Wednesday, May 26, 2010

CRP Welcomes Meera Shanti

Meera Shanti is a 20 year old university student currently doing a 5 week internship with CRP in Amman. Meera grew up in Washington State but now lives on the east coast where she attends university.

Meera is staying with Sasha at our CRP Resource Center. She’s been accompanying Sasha on many home visits and has been an invaluable help to CRP as we establish our programs at the CRP Resource Center.

Since her arrival, she has been doing almost daily entries on her own blog, which she has generously agreed to share with us. We think you’ll enjoy reading her perspective and reactions to her experiences as a newcomer to the Middle East, as well as descriptions of the Resource Center activities.

Please scroll down to the bottom to start from the beginning.

Saturday, May 22, 2010
Although the Children's Art and Music Activity Group will remain relatively similar week to week in terms of who participates, the individual activities taken on by the children are ever changing. Kids get bored, and that's just the way it is. It is then our responsibility as planners, teachers, and as fellow participants to come up with new and exciting activities for the students to engage in each week.

This Friday's session went as follows. There was again the same two age groups participating, ages 4-7 and 8-12, although this time there were a few more people in each group making the day a bit more lively. Just as happened last week, the younger group of children went first. Ghazwan, Sasha's colleague and translator I have mentioned before, first read the children a story and asked them questions as he went along. Next on the list was an activity that was slightly more messy than book reading. The children each were given one of many different colored balloon hats that had been made earlier in the day. The balloon hats were then lined with white glue on one side, most obviously not the side that would be touching the kids' heads. This is were the messy part began. Glitter, sequins, feathers, and most every other shiny or fluffy decoration one can think of....the children loved it! They spent the next half hour sticking these different decorations to their balloon hats and even before they had finished, their smiles got brighter and their eyes grew bigger. Although I am sure there was still glue and glitter on the floor, on the table, and in the children's hair, this did not keep them from fully enjoying their afternoon snack. As the children hurried to gulp down their juice boxes and crunch their last chip, there was a slight change to the day's schedule. Instead of having the younger kids wait for the older group to finish their session, everyone would spend the middle half hour, after the young group's snack time, playing music.

This was by far my favorite part! I did not need to speak Arabic to communicate to these mini Mozarts and soon to be Beethovens. I spent the following 20 minutes, after everyone had a chance to pick and choose the specific instrument they wanted to play (harmonica, drums, flute, etc.) demonstrating just a few simple things. After taking the first ten minutes teaching each instrumental group how to pay soft, then loud, then slow, then fast, it was time to hear the beauty that had been created. Using a common Arabic beat in the background, I would change the volume on the beat in order to signal to the kids to play in one of the numerous different ways they had learned at the beginning. wahid, itnen, thaletha.....and the children would come to a complete stop. The one, two, three, STOP! was probably the winner of the day. After everyone silenced, it was only a few short seconds before they all began laughing.

Although these little proteges may not yet have made it to Benaroya Hall or Blues Alley, there enthusiasm has put them half way there. It is my hope and dream that every child should be so lucky as to play, learn about, and hear some form of music in his or her life. It is most evident in my own life that sounds serve as an expression for all, and it is that unifying quality found in music that I had the privilege of watching each child embrace.

As for the older group of children, their task was a new and challenging one. Following Sasha and Ghazwan's short lesson on how to paint someone's face, where to place the eyes, nose, ears, etc., the children were then asked to paint the face of that person to which they were sitting across. Dark skinned, light skinned, blue eyes, brown eyes, boy, girl, hijab, no hijab, these students' drawings and paintings spoke for themselves. The smiles and surprises began when every person had their picture taken holding their portrait but standing next to that person whom they had depicted in their art. It was a fun yet challenging experience for all. After the portraits came the group activity. As we laid out a large brown sheet of paper spanning nearly an entire three tables' length, Ghazwan wrote on the center of the paper We Love Iraq, using a heart instead of the wordlove. Within 20 minutes, this was one of the most beautiful murals ever. Some kids painted flags of Iraq, while others drew palm trees and sunshine. One figure in particular that has stayed with me since the event was a painting that a young man did right below the center phrase. He painted a brownish male stick figure, nothing too unique, but in the center was a very detailed depiction of this boy's heart. It had a flag inside with the country's honorable Arabic script painted in the center, symbolizing that the man's heart would always be in Iraq.

While the mural is far from completed, there are also many more Fridays to come. As the children will spend a portion of next week and the following completing the work of art they have just begun, I am anxiously awaiting the time when this beautiful masterpiece can hang from the wall of CRP to be seen by all.

Posted by Meera at 5:00 AM 1 comments 
Please and thank you is a phrase you learn in nearly every language, in almost every culture, in virtually all countries around the world . You hear it at the very beginning of a conversation, then again towards the end and often several times in between.


After working with Sasha for only two short weeks, it is a continual inspiration that someone with a relatively comfortable life in the U.S. should decide to leave behind that life in order to live here in Amman and dedicate her efforts to a never ending cause. Humbled and challenged by the opportunity to work with CRP, I am personally experiencing the intense emotional roller coaster that comes with doing such work, still insignificant to the trauma and pain faced by those communities we are serving. While some of the work Sash does is intangible, listening and making sure people know that their stories are being heard, a great deal of CRP's work (emergency assistance, etc.) is contingent upon the financial support received from outside donors. I am writing this blog in particular to request that you donate whatever you are able, small as it may be, towardsCRP. While I understand that there are an infinite number of causes and people to support in this world, I hope that the sharing of Iraqi stories through my own writing has built a bridge allowing for a personal link between America and Iraq.

As many of you reading this have probably known me for several years, you may be familiar with the fact that I have given several solo piano recitals to benefit numerous causes around the world. When deciding which specific organization I want to benefit at each recital, I always take the time to identify those with which I have or feel a personal connection. That said, if you feel you have gained any connection with the Iraqis about whom I am writing, I highly encourage you to donate.

