Walking with community service in northern Jordan

Thanks to Jeanne Coker for this blog – edited from a record of the journey written for ‘Christians Aware’.

Jeanne at work in the ecopark
Jeanne at work in the ecopark

 Note to readers: Italicised sentences have been added to the original text for additional clarification.

The Walk

The group met together at the delightful Amman Pasha Hotel. A meal on the roof, overlooking the Roman amphitheatre, to introduce ourselves before setting off the next day. We start by driving to Ajloun Castle, built by one of Saladdin’s generals in 1184. We walk North up and down the rocky hillsides and along the wadis. It is tough walking but our guides take good care of us. We are led by Murad from “Experience Jordan” (the Jordanian travel agency which is the local AP partner)  and accompanied by a person from the local community. The trail has recently been marked by a group of young people from the local community together with people from the UK and the USA. The team need to explain to local villagers what they are doing. There is some suspicion that they might be a political party and need to overcome this! Another problem is what to mark. The only static objects are electricity poles but in between rocks are chosen which are unlikely to be moved by a local farmer. Our trail takes us through the village of Baoun and visit the site of Mar Elias (known as Tishbe in the Bible) the home-town of the Prophet Elijah. It has been a hot, tough day so we are pleased to reach our homestay in Orjan where we will spend two nights. Homestays are an essential part of the itinerary – local people provide food and somewhere to wash and to sleep. The money we pay for this hospitality goes directly to the local community. We are also able to learn a little of the local customs and culture. Some visit the Soap House, a local income generation project, but I need to rest my weary feet! Our hosts feed us well, too well; the showers are very welcome and the beds are comfortable so we are refreshed for further walking – Rasoun, Beit Idis, and finally Pella which is one of the Decapolis cities located along the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

Walking in the hills of northern Jordan
Walking in the hills of northern Jordan

Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark

Here we participate in some community service

The Sharhabil Bin Hassah Dam (Ziqlab) is the first dam built in Jordan (1964). It is one of the clearest water resources in Jordan.

The park was established in 2005 – to rehabilitate and conserve the natural ecosystem of this area. Prior to that time this area was suffering from pollution, overgrazing by livestock, and soil erosion. Now it is a green oasis. Staff outlined various projects, the aim of which is to improve the lives of people in the local communities in the Jordan valley.

There are 10 wooden eco lodges which are used for residential conferences and the paying public (to raise money to resource the park). Visitors are guided on the walking trails – another source of income. There are two natural wetlands which are major breeding grounds for birds and animals. There is a small artificial wetland where grey water from showers and sinks is treated and then used in plant irrigation.

A geodesic dome was built by local students. These domes are easily built with no need for internal support. They have good acoustics so can be used for lectures without the need for amplification. It is also used for theatre where the audience sit outside.

The area is green with mature trees (which need little water) where once was stony desert. We spent some time weeding with hoes around established plants and filling 2 litre drinks bottles with sand to create the walls of a bird hide.

The next day we took to transport instead of walking which was considered unsafe by our guide after 24 hours of rain (more rain fell than during the winter rainy season) which pleased the Jordanians but limited our activities. As we drive north along the ridge we see the River Jordan way below and the Ash-Shaykh Husayn crossing into Israel. One of our group took this crossing into Israel and then on to Nablus where he was planning to set up a town twinning in Colorado. Onwards to Um Qais, another Decapolis city. It is a large site with paved Roman road looking over the Golan Heights down to Lake Tiberias. The town is called Gadara (reference Mark 5 vv 1-15. And v20 – So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.). We return to Amman for our first encounter with refugees.

Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ)

Founded in 2011 in response to the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan, HRJ is a volunteer organization that seeks to support local and international charities meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees and Jordanians. HRJ currently supports over 20 local charities all over Jordan and many formal and informal schools. These numbers are expected to rise.

Funds permitting, HRJ is able to respond quickly to needs highlighted by these charities, acquiring essentials such as baby and children’s clothes, shoes, toys, blankets, kitchen supplies, milk powder, hygiene items, school supplies and medical equipment.

