Seeds of hope

WHEN I FIRST started going in and out of Jordan three years ago, my well-honed multicultural sensibility was shocked by what I could only hear as virulent anti-Semitism. Israeli and Jew and Zionist were terms of abuse used by all but the most cosmopolitan. But as mainstream Arab media and YouTube ran footage night after night of Palestinian olive trees being uprooted by bulldozers protected by young Israeli soldiers, elderly Palestinians being attacked with sticks in their own fields and the proliferation of checkpoints and settlements, what I had first heard as anti-Semitism began to sound more like rage and fear and hopelessness.

Nearly two-thirds of Jordan's population is Palestinian, most displaced from Jerusalem and the West Bank or from southern Israel and herded into Gaza during many years of illegal occupation. Since 2003 they have been joined by more than half a million Iraqis. Jordan throughout its short history has provided a safe haven for dispossessed people, some still hoping to go home. The people trapped in Gaza or those enduring daily deprivation and humiliation in the West Bank are their own people and they agonise with them.

By their own admission, many Israelis do not look on Palestinians as human beings. The latest war on Gaza had more than 90 per cent popular support. Israeli surveys abound that identify increasing fear and loathing of Arabs in Israeli schools and suburbs and illegal settlements. In a society that likes to proclaim itself the only democracy in the Middle East, apartheid is impeccably documented.

Now more than four times longer than the Berlin Wall and twice its height in places, the Wall of Separation, the so-called ‘Separation fence', made of solid concrete and barbed wire and electronically monitored, snakes through nearly half of the West Bank. Despite the United Nations declaring its construction illegal when building began in June 2002, nearly twelve million square metres of agricultural land have been confiscated in its construction and more than a hundred thousand olive trees destroyed.

But Jordan and Israel are neighbours. Jerusalem is seventy-two kilometres from Amman. You can see Bethlehem and Jericho from Jordan's Mount Nebo, where Moses first saw the Promised Land. Some Jordanian and Israeli leaders work tirelessly towards understanding and cooperation. Amman does international conferences these days – interfaith, business and marketing – and Israelis are welcome and attend. The borders between Jordan and Israel have remained open since the peace process in 1994 and young Israelis with the latest camping gear and new boots head for the glorious wadis around Petra and are sometimes billeted in villages. Farmers have been known to exchange views on crops on either side of the Jordan River despite the vastly disproportionate use of water for irrigation. Israeli efficiency and scholarship are admired.

Business propositions across the divide in recent years have been promoted by some people as more likely to succeed than peace talks. Shimon Peres and others claim that ‘economy will defeat war', while the problems of the poor remain intractable and signs of hope are infinitesimal. But in Amman, before the outbreak of war in Gaza in January, a small community initiative that seems to some like the beginnings of a big idea was starting to spread.


WHEN I FIRST told friends here last year that I was returning to Amman to spend some time with a community that had begun as a Palestinian refugee camp in 1948, some went rather quiet. We tend to harbour a fairly undifferentiated image of the Arab world: of ideologically inspired terrorism, AK47s, veiled women unable to speak for themselves, damaged children, angry victims of war and displacement, all hell-bent on revenge. And a visceral loathing of Islam, with its own echoes of anti-Semitism, seems at risk of taking root here. My pleasure in the Prime Minister's Apology to Indigenous Australians was spoilt shortly afterwards by his inexplicable omission of the suffering of Palestinians and the failure of the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions when he led the parliamentary celebration of Israel's sixtieth anniversary. Only the courageous and well-informed MP Sussan Ley challenged this, but Australia's one-sided gesture was widely reported throughout the Middle East.

When I arrive in Amman and tell my Jordanian friends I am going to be based in a poor suburb called Jabal Nathif, many of them do not know where it is and none of them has been there. One or two remember a government survey a few years before that had found Jabal Nathif to be the most deprived neighbourhood in Amman with unemployment 50 per cent above the national average and access to tertiary education more than 50 per cent below. I am warned that I am in for a shock and that no cab will venture into Jabal Nathif, that I'll be assumed to be an Israeli or an American. I practise saying Ana min Australia.