...Thank you

Whether you have decided to donate or not, thank you for taking the time to consider your own means as well as those of CRP and the Iraqis whom we assist. I understand that is often much easier not to allow a world full of problems take over your life as is, so I thank and commend you for looking inwards to yourself to consider whether or not it is in your ability or heart to assist.
Posted by Meera at 4:59 AM 0 comments 
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Because it in not my intention to bore you by telling nearly the same story that was last week's social, I am writing only to make two distinctions between the two events.

While there was enough American cuisine for approximately 60 people last week, this Tuesday was slightly different. A woman who normally attends the social as a fellow English learner and socializer gifted us with the amazing taste of an Arabic meal. This unusual delight consisted of two Biryani dishes with two different meats (thinly sliced meat, rice, and vegetables), Dolma (grape leaves filled with rice and vegetables), and fresh Tabbouleh (finely chopped parsley, tomato, onion, lemon juice, olive oil and seasoning). In Iraq, the Tabbouleh dish is considered native to the city of Mosul whose cuisine is closely tied to that of Syria. Oh, and there was some really really sweet dessert!

Maybe in part because of the amazing meal, an overwhelming number of guests showed up to this week's social. While I would love to say, "the more the merrier", a living room and activity room meant to hold around 50 people does not do so well with 75. Even as people began to filter in and out which made the room seem a bit less crowded from time to time, there was not nearly enough food. As people talked and ate in nearly every room in the house, people began to flood into the streets. At the end of the night, after food and conversation and a few rounds of dominoes, it was CRP's decision to hold off on next week's social until a new structure could be established. It is our latest plan to have the social split into two groups, A and B. This way, everyone will still have the opportunity to attend, but the number of people participating each week will be much more manageable and less expensive in terms of preparing the food. It is also a possibility that we will alternate between American and Arabic cuisine, or possibly split each week's meal between the two cultures.

While I have had previous experiencing planning, facilitating, and managing similar events, every week brings something new. It is truly exciting and exhilarating to know that no matter how hour many hours of thought and planning and work goes into hosting such an event, there will always be a need to make it different. How cool is that!
Posted by Meera at 4:50 PM 0 comments 
Monday, May 17, 2010
Continuous and excruciating pain, that was just the way this man lived. Because he was working with American troops in Iraq, this man was kidnapped and horribly tortured leading to a life of constant and almost unbearable pain today. In addition to his own suffering, numerous other members in his family were kidnapped and or killed as a response to his work with U.S. military.

While visiting with this man and his family at their home on the opposite side of the city, it was evident that his past suffering and traumas were the least of his worries. Within the first few months of arrive to Jordan, his family's entire savings was stolen. As it can take an immense amount of time after registering with UNHCR for families to begin receiving cash assistance, this often puts families in a very uncomfortable financial situation in addition to the already mentioned physical and psychological struggles so many of these families must overcome.

With no savings, only recent cash assistance, and rent and medical expenses stacked against him, this man was under a great amount of physical and emotional stress as well as recently being informed of his family's threatened eviction from their home. This is where CRPcomes in. While there are an infinite number of needs each family would like us to fill, it is Sasha's ad CRP's job to come to these families' homes and perform the general assessment I mentioned in my first home visit in order to prioritize all of these necessities. After spending several hours with the family and learning about their situation both past and present, CRP decided to give this man enough money to pay his past due rent. While this financial assistance served more as a band-aid rather than an actual treatment, it was a problem that required solving before any of this family's other issues could be addressed.

As I spent most of my life testing and learning that giving people money to solve their problems tends never to reach the actual cause but only to aid in solving a person's most short-term needs, I now understand the other side of the coin. As one of my teachers has said to me several times, "money doesn't make you happy, but it will buyyou all the things that do". Not only am I beginning to see that this saying holds true in many situations, but that it is actually refreshing and helpful to think and assist those around you when viewing a problem or set of circumstances from this perspective. While many of us would like to think that money is not what solves our discomforts and lessens our struggles, there is no way around it. Happiness, however, is a very indirect and relative concept. It is indirect in the sense that it money does not immediately lead to happiness but that it makes possible a stable situation in which one often finds happiness. It is a relative concept suggesting that while happiness for you and I may be having the financial capability to buy the newest iPod or a two story house, happiness for others is often merely the security that comes with having a roof over your family's head and enough food and water to keep that family alive.

Understanding that happiness is both indirect and relative, it is the simple quote mentioned earlier that put my mind at ease when CRPdecided to hand over a large amount of money only to solve one man's immediate needs.
Posted by Meera at 12:32 PM 0 comments 
I want to interject in my own blog/electronic journal to make a few, but in my view very necessary points. I have no doubt that there are people of all political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds reading the stories I share. As there may be many of you who may disagree with much of my writing and have taken it upon yourself to assume a certain bias in my voice in order to rationalize this disagreement, your assumptions are most likely correct .

My upbringing was one of the best I know, one that taught me to truly appreciate and understand all sides to story, no matter how many existed. It is a result of this holistic upbringing that I feel it necessary to make clear the position from which I am writing during my time in Amman.

I fully understand that there is a much greater context into which my writing could be placed, a context containing much more military, political, and religious information to explain and accompany each individuals' journey from Iraq to Amman. This premise understood, I came to work for CRP with the intention of understanding and conveying the notion of human suffering, a notion that is inexcusable regardless of the circumstances upon which it followed. Sunni orShia, male or female, child or adult, educated or uneducated, it is not these such characteristics that should control an individuals' possibility for danger and suffering in the world.

Most of you reading this blog most likely live a relatively comfortable and stable life. Comfortable in the sense that you are free to see a a doctor if you or your children should find yourselves ill. Stable with regards to the fact that you are able to work for wages, legally, not worried with such great intensity that your children will not receive adequate nourishment to survive until tomorrow. These descriptions of instability and discomfort are unfortunately experienced by a daunting number of people existing in most all parts of the world. It is our responsibility, if not to actively alleviate these sufferings, to understand that we will never experience or live to tell such horrific stories, and it is therefore not in our ability to judge based on this inexperience.

