Clichés. We hear them all the time. Some resonate with us, others don’t make sense. Well as I am sure you have heard, “everything happens for a reason.” As you may know, this could not be further from the truth. My trip was filled with validation and proof of many clichés you probably have heard before.
Let me start by giving you a quick summary of where I was in my life at the time of what I am about to share with you. I moved to Seattle, WA in July of 2016 for work– flash forward to June 2017 I received notice that I was being laid off. Barely a year out of college, I lost my job and was 3000 miles away from my first home. I was in a hopeless state of disarray.
I shared this news with Zohaib, the other brown guy I am working on this blog with. He tends to be the more positive and optimistic one in our friendship. He told me that I should do something useful with this time. He told me about an opportunity with an organization called Helping Hand for Relief and Development coming up in a few months. Little did I know, this conversation would be the stepping stone to an unforgettable life altering experience.
Flash-forward to August 2016. Myself and 23 other gentlemen from across the United States arrived in Amman, Jordan. We were transported to our housing accommodations in an air-conditioned van. Shielded from the heat through the large glass window, I vividly observed all the people we passed in our bus. They seemed so busy with their lives. Each had their own story and mission for the day. Well, the mission I was about to embark on … let’s just say it would be one of the toughest I have ever had to go through.
I have a tendency of waking up early, no matter what day of the week it is or where I am in the world. Already having my sleep cycle ruined through jet-lag and sleeping for 8 hours on the plane – I woke up at 4AM the following day just in time to hear the morning call to prayer or the Athan. I have been to a few predominantly Muslim countries, and I have to say, hearing the echo of various Athans from numerous Mosques in the area gives me a feeling unlike any other. I digress, time to get to the emotional stuff.
The following day we headed to a city called Jarash, the home to a refugee camp which houses more than 11,500 people. After a 1 hour drive, the nice glass buildings of Amaan were quickly replaced with crumbling half constructed concrete 1 story homes. Jerash Camp was set up as an emergency camp in 1968 for Palestinian refugees and displaced persons who left the Gaza Strip as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The camp covers an area of roughly 0.75 square kilometers. Leaving the air-conditioned bus, I was quickly met with a draft of dusty hot air.
I could see from a distance a group of children, no younger than 7 or 8, staring at our group while we slowly disembarked from the bus. I could not tell if they were excited or annoyed. Throughout the entire trip, an ideology really wrapped my stomach in a knot – “voluntourism”. I am sure you have seen pictures of people going to some developing country for a brigade trip and come back with pictures with cute children to post to Facebook and Instagram. Though I am not sure if their intentions are to get likes or spread awareness, nonetheless for the most part that child is still in the same situation after they leave. I was talking to some of the Helping Hand staff and they said the saddest part is when they come back the following week when our group leaves and they go to help the communities we visited. The staff said that the locals, especially the children, get very sad as these people come for a short period of time and never return. It really takes a toll on the children as most of them have already lost so much. It’s a Catch-22 situation which I don’t have a solution for. You want to spread awareness and help these people, but at the same time you have to come back to your home and live on with your life. I’ll elaborate on this more later.
We proceeded to walk through the sandy and cracked streets to our first destination. Our guide told us how in the entire camp there is just one hospital and three schools. This one hospital services the 11,500 occupants of the camp. He mentioned that parents would have to wait on line early in the morning to get medicine if their child was sick. At times, they did not even make it to the front of the line after waiting the entire day. To make matters even worse, most of the people living in the camp do not have health insurance which means they have to pay a lot out of pocket to pay for the services. Each of these schools accommodates about 1500 students. As most of these children do not have citizen papers or IDs they are not allowed in the traditional Jordanian school system. The communities developed here have unfortunately spanned generations. Many of the families living in this camp do not know a world outside the fenced boundary. Let that sink in. Generations of families.
After about five minutes of walking, we reached our destination. The guide was saying something, but I was just lost in thought in regards to how people and children could live in these kinds of conditions. Come two days, I would realize that these people are actually much better off than others. We entered a small room, no bigger than a studio apartment, that was dimly lit by a single light bulb. We sat down on a cushioned mat. Me being my curious self, I started to look around and caught glimpse that there was a pillow under the sheet I was sitting on. I came to the realization that we were sitting on their bed. The moment of realization of how much I have taken for granted has never hit me harder than it did during this 10 second stint of thought. Back in my apartment, I have a couch in my living room which happens to turn into a bed and an actual queen sized bed in my bedroom. My moment of self-reflection was interrupted by a little girl holding up a half-filled bottle of orange soda and a stack of stained plastic cups. Trying to hold back my tears, I gave a slight nod and smile indicating that it is okay. Upon further observation, it appeared that this living space only had one room (the one we were in) and a small enclave for a bathroom. Five people lived here. Five. As we left, we were once again offered snacks for the road and met with smiles. Myself along with the other brothers left with smiles, but from reading each other’s eyes, our hearts were shattered.
We only stayed at the next place for a few minutes because the house’s owner was very old and we did not want to inconvenience her or cause her too much stress. This woman had cancer, lived by herself, and had a glass eye. Our tour guide did not say too much about her predicament, but the one thing that sticks with me up till this day is that she kept the keys to her house in Palestine with hopes that one day she returns. Sad thing is, even if she has the remote chance to go back, the likelihood of her house still being there is zero.
I will elaborate more on this in later blogs; however, my experience in Jordan really showcased the will-power and strength of the people of Palestine. Amidst all the atrocity and acrimony they had bestowed upon them, the people of Palestine continue to live their lives and are driven to achieve a better one. In closing, this day really changed my perspective on humanity. We all have heard that people who have the emptiest pockets, have the biggest hearts. It’s one thing hearing it, but it is a whole other thing witnessing it.
As we drove away in our air-conditioned bus, protected from the arid heat of Jordan, I recalled an instance which I regret to this day. I was visiting my grandparents in Pakistan during the Summer of 2003. During a hot day, sitting in the middle of a bazar in my Uncle’s air conditioned car – I heard a knocking on the window. I look up and it was two children with their hands in a cup. My mom says to me that it would be nice if I gave them some of the money she gave me to get a new toy from the store. I nodded my head and went back to playing my video game. The utter shame and disgust in myself that had been lingering on for 13 years had never stung harder than it did that day. I was reluctant to give away what would equate to about 2 US Dollars, while someone who had their house taken away from them was willing to give away their half-filled and probably only bottle of orange soda to a complete foreigner. Really goes to show that the less you have, the more you are likely to give away.