Posts filed under ‘family’

Ruwwad

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Razan picked us up at our small hotel, and as we drove past the KFC’s, McDonalds, gleaming new office/shopping plazas, and continuous construction of West Amman, she told us that she had worked for GE when she graduated from the university. Two years into the job, a friend asked her for a ride to Ruwwad to tutor that day. Curious, Razan went inside and began reading to some of the children. She promised to return the next day, and soon was a regular volunteer. Months later she had left GE to become Program Coordinator at Ruwwad.

Ruwwad is located in Jabal Nathif in East Amman, across an invisible boundary between the eastern and western part of the city that seems to divide very different worlds. The area has been populated mostly by Palestinian refugees since 1948. The people who live here are very poor, but since the place was never designated as an UNRWA facility, they get no help from UN funds. Until Ruwwad provided the space, the Jordanian government provided neither a health clinic nor even a post office. The government has just recently promised to create a police station. The schools were unimpressive, in sum, Jabal Nathif was a very “under-served” area. Ruwwad has done more than offer services. It has allowed the local children to think about opportunities that they could not have even imagined two years ago.

Ruwwad was Raghda Butros’ dream. When we met her in 2003 she was a Humphrey Fellow at the University of North Carolina, in transition between jobs. After she returned to Amman, she decided she could actually carry out her project. Of the many things I admire about this woman, one is her ability to do things that I would find unlikely at best, and probably impossible.

When we first saw the Ruwwad site in the summer of 2006, there was little but a shell of a building and Raghda’s dreams to fill it. Now, Razan was taking us through three stories filled with children, volunteers, staff, and a flood of remarkable ideas they seem able to implement almost as soon as they arise. Raghda explained that the staff had decided to move its offices out of that initial colorful structure, leaving the first building to the programs and the children who had, by that time, moved into every inch of it. They found that the children followed them into their offices in a neighboring building-–Raghda’s has not only the desk, books, and computer one would expect in an NGO director’s space, but also puzzles, books, and bean-bag chairs for the children who drop by to hang out while she is working.

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Ruwwad opens into a library full of children’s books. (They could always use more…) It is brightly painted, and furnished, like most everyplace else in Ruwwad, by the refurbished castoffs that the volunteers and staff collect, clean, repair, and decorate with great imagination. (The kids even designed the ngo logo.) After an existence of less than two years, Ruwwad’s two buildings today offer a computer lab, a library, courses, a preschool, a furniture-refurbishing shop, and a large meeting space.

The programs that fill the place, though, are the most exciting. “Windows” offers local kids an opportunity to do art, usually available only to Amman’s wealthier children. Adults attend literacy classes in Arabic and English classes offered by volunteers. The large conference room on the top floor is the setting for monthly discussions about topics chosen by local high-school and college-age students, conversations often taboo and unbroached at home or in school.

These older students are often recipients of Ruwwad’s scholarships. Each scholarship student, in addition to attending community college or university, is required to volunteer for the organization. These volunteers provide the labor needed to improve local homes and to build new ones (with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter).

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Rami was with us as we toured the facility. At 17 and in 11th grade, he has made a gradual transition from a local ringleader to one of Ruwwad’s big neighborhood supporters. His friends have followed him, providing a huge support to volunteer efforts to rebuild the community. He came along as we went to a neighbor’s house for sweet, minty tea. Our host has four daughters and three sons. The youngest child, Sarah, is four months old.; the oldest is in her 20s. We met three daughters, including one about to take her exams to get into the university. The family’s house used to consist of one room, an entryway beside a small, walled-off toilet, and a moldy kitchen. After Ruwwad’s volunteers moved the toilet onto the patio and installed a shower, they recreated the entryway into a second room, essentially doubling the usable size of the house. And they treated the mold and repainted the kitchen. Our host, now in her 30s (she married at 17) seemed quite delighted–and delightful. After tea, she urged us to stay for coffee and lunch; when we declined, she insisted that we return another time.