I am writing to tell the stories of those who have never been told. If these individuals' narratives do not include any military, political, or religious context as mentioned above, then so be it. No matter what preconceived notions we as Americans may have about those living in or fleeing Iraq, our preconceive notions will never be comparable to trauma and violence that these families have experienced. The simple fact that there are so many stories I am not able to disclose due to the danger they might possess, needs no further explanation. The possibility that those from Iraq should be so brave as to speak and share with those who are partially responsibly for or representative of their past traumas is yet another testament to their bravery. I understand and want to clearly express that the U.S. military or America's war in Iraq is not the sole or even the most common causation of every individuals' stress, illness, trauma, or danger. Our presence in these peoples' country however, regardless of its intentions, still serves as a contributor to the suffering and displacement of many, and I am writing for them.
Posted by Meera at 12:13 PM 0 comments 
Sunday, May 16, 2010
I say only photos, because that is all this man had. Although it is not possible to consider one person's story more devastating than any other, I could not even begin write about this man's experience until several days later because of the intense emotion it carried. Before attempting to share this man's dreadful reality, as Sasha said to me today, "how dare I make [his] suffering my own". While I am overwhelmed by the personal sadness and discomfort brought about by hearing each and every one of these stories , I am also fully aware that my own feelings and emotions are incredibly insignificant when compared to those of the Iraqis who's stories are being told.

Last year, a middle aged Iraqi man found another Iraqi man passed out on the floor of a shop where he had been sleeping for who knows how long. When the man was taken to the hospital it was discovered that he had suffered a stroke, and had lost all movement on one side of his body. After spending four days in the hospital, he was then brought to the home of the man who found him, and has been staying there ever since. The home where he was taken in is already inhabited by 11 other children along with their mother and father. It is beyond commendable that a family with such insufficient space and resources for themselves should be so kind and loving as to take in another man with such great needs. Although this man has recovered a small portion of his speech and and can now move short distances using a cane, it still takes a great amount of effort and concentration for him to produce a simple word or sentence. Able to understand both Arabic and English, I cannot imagine the frustration that this man now faces not being able to speak comfortably in either language. While he could have easily chosen to use only writing to communicate his story to those listening, his bravery and courage were more present than ever when he instead decided to use the majority of his energy (both emotional and physical) to speak about his experiences.

While his physical situation may seem devastating by itself, there is much more involved in the story of this man's intense pain and suffering. The family he was staying with when we visited, the one with 13 family members, has been approved for resettlement to the U.S. and will most likely be moving in the next few months. Not only is this man not able to work legally because of his status as an Iraqi in Jordan, but because his physical condition after his stroke has made this possibility nearly obsolete. The savings he had brought to Jordan was stolen shortly after he arrived, adding immense financial stress to his already tragic circumstances.

The information above is only that of his most recent trauma and how that trauma has brought him to where and how he is living now. His real sadness lies in his photos. Once we had introduced ourselves and established a general foundation regarding his current medical and living situation, he began to show us his photos. Two beautiful daughters, one handsome some, and the love of his life, his wife, brought tears to both his and my eyes. After his wife and kids were offered resettlement in the U.S. last year, this family's father and husband was left behind. Although he was told his file was to be included with that of his wife and kids, this was not the case. After his family had resettled, his wife suffered from a stroke as well, only a few days apart from her husband who was still stuck in Amman. Later in the month when this man went to a scheduled interview in hope of being reunited with the rest of his family in the states, he was asked to leave the interview because he was not able to speak, read, or write clearly as it was only two weeks after having his stroke. Several days later, for reasons never fully specified to him or his family, his case was closed.

While it is not completely clear to me the numerous different places this man worked and lived while with his family in Iraq, it was clear that for two years time this man was a subcontractor working with the U.S. military. For many Iraqis, the notion of working with or helping the U.S. often results in death threats. After having his son kidnapped twice while working with U.S. forces in Iraq, he and his family made their way to Amman where they were then able to register with UNHCR and move into the stage of protection. Although his wife and children's case was obviously moved along as is evident by the fact that they are now living in the United States, this man was never clearly told what stage his case was in. When he was told via telephone that his case had been closed, no such paper record existed of his rejection for resettlement, making it impossible for him to make an appeal. While one may wonder why the majority of his family left to the U.S. instead of staying with him in Amman, the opportunities for resettlement are limited, and it was most important to him that his family go if their case was approved.

As I recently found out that the man who's story I am telling has been offered another interview with IOM (International Office of Migration) holding the possibility of resettlement, I can now think and breath without sadness of this man's tears taking over my mind. As him, his wife, and all of his children have undergone sever physical and psychological trauma for several years now, what this man needs and most obviously deserves, is to be with his family.

Posted by Meera at 8:01 AM 1 comments 
Several nights ago when Sasha and I arrived back to CRP, there was a skinny young boy sitting outside in the garden area in front of the house curled up with his backpack. As Sasha informed me that many people would come to the door asking for food and money, and most obviously we cannot help them all, I was hesitant to let the boy in the house as I did not recognize him as being someone we or CRP was familiar with. Seconds later, the doorbell rang. When Sasha recognized the boy through the window, she immediately let me know it was okay for us to bring him into the house, and the boy began to weep. This young man who had been waiting for nearly three hours in front of the house that night, Iraqi and a victim of domestic violence, is now part of my family. He is my new brother, and cares and looks out for me as I am his sister.