The unmarked entrance to Jabal Nathif is only seven minutes drive from Abdoun, a new suburb where the very rich live, opposite the two new showpieces of modern Amman, the grand King Hussein Cultural Centre and City Hall, up one of the steep and narrow streets that wind above old downtown and the souq. There is the usual jumble of rubble, grey ramshackle houses, children playing in the road, skinny cats on rubbish heaps, plastic bags billowing – like poor settlements everywhere.

This one began life in 1948 as a camp for Palestinian refugees – on what was then private land, which precluded the United Nations Relief and Works Agency from providing assistance and gave the government a reason not to. After the Six Day War in 1967, when hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were displaced from the West Bank, the camp and others like it became permanent. Apart from a couple of terrible schools, there had been no services or official recognition for sixty years, not even a police station.

Today, a flash of green paint on a low wall marks a turn left into a street where sparkling yellow, green and blue buildings proclaim themselves – a library, a post office, a children's workshop and a meeting room for tertiary students. Greenery hangs over a pink wall where a bunch of bright-eyed children wait to show the way. We follow the murals down a long alley to a shady playground and crowded upstairs offices. This is Ruwwad, the new heart of Jabal Nathif.


THE TIMING WAS right in 2005 when the process of confidence-building and consultation began here. Urgent solutions were being sought in Jordan and elsewhere for neglected areas made vulnerable to extremism and manipulation. In November that year, the Al-Qaeda suicide bombings at three international hotels in Amman aimed at Westerners killed fifty-seven mainly local people.

Corporate philanthropy, any kind of philanthropy, was new to the Arab world when the Jordanian global transportation and logistics company, Aramex, selected Jabal Nathif as the community with it wished to engage. Repairing the run-down primary school had been identified by the people of Jabal Nathif as their first priority. Materials were donated, labour volunteered and, importantly, the process was documented and filmed. By February 2006, when the film was shown to thirty business people, some joined Aramex to form a foundation. The idea that companies could have a role in encouraging impoverished communities to take responsibility for themselves and their children was quite new. Ruwwad is now funded by ten local and regional companies and individuals, the only Jordanian organisation to neither solicit nor accept donor funds which have agendas and strings attached.

In much of the Arab world, the affluent are inclined to view the poor as stupid. Where petitions are still the norm, where wasta, knowing the right person, is everything, the poor's perception of themselves as victims is endlessly reinforced. Occasional handouts and favours do happen – oranges in Ramadan, jobs and scholarships for the well connected, visits from the Queen. The dozens of glossy magazines for middle-class women provide photo opportunities and gestures of generosity are well publicised.

Impoverished people used to seeing themselves as victims in Jabal Nathif were quite unused to being consulted. The people here are Palestinians mainly, but also Iraqis displaced by war who have moved into Jabal Nathif, a few Bedouin families from the rural areas and Egyptian labourers who queue each morning hoping to get work on Amman's innumerable construction sites. Government agencies had always failed the area – and Ruwwad's motives were at first queried. But today, where once people struggled to raise children in makeshift housing without services, there is a health centre and a clothing depot, a police station, a new employment agency, a nursery, a ceramics workshop, a computer centre – run by local people to suit what they perceive as their urgent needs.

Pivotal to it all is the Mousab Khorma Youth Empowerment Fund, created by Ruwwad in November 2005. Mousab Khorma, then Deputy Director of the Cairo Amman Bank, was one of those killed in the Al-Qaeda hotel bombings, but the ramifications of his legacy of community activism already run deep. In less than three years, more than 350 young people have been awarded full or partial tertiary scholarships in a wide range of fields that they choose for themselves. They are encouraged by Ruwwad to think big. One boy chose art history, another veterinary studies, many girls do engineering. All must contract to repay in kind, with four hours a week of volunteer work in their community. Students choose from Jeeran, the neighbourhood program, to repair and improve houses, to help the housebound, and Shababeek (Windows), the children's program, where they share their talents and pass on some of the skills acquired through study by mentoring younger children.

