to me, but I would never utter a word that would undermine their hope.
I hope, Inshallah, that the world will match Jordans’ hospitality and commitment and find a way to support their care of the Syrian people, and that it will be sometime soon—very soon– that the 600,000 displaced Syrians can all return to their place.