While not necessarily in the general description of CRP's work, CRP attempts to help Iraqis living in Jordan in any way possible. Although the situation will not be fixed overnight, Sasha and I were able to talk with the boy and his family and put into place both a short and long-term plan to resolve the issues as agreed upon by all. Meeting this young man, more amazing and brave then most people I know, has truly deepened my understanding of what Sasha is here to do. This experience helped me to better understand why it is so crucial that every individual be given as much time as needed to address his or her unique situation, and why the work of CRP in general is so important to all Iraqis young and old. The CRP center has become a safe haven for many Iraqis, and it is a great privilege and honor to be working with such an amazing community and for such an extraordinary organization.
Posted by Meera at 3:23 AM 0 comments 
Saturday, May 15, 2010
When Gandhi said "[b]e the change you want to see in the world", I almost immediately think of my parents. I think of them because they found a way to do just that, to instill in their children a sense of personal responsibility to the world in which we they live. For my parents specifically, this meant that when I called around 5pm to let them know to cook dinner for one more person because I had taken in a young woman from Australia who was looking for a place to stay, they accepted with no hesitation. This meant that my mother and father placed me into countless uncomfortable situations (culturally, linguistically, religiously, etc.), and I was then asked to learn how to be a fish, and swim. I make the distinction that they never once insisted that I learn how to swim, that I convert to a certain religion or learn a particular language in order to fit in. They only requested that I spend enough time around fish (people of different linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds ), that swimming or getting along those who were different from me became a natural way of navigating through the sea.

It was important to me that I share the above metaphor as a means of expressing the truly unique childhood I had. This experience as it has manifested itself today, has networked me into a world of meeting a million new people a day, and I can't imagine a better way to live. As my parents recently decided to sponsor an Iraqi mother and son who will be coming to live in Washington state in the coming months, they have gone above and beyond the requirements of sponsorship and invited these two people into their home. Because my sister and I have both established lives on the opposite side of the country, Bushra and her son Furat will be staying in our rooms when they arrive, hopefully giving them a sense of what it means to have a home and a bit of privacy as they will both have a room to them self. Although I will not have many opportunities to visit them in Olympia, WA because I am only there one month out of the year, this did not keep me from getting to know our guests as soon as possible.

After the art an music session with the children last Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting the newest two members of my family. I don't know what exactly to say other than that they are both absolutely wonderful people to be around. Bushra, with her skillful sense of humor and enthusiastic presence, there's nothing not to love. While much quieter than his mother at first introduction, Furat's calm yet engaging presence has never made we want a little brother more in my life. Sad that I will not get to be there when the two of them arrive, I have no doubt that Bushra and Furat will be one of many new family members to come, as my parents' commitment to taking care of the people and world in which they live in is far from complete.
Posted by Meera at 12:21 PM 0 comments 
Last Friday I had the privilege of helping to organize and participating in the first ever Children's Art and Music Day, week one of many to come. While not quite as organized as we may have planned, lack of organization is in no way connected to lack of fun.

The day went as follows. In the morning around 9am, Sasha and I began putting together art bags and boxes for the two different age groups that would be participating in the event, the first group four to seven and afterwards ages eight to twelve. These bags for the younger children and boxes for the older consisted of glue, scissors, crayons, and a small packet of watercolor paint. Each participant would write his or her name on the bag or box, in English or Arabic, that it would be easily identifiable at next week's session. To continue with the story, after putting together the art supplies for each child, organizing the musical instruments (recorders, drums harmonicas, etc.) so that each child could easily pick out one, and setting aside juice boxes and chips all 20 children attending, all our organization would be for nothing. What were we thinking? As soon as the children began arriving with their parents, they could barely sit still for more than 30 seconds let alone stay away from art and musical instruments.

The younger group of children went first. Sash, four other volunteers,Ghazwan, and I myself managed to keep an eye on kids, enough so that no one was stabbing someone else with a paintbrush or throwing crayons at each other. Although the children's hour was supposed to be split evenly into a half hour of art and the other half music, they seemed as if they could draw and paint and color forever. After we finally persuaded them with orange juice and chips, it was a bit to late to play any music because the older group had been waiting an entire our outside (playing with toys and reading books of course) just so they could have their turn. We decided about half way through the second group, that we would make the music time all inclusive, at least for this week. Who knows what will happen next week! While the older group decorated their boxes and draw some absolutely stunning pictures of people, places, etc., they also spent the last half of their art time painting small wooden fans. It was a nice opportunity for them to talk about some of their favorite colors, why they painted the drew with such colors, and just in general a chance to learn more about their lives. Although it was intended that the older group would have around 8 children, there ended up being only three, as some were not able to attend, and others accidentally made their way into the first group. Someone just couldn't wait to paint!

After the older group put their fans out to dry, there was about 15 minutes in the schedule left for music, and music it was. Approximately 15 minutes of children ages 4-12 playing every instrument available to them, at every pitch possible, and at every volume imaginable. Music at it's best. Maybe next week we'll be a bit more organized...maybe not!

It was quite interesting to see, although there was plenty of bickering over who got which instruments and who could hit the drum harder, an environment with no hesitation. With all the trauma that so many of these children and families have been through, it is truly inspiring to see them take on new activities. Playing an instrument, drawing a picture, or painting a fan without fear of judgement, that is something that I know myself and many others wouldn't dare to pick up and try.

Children put a non erasable smile on your face. The combination of art, and music, and little crazy 5-year-old creatures running and playing like there's no walls or doors to run into is just plain FUN. And maybe it's just cause they're funny silly little happy children, but it's those few funny silly little happy moments that help to transform the world's suffering. To make darkness into a bright sparkling room filled with balloons, and pictures of spider man, and hand-painted fans that guide the world towards peace.

Posted by Meera at 5:04 AM 7 comments 
Thursday, May 13, 2010
While all work done between CRP and individual families is done so with Iraqis only, most events held at the CRP center are open to a wide variety of community members within the area. Just as many students from the United States travel to Jordan to study Arabic and Arab culture, people all over Amman have just as strong of a desire to learn English and socialize with those from other cultures. With this desire in mind, Sasha and CRP have established an event now known as the English Language Social, which takes place very Tuesday evening from approximately 6-10pm here at CRP. While I had seen several advertisements and invitations regarding this event via email and facebook before coming to work with Sasha, I now have a better understanding of what the event actually is, what is required to prepare, and why it is so important for this diverse group of people to come together once a week to socialize while simultaneously working towards a common goal.