All volunteer work is expected to be delivered with respect for the people being helped. Lateness is not tolerated. Nor are mothers' intercessions on behalf of recalcitrant sons. Volunteers are formally assessed each semester as a condition of the continuation of their scholarships – a crucial component often lacking in programs elsewhere. Here, a sense of entitlement is avoided and young people learn the satisfaction of reciprocity in their own community. Volunteers and staff told me again and again that this circle of interdependence was their most valuable lesson.

IN THE FIRST year, Raghda Burtos, founding director of Ruwwad, came across a boy leaning on the banister of the stairs leading up to the newly established children's library, still the only place for children to spend time outside school and their crowded homes. The library attracted a hundred and fifty kids a day even before the sign went up saying what the place was, and when it only had a few books on its shelves. Word of mouth drew the children and this little boy.

He could not speak well enough to say his name, or where he lived, and he looked as if he had not been washed in quite some time. He was left to fend for himself all day in the street while his mother and father worked long hours and his siblings went to school. The other kids called him retarded and knew him as The Boy Who Pushed his Sister Down the Well. The story circulated that, as a young child, he had pushed his sister into a well – whether accidentally or in an act of sibling fury or whether it happened at all, no one knew. But he became an outcast, said to be a stunted nineteen-year-old not a normal-sized child.

Raghda took a shine to him and discovered his name was Suhaid, and that he had a disability that no one had bothered to identify. By the time I was told his story a few months ago, he was sitting in her office playing with a plastic puzzle. Suhaid spends time there whenever he can after coming back from a school for the mentally challenged, sponsored by one of Ruwwad's many volunteers. It was not difficult to encourage him to open up, Raghda said. He's a gregarious, lovable boy and his smile and energy have now made him somewhat of a celebrity in the community that once shunned him. He takes choir classes at the Children's Museum, taekwondo classes at a local martial arts school and has attended theatre, musical and other performances which he re-enacts for Raghda and the other staff and community members with great enthusiasm and skill. His speech has improved remarkably and so has his demeanour. In many ways, his story encapsulates the philosophy of Ruwwad: first, build authentic relationships with the community and then together resolve the challenges its members face.

In the house with the pink wall opposite the library, Awad and Manal keep an eye on Suhaid too, as they do on the rest of the community. With its public room lined with rubber mattresses and cushions, their house is a place where people come to talk or rest and be served coffee and Manal's almond cakes. She grows vegetables in pots from seeds sent by her family who live in an agricultural district in the mountains. Awad drives the old community van all over Jordan delivering people and goods. He has recently bought himself a computer and is now teaching the local children and some of their parents how to email. Manal coordinates Ruwwad's Sharabeek program where hundreds of children from the community are helped and workshops are run by volunteers who have skills to share. One of the most popular is Bisatall-Reeh (Magic Carpet) where kids dream up places they want to visit and learn how to look them up in books and on the internet. I am asked, of course, about kangaroos and try to explain about the baran kteira, the many wild camels in Australia, and struggle to describe Alice Springs' Camel Cup. Then a young boy finds films of it on YouTube.


RUWWAD'S GENIUS IS that it is homegrown. Instead of one size fits all, like so many aid-based projects, there is human interaction, skills exchange and the minimum of paperwork. Juggling the community's priorities and extremely modest budget depends on the knowhow of locals. Families once crippled by drug dependency have been helped by the volunteer medical program. Children who could not read now gravitate after school to the sparkling library with its blue tables and full bookshelves. A volunteer who describes himself as a poet teaches a complex spelling game he has invented to a group of boys.

Almost all of Ruwwad's staff come from Jabal Nathif and everyone has a story to tell. Rabeea, a librarian and distinguished writer, established the library three years ago. Local women now read stories here and help children select books. Telling children stories and reading to them is the most important work of all, Rabeea says, because it releases their imagination and helps them deal with difficulties and trauma. Libraries are safe places, without hierarchy, that create a spirit of impartiality, she insists.