HRJ has over 150 international and some local, non-political, non-profit charities working with refugees and Jordanians in the host communities. The close working relationship between Mercy Corps and HRJ ensures that items bought complement existing programs, plug any gaps and meet any emergency needs that are highlighted by field workers in host and camp communities.

We went out, with other international volunteers, to a refugee camp in an industrial area of Amman. There are about 200 families living in tents on waste land beside modern commercial buildings. We took craft material and other activity material together with a clown from Ecuador! On the way we bought bananas, tetra packs and cakes. We were told to expect 100 children, we catered for 120 but many went away disappointed. I watched three brothers who walked around holding hands, disappointment on their faces not to get a banana; they only know the daily round of having nothing to do, nowhere to go where a shared banana is their greatest treat. I walked around the campsite and talked to a teenager in a wheelchair. The mother invited me into their tent where there was another severely disabled child about 8 or 9 (both children probably have cerebral palsy). Inside the tent the thing that struck me most was the total absence of possessions.

Tented village in south Amman
Tented village in south Amman

The Christian Missionary Alliance at Al Mafraq

“Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity”   psalm 131.1

It has opened the church to co-ordinate the work with refugees living in the community in the area of Al Mafraq to the northern border. The church is supporting Muslims – my brother in need. It has brought church members (about 70) together as a family. The paid pastors in the church are all Jordanian. Currently there are 38 short term volunteers, funded from where they come. These revitalise the long term volunteers where there are problems of “burn out”. There is a building programme at the church for more accommodation for the volunteers with much of the funding coming from a church in Surrey. The Missionary Alliance is audited (by Mercy Alliance) to see how the donor money is spent.

We were given a presentation on the CMA’s work with refugees.  It was explained that there is limited access for volunteers into the UNHCR camp where most refugees start out. Refugees need to be sponsored by a Jordanian family to leave the camp but many leave illegally. (Hence the work of the CMA who run their own registration process to track the families they are supporting). About a dozen NGO’s support the CMA.  These include: local Jordanian volunteer organisations; Docas Aid, a Dutch NGO; Medair, who pays the rent; Mercy Malaysia, who provides the heating; and the Czech Republic,a major donor.

(At first CMA’s work was mainly handling out a welcome pack to each family they registered. The welcome pack contents, in two parts, were:) 

Basic provision: mattresses, blankets, pillows, floor mat, gas stove, gas bottle

Consumables: food packages, clothes, diapers, medical equipment

660 packs have been delivered in the last three months (February to May 2014).

40 families were registered in the winter 2011/2012; the following year this number was 3,000. Now there is an average of 40 new families registering, twice a week (family size average is 5.8 people). Families fled Syria with no possessions, and Jordanian families sheltered them (where they were supposed to pay rent). Now, over a year in, the CMA has turned its attention from basic relief toward development to address the long-term problems arising from permanent refugee status. Jordanian schools have opened a second (afternoon) shift for Syrian children but there is no capacity for the remaining 50%. Muslims pay 2% a year to local organisations. It is called Zakat and helps poor Jordanians too.

The CMA’s approach to the refugee challenge is governed by a set of simple principles:  Everyone is an individual; Openness; Flexibility; Help in what people need; Do what can be done; Patience in listening to people’s traumas; Accountability; Weekly meeting for encouragement and feedback

After our morning with the CMA, we drove to the border at the Jabir checkpoint and crossing, taking with us packages of provisions (containing much the same as UK food banks) and clothing. We distributed these to families who fled at the beginning of the hostilities. They live in concrete rooms, open at the front, which were intended as shop premises. I asked about toilet facilities and how they managed to wash clothes. The response – “The neighbouring shopkeeper is so kind”.

Syrian children wave goodbye from the abandoned retails units that are now their home
Syrian children wave goodbye from the abandoned retail units that are now their home
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