Starting around 10am Monday morning, Sasha and I began cooking, cleaning, and setting up for the event up until about 15 minutes before people began to arrive. While it varies from week to week, this social in particular involved cooking American cuisine such as coleslaw, pasta salad, and other similar foods. Not great at cooking anything besides those dishes that don't require cooking in the first place (salads, fruit salads, etc.), Sasha showed me the way and put me to work. As people began to filter in around 6:30 which is equivalent to 6:00 Arab time, each participant would pick up (if he or she had come in previous weeks) or make a name tag for them self written in both English and Arabic.

The social itself consists of Muslims, Christians, Assyrians, and Sabean-Mendai. All of these individuals sent approximately two hours eating, speaking, and learning about each others' languages and cultures. As some are more hesitant to begin speaking in a new language than are others, this social serves not only as short language lesson but simply as an outlet for socialization. Although both men and women attended, there was a separation of the two as the night progressed and the men moved into another room.

Once the social started coming to a close, the activity room was then taken over by the men in order to play several rounds of the game Dominoes. One may ask, why Dominoes? While in Iraq, this game was often a social bonding point for many of the men. When Sasha picked this up, she instantly decided that Dominoes should be added to the evening's schedule. The idea is roughly equivalent to "guys poker night" in the U.S. This English Language Social is important for many reasons, the first being people's general desire to learn to speak, understand, and make socialize in English. Secondly, it is a way to build bridges of peace between several different communities in the area. The social is open most all religions, and ultimately anyone who enjoys socializing or learning more English. As there are often past tensions build up between Iraqis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, the social serves as an opportunity for people to lessen their tensions and build their friendships with one another. Lastly, the social it is truly a chance to get away from that of one's everyday life. Children come and play with other children, women catch up on each others' lives, men spend time bonding over Dominoes, and it is a learning experience for all!
Posted by Meera at 4:35 AM 0 comments 
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Before you read anymore more of my blog, most importantly the stories being told be Iraqi men and women here in Amman, please take a moment try and understand the full reality of what it means to be a refugee. As respect to all these individuals brave enough to share their stories to me and you, it is the least we can do to understand what it is that follows the beginnings and ends of any violent conflict. Whether it is our war or not, a refugee will still be a refugee. He or she will still go on to experience many of the sametragedies and struggles regardless of whether the war eventually ends, regardless of whether we apologize, and regardless of whether or not these people displaced by war and conflict find it in their hearts to forgive for all they have lost.
" One who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppressions, or religious prosecution"

Although countless definitions of the word refugee exist today (geographical, political, etc.), I believe the definition given above serves as the most simplistic description of the terrifying reality that so many of the Iraqis I am meeting have had to face.
Posted by Meera at 12:03 PM 0 comments 
When I mentioned earlier that CRP takes on a range of different issues in order to help Iraqi refugees, home visits to Iraqi families was one of the first I had the privilege of participating in. In order to understand this experience as a whole, I must first share what a home visit actually is, what it requires, and why it is such a crucial part of Sasha's work and of CRP. Initially, I should introduce the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees or UNHCR, an organization which will be mentioned regularly throughout my stories regarding Iraqi refugees and CRP. What one really needs to know about UNHCR in relation to Iraqi refugees is as follows.UNHCR first receives millions of dollars from international donor countries in order to provide assistance to refugees. UNHCR then has what are called Implementing Partners or IPs, who impliment and futher propose projects directed towards these refugee communities using the money collected by the international community. Once an Iraqi family registers with UNHCR, that family is then considered to be in protection. This refers to a phase in which that family cannot be asked to leave Jordan in the case of an expired Visa, but only in the event that someone in the family commits a crime or another equivalent issue arises. While the rules and policies are not exactly clear to me just yet as I have just arrived and am still learning, the stage following protection is called resettlement. While both stages can last for an unlimited amount of time, the ultimate objective when in resettlement is to be resettled to one of several countries that have previously agreed to accept a specific number of refugees from specific countries, something that can unfortunately change at any given point in time. Major countries that have accepted Iraqi refugees in the past include the US, the UK, Canada France, Germany, and Australia.

Now that I have established a foundation for what UNHCR actually does, I can explain exactly how CRP's work fits into this picture, and share my first experience vising Iraqi families at their homes in Jordan. When Sasha does a home visit to that of an Iraqi family, she is ultimately doing an initial assessment of several different aspects of that family's life. This assessment encompasses everything from their life in Iraq all the way to their living situation now, as well as their most crucial needs in the immediate future . As I may have forgot to mention earlier, because these refugee families have been scattered all over Amman, it is often impossible for a family to come here toCRP in order to meet with Sasha. Secondly, doing a home visit truly allows Sasha and CRP to see how this family lives on a daily basis, something that can only be done if Sasha is to visit a family in the environment in which they are most comfortable. Although there is a language barrier between Sasha and most of these families, although some of the individuals in the family speak some English, Sasha's co-worker Ghazwan is both a translator as well as a friend to these families that CRP visits. When the two of them work together, they provide these Iraqi families with both a means of communication regarding their situations as well as a long-term system of support to help guide and encourage them into the future.