Rabeea tells me about an impoverished municipal library with empty shelves that she was trying to help a few years ago in a large northern city. One day the town was to be honoured by a visit from a member of the royal family who had asked to see the library. The day before the visit, the Ministry of Education delivered several truckloads of books so that the Prince, an intellectual and a reader, would not be embarrassed. Rabeea threatened to tell him, and the books were allowed to stay. Now she works to establish an outreach children's library program run by volunteers in villages where the schools often have no books.


THE ROOM AT the top of the stairs is packed as it always is for Dardashaat, the chat room session, where young students share their quandaries and ideas each Saturday morning.

The girls sit together. They wear long-sleeved blouses, jeans and trainers, white scarves covering their hair. The boys, who have made an effort to look cool, stand at the back. These are students from some of the poorest families in Jordan, most of them recipients of Mousab Khorma scholarships. Only one boy and girl sit together, side by side, rather self-consciously. ‘They would be punished if they did that outside,' the translator whispers. She tells me the girl's name means ‘revolution'. The group discussion a few weeks ago was about men and women respecting each other and being friends.

Ramadan has just ended. This Saturday morning the question put by one of the coordinators is, ‘What happened to you in the last week that made you think again?' First there is a few minutes silence and everyone is encouraged to close their eyes.

Then a young man, a sharp dresser, slick black hair, pointy shoes, a neck chain, takes the floor. He speaks with great feeling and breast beating. He has been crossed in love, the translator says in my ear. The girl promised to him three years ago has left him because his studies are going on too long and she wants to get married now and start a family. A widowed man in his fifties with money has approached her father who has agreed that the older man is a better bet. The boy is distraught.

Everyone listens intently: the girls with downcast eyes, the boys nudging each other and making comments. Then a young woman stands up and goes to the front and says firmly that the girl did the wrong thing, she should wait. A young husband with qualifications is worth waiting for.

You are living in a dream, another woman contradicts her. If the girl can marry now she should. This boy will be two more years studying, then he'll have to find work in another country, send money back home, to support his brothers and sisters, as well as a wife and children. What kind of a life is that?

The boys seem to think the young man was badly treated, that the girl must be no good. She must have done something to encourage the offer. You're well out of it, they tell him. Some of the girls disagree angrily. The last to speak is a boy in a blue tee-shirt who sells roasted corn cobs on the streets of old downtown day and night. An orphan, he lives in a hut nearby and is being taught to read by a student volunteer. He never misses a session, the translator tells me. You must stick to study, he tells the room, and trust that the right wife will come. Insh'allah. Everyone seems to agree.

The issues raised that morning range widely. The girls' questions are mainly about friendship and fathers. One thinks her friends all want something from her. One realises her father can never change but she loves him and doesn't want to defy him. The boys are more open. One weeps when he describes the death of his grandmother and how she had cared for him in Jabal Nathif after his parents had died in the First Gulf War. This is a small community driven by loss and rage, who know each other's stories and the calamities that have brought them here. Many have relatives in Gaza.

Often Dardashaat is about manners, about treating people with dignity, why modesty matters, and coping with change. Western values come up in Saturday sessions – which ones are good and which must be resisted. How parents and brothers can be helped to understand that a girl can be both virtuous and out in the world. There is a real sense in the room that the girls are strong. Later I am told by one of them: ‘All girls know how to be strong and brave. Boys have to be encouraged.'


WOUNDS RUN DEEP in this poor community as wave after wave of displaced and struggling people arrive here. But something else is happening that runs counter to the despair and poisonous ideologies that are fuelling extremism all over the region. The young participants in the Ruwaad programs know they have been given a chance that they would not get elsewhere – and there is hope. Ruwwad's programs tackle victimisation head on. Attitudes and aspirations are being changed, opportunities created and the first steps towards creating a meritocracy have been taken in ways that seem to many to have every chance of lasting.

What has happened in just three years in Jabal Nathif is remarkable and inspiring. Just as the now widespread micro-credit movement has begun to enable the poor to improve their living conditions by their own efforts, Ruwwad seems to many people to be the start of another big idea that can counter ideology and extremism and start to soften identity politics by giving the people the hope they need. Recently, plans were taking shape for similar communities in other parts of the region: in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The hope now is they will not be on hold for long.

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