Still less than two years old, Ruwwad now employs 23 people. The programs seem both remarkably innovative and very comprehensive. I keep deleting the words here, because I seem unable to convey the complexity of the program that Raghda and her staff have created. I am used to writing in a linear way, but the varied parts of Ruwwad’s program seem so connected to other parts, it would be more comprehensible with a diagram than a paragraph. I’ll try to give a sense of it. Their varied activities enrich the lives of residents physically (improving living quarters, providing job skills through volunteering, and finding funding for urgent medical situations); academically (offering scholarships, tutoring, literacy programs, English lessons, and encouraging reading); socially (providing volunteer opportunities, creating community cohesion, offering youth a space and resources to talk about important issues); and emotionally (improving living conditions, creating community, responding to urgent local needs). All who benefit are expected to give back through volunteering, which, of course, provides more resources to the Jabal Ndif community. Why didn’t we all think of this decades ago?

The Ruwwad web site does a much better job describing this remarkable place.

November 29, 2007 at 3:51 pm 1 comment

Victoria’s Wedding

Wedding

Victoria and Hanna married last night in the Church of Saint Elias, after a ten year courtship. Hala introduced me to her best friend soon after I arrived; Victoria, an Armenian, teaches French at a secondary school in a nearby village. We met Hanna at our party in late September. He is Greek Orthodox, the rite in which the ceremony took place. Hala and Victoria both reassured me that it is no problem for Christians to marry other Christians, regardless of the sect. Marrying a Muslim, they tell me, would be inconceivable, it would alienate their families too much.

There were some 150 people at the church last night, a very recent structure that looked like nearly all the non-cruciform churches I have been inside, with the addition of a large dome. William and I arrived very early–we hadn’t known how long the ride would take, and we didn’t realize that even weddings don’t begin on time. The people from the floral shop were still finishing their work, which was quite extensive. Hanna arrived soon after, looking quite handsome in his charcoal gray suit, if a bit anxious. He explained his nervousness to William. This is a big step–in his culture, he said, you only get to marry once.

The guests stood as the wedding party walked down the central aisle, without music. First the parents, then two attendants, both relatives of the bride and groom. (Huge retinues of attendants, I’m told, are not done here.) Victoria and Hanna walked in together, then stood on the steps facing the priest, their backs to their friends and family. Their attendants stood by their sides, holding candles. Much of the service was conducted in Greek, some in Arabic. (William commented that it was the first time he had heard Allah called upon in church.) One priest on each side of the podium participated in the service, much of which was chanted.

Although there were two completely adorable small children, a boy and a girl, who walked in with the wedding party, neither seems to have been a ring bearer. No wedding rings were exchanged. Instead, around the middle of the ceremony, a priest chanted while he placed a gold crown on Hanna’s head, then more changing and another gold crown on Victoria’s head. He continued chanting as he changed the crowns from one head to the other a few times.

Wedding Church

Soon after, one of the priests, swinging a ball of incense, led the couple and their attendants in three circles around the alter. At each pass, the members of the wedding party kissed the cross held by another priest. In half an hour, it was over, the priest blessing them and wishing them health, happiness, and peace.

The bride, groom, and attendants signed some documents, then posed for a few pictures, before processing back down the central aisle to form a receiving line outside. (The church was being prepared for another wedding.)

Victoria was as radiant as a bride should be. She looked completely stunning–and here I wish I had the words that wedding writers used. How would they say it? She wore a long floor-length white gown with a long white train, a fitted bodice embroidered and sequined, with neither sleeves nor straps; her shoulders and arms were bare to the tops of her long white gloves. Her large diamond earrings reflected the light of the many candles that had been lit around the church; actually, they even seemed to reflect her smile! Hala tells me that professionals always do the hair and makeup of the wedding party, and whoever had done Victoria’s was terrific. She is beautiful without it, but looked completely amazing after he (the best ones are men here, she says) was finished.