My first official home visit with CRP took place last night. I would have written sooner but there is a bit of emotional digestion that must take place before one attempts to translate such personal narratives into words. Ghazwan, Sasha, and I all took a taxi to the area where this family lived. When we knocked on the door, all three of us were welcomed with an overwhelming sense of love and warmth. Sasha and I sat on one couch, while Ghazwan sat on another couch, and the husband and wife of the family then sat across the room from us on two separate chairs. We were greeted several times over, and then served cold drinks and bread, a very common tradition of hospitality in the Middle East. After several more minutes of "hello" and "how are you?" in both Arabic and English, Sasha then took out of her bag a pile of forms on which she would be writing for the rest of the evening. While these forms contain several sections all addressing a myriad of different issues a family could be facing at any given time, I will spare you the 10 hours it would take to list all of these possible problems and just share those that are relevant to this particular family and story. This family consisted only of husband and wife. While it may have been this couple's dream to have children one day, previous circumstances and torture when living in Iraq have made this dream virtually impossible. While this might seem like an unusual story to some, this is an unfortunately common reality for so many Iraqis today. Both the husband and the wife who lived in the home we visited were brutally tortured before they fled their country several years ago. Although never convicted of an actual crime, the husband was tortured so badly while jailed in Iraq that now him and his wife are not able to have children, something that is very emotionally devastating in a tradition where children and family are valued so greatly. In addition to the man's individual torture, 20 members of his family were killed by numerous different militias. When we speak of death in the United States, it is often people dying of disease, influenza, old age, etc. For this man, some of his family members had holes drilled through their heads and other horrific markings indicating showing the intense torture and pain before death. As for this man's wife, she had been thrown up against a wall and beaten to the point that she is now loosing her vision in one eye, the majority of which is irreversible. Even more devastating the story itself was the fact that the husband had videos on his phone of his dead family members during their autopsies. Not able to comprehend how he could relive these tragedies on a daily basis, he told us that he had these videos in his phone to prove to authorities the extreme trauma his family has undergone in hope that this documentation might possibly help his wife and him more forward in the process of resettlement. It is absolutely unthinkable to me that someone should be required to show and relive such memories, only to improve but not guarantee his chances to receive assistance or resettlement.

Now that you have read about this family's brutal history, one similar to so many Iraqi families living in Jordan today, I will share the next steps involved in the process of a home visit. After hearing each family's story, something that we attempt not to have to have retold unless absolutely necessary, we begin going down the list on the forms. Beginning with medical issues, both the husband and the wife listed off every medication he and she was taking, what it was for, how much it costs per month, and what portion of that cost was being covered by UNHCR. Although not mentioned earlier, UNHCRpartakes in something called "cash assistance" in which a lump sum of money is given to a family via ATM or bank card most commonly to the father in the family. The lump sum is based only upon the number of members in the household and not on those family members' individual needs. There is a limit on the amount of money to be given to each family, approximately equal to around $320 dollars per month. Because these families are not legally eligible to work legally in Jordan, this money is often not enough to provide for even a family's basic needs. I should also explain that although the rules and regulations are not quite as strict as they once were, if an Iraqi is caught working illegally, instead being deported back to Iraq like in the past, he is jailed and then required to find a guarantor. Using a lawyer, a guarantor or sponsor is sometimes but not always found. After this sponsor has been identified and agreed to the process, that Iraqi is then dependent upon him in order to stay out of prison from there forward. If the Iraqi does not have the money to pay the sponsor, which is usually the case because he cannot work, the sponsor then refuses to be involved and the Iraqi is sent back to jail. It is a somewhat vicious cycle in which numerous Iraqis can easily be trapped.

To get back to this specific home visit, the list went on and on. After recalling all past medical problems, all previous treatment, all present medical issues, and all related costs, it is on to the next section. As sad as it may be, this is the foundational information that must be recorded before any further treatment, financial aid, or other forms of support can even be considered. After medical questions comes living questions. How long have you lived in this house? How many other family member are living here? It is often common that an entire family will live in one house (father, mother, children, grandparents, etc.). When did you come to Jordan? What was life like in Iraq? What was life like when you first came to Jordan? Did you go anywhere else? Why did you leave Iraq? Next comes questions about the children and school. How old are your children? Are they going to school here in Jordan? Public or Private? How was the transition for them? Do they have emotional or psychological issues do to past traumas? Have they missed school because of the transition?Are they able to get along with other children here? Do they feel safe? While all of these questions may sound exceptionally ordinary, the answers to all of them influence how these families live, what these families basic needs are right at that specific moment, and what must be prioritized by CRP in terms of helping these families in the best way possible. I need to mention that due to the very limited budget on which CRP is working, Sash's main goal is to facilitate and work within different systems to help Iraqis meet their most critical needs. Furthermore, her work is a combination of both social and humanitarian jointly aimed at creating some sense of stability in the lives of Iraqis, something that is far to uncommon for the majority of these families.

After learning of this family and their story, word of mouth lead us to another house near by consisting of husband, a wife, two young boys, and the children's grandmother all living in one small house. Two things that stayed with me about this family, although the same problems were present in the last family as well as many others, are diabetes and hypertension. These two medical problems slowly became know among CRP staff as the Iraqi diseases. Most Iraqis attribute the onset of both diabetes and hypertension to the stress and trauma that they experienced during the war, most specifically when one family member discovered that another relative had been killed. More in alignment with western sciences, diabetes is often caused by a poor diet, and families living in such poverty as the Iraqis find themselves eating only what is cheap, not necessarily the most healthy. Some of the children in these families, however, suffer from hypertension as well which leads me to believe that a portion of these two diseases is equally caused by trauma and stress. Although not as life threatening as a disease like cancer, the combination of diabetes, hypertension, and little to insufficient medical care can create a stressful, unhealthy, and dangerous physical state for a countless number of Iraqi men and women. Then last to issues that stayed with me with regards to the second family were the psychological health of his children and the physical health of the father. The father needed three surgeries. He had severe varicose veins causing him an almost unbearable amount of pain, calcified knee caps making it nearly impossible for him to walk, as well as an ear problem which although I did not fully understand the medical terminology seemed to be very uncomfortable. Of this father's two sons, one of them had just got to the point, nearly 5 years later, where he could rest at night without sleep walking around the house screaming in fear of the events he had experienced in Iraq. Bringing me to tears, the father said, "I would read him verses from the Qur'an and this would wake and calm him from his terrors".

After hearing these two stories, just the start of many I am sure, there is still the unfortunate fact that we are often not able to do a single thing. While it is the work of Sasha and CRP to help in any way possible, there are still impossible medical expenses, unchangeable living circumstances, and irreversible psychological damage for which there is often no assistance.

When I arrived back at CRP after after these two home visits, it was my initial inclination to curl up in my bed and cry. While there is a time and place for this particular emotional expression, I am more aware than ever that I have a responsibility to each and every one of these families. It is not a responsibility that promises money or medicine or a new home, but an internal promise that I will transform and project my own individual sadness into a voice for many.
Posted by Meera at 8:09 AM 0 comments 
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Slightly exhausted and overwhelmed by the 98-degree weather outside, my first full day in Hashmi Shamali consisted of Sasha and I walking around to local stores and markets picking up materials and food we would be needing for CRP events later in the week. While this may not have been the most exciting or enthusiastic day of our lives due to my sleep deprivation and Sasha's ongoing cold, there were two distinct things that I noticed during our entire walk around town.

Smiles are universal! From the instant we left CRP and began walking, children everywhere would smile and say hello both in English and Arabic. It did not seem to matter whether they thought I was American, Jordanian, or of any other nationality for that matter, kids are kids and smiles are smiles. I also want to say that even if these children had no idea who I was or why I was there, their faces projected the most sincere smiles I have ever seen, as if I was their best friend and they had known me forever.

In combination with my own personal experience and knowledge, it is also important to me that I attempt to translate some portion of my academic learning to better understand and analyze the situations I encounter abroad. Last semester when participating in an education for international development class at American University, we spent a great deal of time discussing what is best known as "the youth bulge". This theory, coined by Gunnar Heinsohn in 1990 argues that countries where there is a large and concentrated population of young adults generally leads to higher levels of unemployment, and an increased overall propensity towards civil conflict as a result of competing interests and limited resources. After gaining a basic understanding of this theory, our class began debating whether or not this so called "youth bulge" is actually a problem. We learned that while some international development programs see a rapid growth of working-aged youth as a problem and disruption to society for the reasons mention above, others see these youth as the key to a brighter future, and I not agree more.

Children and youth in general know no differences except those that are learned. While I don't want to say that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks", there is an exceptional resilience and universality that comes with being young and possessing a natural ability or tendency to seek common ground rather than trying to find and judge based our inherent differences. To connect this back to my first day in Amman, seeing all of these children smiling and communicating with me regardless of my age, ethnicity, or political beliefs, reassures me of the promise and hope that lies within a young population. Most importantly this promise ad hope has the ability to, if nurtured not criticized, transform a nation's future from the bottom up.

With regards to my second major observation upon arrival in Amman, this one is a bit more obvious but sends just as important of a message as the first. Palestine is everywhere! Although I am constantly involved in great number of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution projects operating out of the U.S. and Palestine, it is quite amazing to witness the difference in the portrayal and presence of the Palestinian people and their culture through the eyes of Amman. As I walked around the area with Sasha today, it was honestly refreshing. It was refreshing to see Palestinian shops on every corner, signs advertising Palestinian embroidery without hesitation, and Palestinian people blending into Jordanian society free from the occupation that has taken over their homeland. While I fully understand that leaving Palestine to Jordan is far from a solution to the conflict (most Palestinians should be so lucky as to leave their homes without the threat of violence), it is truly encouraging to see, first hand that Palestinians are treated as dignified and respectable human beings in other parts of the world. This observation as a whole was yet another reminder that we live in a very diverse and complicated world. Due to the nature of U.S. Israeli relations, Palestinians are often shown in U.S. media to be no more than a violent and relentless group of terrorists. Despite this horrible distortion, there is a strong sense of hope filling my heart as I am staying in a country where Palestinians are able to walk and talk without this violent image overtaking their identities.
Posted by Meera at 11:40 AM 0 comments 
Before I go on about my own travels, I should first tell you a bit more about the organization I came to work with here in Amman as well as my own motivations for interning with an organization that focuses on such a controversial issue. Collateral Repair Project (CRP) is "a grassroots movement, created to address the catastrophic displacement of five million Iraqis who have had to leave behind their homes and communities because of the violence and instability that is a result of the invasion ad occupation of their country"( . CRP is co-directed by Sasha Crow who is currently running the center in Amman and Mary Madsen who is based out of the United States and uses her presence there to do everything from coordinating local events, to managing the organization's books, to maintaining CRP'swebsite. The Jordan office is located in an relatively impoverished town called Hashmi Shamali in the Eastern part of Amman. The center itself is the bottom floor of a two story building that Sasha rents from the owners who live above. The center consists of a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, two bathrooms, a distribution room, and an activity room. During my time at CRP, I am using the activity for my bedroom and then moving my stuff into a closet in order to transform the room back into its normal state. I am moreprivileged than most to be staying in such a beautiful place with the rare comfort of fans at my disposal, but am also immensely grateful to be sharing this building and community with so many Iraqis who value CRP and Sasha's presence as a safe haven from all of their struggles, past and present.

Political beliefs aside, my main desire to with Sasha and with CRPwas to understand the entire story from start to finish. While I think it is safe to assume that most reading this blog are familiar with the first half of the story, the concept of U.S. soldiers being deployed to Iraq (even if one does not fully understand why), it was my intention to get to to know and learn from those effected by the second half of the story. One in every five Iraqis is displaced (both internally and externally), of which nearly 500,000 have fled to Jordan and others to the neighboring countries of Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon.

Although I could easily write a list containing the numerous projectsCRP has taken on to serve the Iraqi community, I find that my daily experiences and sharing of Iraqi stories are better suited to convey the personal and emotional message that has slowly but completely taken over my heart. That said, I hope that this blog will serve not only as a literary expression of my own experiences and emotional growth abroad, but as a voice for those who need it most. Iraqis, Palestinians, or Jordanians. Everyone has a story that has not yet been heard, and it is the sharing and understanding of these unique narratives that lay a foundation for mutual understanding.
Posted by Meera at 9:16 AM 0 comments 
Monday, May 10, 2010
One lesson I am continually learning in my life is to have no expectations. This applies to travel, to relationships, to work, to school, and everything else. When I say no expectations, I am referring to the concept that one should not come into a situation with preconceived notions about the people, the country, the culture, or the religions involved as this only leads to a greater number of opportunities for judgement.