I was quite curious about what people would wear to a church wedding. Fifty-something women and older wore nice suits and sensible shoes. Only two of us had gray hair. The styles for younger women were remarkably revealing–lots of bare shoulders, more than a few bare backs, shoes with impossibly high heels, a few discrete shoulder tattoos. One woman covered her head. Men wore suits. I’d been impressed in Morocco, Syria, and Jordan that men have such a wide range of types of clothing to choose from, but apparently those are not appropriate for urban church weddings.

Family and close friends moved on to a local club for festivities. William and I returned home in the care of a nice taxi driver (American people are great! he told us. But the president…)

November 11, 2007 at 9:38 pm Leave a comment

Home Alone

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Four Brothers and a Nephew (Juma with beard)

Juma has stopped by twice during the last few days. He was worried about us, he said. Masayo had returned to Japan at the end of September; Makiko and her husband followed ten days later. Ahmad has been gone almost two weeks. William and I are all alone.

For Ahmad’s brother Juma, as he explained during his visits, the goal of life isn’t accumulating wealth. The purpose of life is to live it with people, to have friends and family all around. Now here we were, home alone! He thought we were probably quite lonely.

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Last weekend, we were invited to dinner at a restaurant outside the city. Our host brought along not only his wife and two young children, but also his mother, one of his nephews, his brother, sister-in-law, and their infant daughter. When I told his wife that my daughter Katie is in Istanbul working, she was surprised and sad. Isn’t she lonely? Intisar asked. I explained that in the US, children often leave their parents’ house when they finish high school. This idea seemed quite unacceptable. “We have close families here,” she responded.

When Hala, my wonderful teacher, left Aleppo to go to the university in Latakia, she lived with her aunt. When she finished, she returned to her parents’ home. Young men and young women generally live with their parents until they marry. Our friend Victoria, an Armenian Syrian whose family has been in Aleppo for generations, is about to be married. She and her fiancé have just bought a house blocks away from her parents.

I asked many people what they did to celebrate the Eid holiday that ended Ramadan. Each described the same program. The first day, all of the children and their families go to visit the parents and grandparents. The next day, they go to visit the next circle of relatives. Holidays seem always to be celebrated with family.

My training as an economic historian makes me appreciate the financial benefit of the close connections. Syria has just introduced its first credit card; nearly everything in the country still has to be bought either with cash or with informal credit based on personal trust. There are still no mortgages available for financing the purchase of non-commercial property. To buy a house or begin a business, people seem to rely on intra-family borrowing.

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But more than financial necessity, the very close ties among family and friends seem to suggest significantly different attitudes, values, and interactions than the ones I have lived around. Americans who can afford it decorate a separate room for the new baby before s/he is even born, and most often leave their children behind when going out for entertainment. (Here babies and toddlers asleep in their parents’ arms are visible in all public places late into the night–taking your children with you to social events is simply assumed.) Our geographic mobility takes us far away from our own parents, and will likely take our children far away from us. And not relying on others has long been part of an American mantra.

In Syria, as Juma’s concern illustrates, being alone is a state to be avoided. Being surrounded by the people who love you, whether shouting or dancing, is much to be preferred. It is, as he says, the point of this life.

I think he couldn’t understand our delight in having a bit of “alone time.”

—–  

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After William read the post above, he showed me “Dick and Jane: Leaving the Nest” in Pulp, a glossy monthly we picked up in Jordan. The English-language magazine, published in Amman, focuses on music and entertainment for a twenty-something to thirty-something upscale audience. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have a website. Here is one excerpt:

Jane: People want independence!

Dick: Independence?

Jane: Independence! Haven’t you ever felt so frustrated with being with your parents all the time? …

Dick: This whole grown-up-hence-moving-out phenomenon is a Western social construction. It’s not natural–for US. We stay with our families, we don’t send our grandmothers to nursing homes—our grandmothers stay with us, or at least really close by. Your grandmother is at your house all the time–everyday! So, we’re basing this desire on a system that we don’t have. This super individualism is not part of our culture, as much as others are trying to force it on us for, frankly, their own benefit. Until we have a family of our own and our parents’ house is too small and we become burdens, we stay with our parents.

October 28, 2007 at 7:46 am 2 comments


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