Most likely the first thing I appreciated about Amman and Jordan in general was Sulliman, the little Jordanian man who drove me from the Airport to where I was staying. Grateful for him driving the 45 minutes to pick me up and waiting for my late arrival, I was even more grateful for his 80 mile an hour driving skills. With 95-degree weather and blazing sun, I have never been more happy to have a 80 mile per hour breeze on my face. About ten minutes away from the airport, Sulliman asked me if I would prefer the A/C using as much English as he knew and pointing at the dashboard where the air would come out. I said "la, la shukran" meaning "no, no thank you". He seemed to greatly appreciate the fact that I didn't require air conditioning to be happy, and me being happy made him even more happy, so happy was all around. Simple as they may have been, my three conversations with Mr. Sulliman, starting at the airport and ending at the house where I was staying might just have been three of my favorite conversation to date. In our last conversation, I told him in Arabic that I didn't speak much Arabic, he told me in English that he didn't speak much English, and then we both smiled and began to laugh.

Almost an hour later, we arrived at our destination. A slightly off-white building, mostly from the dust I suspect, sat on the corner of what I would later learn was a "horseshoe" shaped, dirt road. As I got out of the car and went to help unload my bags and boxes from the trunk, my feet began to turn the same color as the building from all the dust on the ground. It was at that exact moment when I was staring down at my dusty brown toes that a woman popped out from the front door of the building where we had arrived. Her name is Sasha Crow. While I had hoped, not expected, that she would be as amazing as I had been told by everyone who knew her, my dream had come true. Although I did not know it just yet, I would be working with one of the most extraordinary women and empowering organizations I have ever come across.
Posted by Meera at 7:39 AM 0 comments 
Sunday, May 9, 2010
From the second I left my apartment in DC last Friday, I hadn't a single doubt that adventure was soon to follow. After spending several extra hours with a few too many people all anxious to make their respective connections out of New York, the plane finally took off. The time I spent awaiting my departure to JFK was roughly equivalent to double the time I actually spent in flight...maybe I should have just walked!

John F. Kennedy International Airport is an experience all by itself. As I was walking around looking for the departure/arrival screens to direct me to my next flight, I was amazed by how many languages were being spoken around me. While it was no surprise that a myriad of cultures should be meeting at an airport that serves most all countries around the globe, it was interesting however to witness the recent expansion of the service industry to encompass these multi-linguistic and cultural demands. When I spotted what I believed to be the gate and waiting area for my flight to Amman, I decided to check in with someone at the front desk just to make sure. As confident as I normally am in my own ability to read flight information off a simple digitalized screen, I wanted to be 100% sure I wasn't going to end up in Djibouti or Turkmenistan, not that I wouldn't have just as many adventures over there. To return to the topic, I first noticed this expansion in customer service when it was my turn in line at the front desk, and the young man about to assist me seemed slightly confused by my presence. He looked at me for about five seconds and then said "Salaam Aleikum" or "peace be upon you" with a bit of hesitance in his voice. Despite my improving Arabic skills, I was sleep-deprived enough to recognize that I was not going to comprehend flight numbers and letters in a foreign language at that point in time. Then responding with the same amount of hesitance in my own voice I said, "hello?". After hearing my response, he seemed a bit unhappy that he had misjudged my first language. It is my guess that he decided I was Arabic speaking based on the modest clothing I was wearing, the color of my skin, as well as the fact (unknown to me in that specific moment) that I was standing in a line almost completely filled with other people of Arab descent. After telling me, in English, that I was indeed at the correct gate for my flight to Amman, I walked away from "the Arab line" which was on the left only to look to my right and see "the American line" comprised of mostly business men and women and military personnel.

What was most interesting to me about my short conversation with this man at the information desk was that he seemed unhappy with himself not only because he had incorrectly assumed my first language, but because he was so keenly aware that these linguistic and cultural faux pas are now just as crucial in determining a persons "overall customer service experience" as are any other major factors (in-flight service, meals, etc.), and this reality was most obviously present in his facial expression as I walked away to board my plane.

As for the actual flight from New York to Amman, it is a bit difficult to describe this 13-hour, 350 person phenomena. I would love to say that "it is what you make of it", but really it is quite a joint effort. Four main cabin bathrooms, five crying babies at any one point in time, military personnel, Jordanians, international business men and women, and tourists from everywhere imaginable. Although it can be assumed that the majority of the people on the flight were extremely exhausted and not to be found in their most patient state of being, there was still an overarching feeling of tension between most everyone aboard. In International Business-101 we are taught that "different cultures produce different people", a fact obvious enough not to be paying $50,000 per year to understand. Obvious and general knowledge aside, a Muslim man praying in his seat on my Friday evening flight holds an ideology greatly differing from that of a U.S. contractor typing up a business memo on his Blackberry. Travel and airplanes, however, have an unavoidable way of squishing everyone together regardless of these differences.

13 sleepless hours later, I walked out of the air-conditioned airplane and into 95-degree dry heat, my favorite type of weather to be perfectly honest. After walking from the plane to the corresponding terminal, it turned out that we couldn't get anywhere near our checked baggage until we had exchanged money, and then used that money to obtain a Visa for the duration of our stay. While standing in the dreadfully long Visa line, I had the pleasure of conversing with two middle-aged Americans who took me under their wing almost immediately. This wonderful couple then made it their mission and responsibility to wait in every line in which I had to wait, to help me when carrying two 50 lbs. boxes full of art and music supplies off a crowded luggage conveyor belt , and to confirm my traveling safety with regards to my departure from the airport to where I would be staying. As my newly adopted family and I were getting towards the front of the Visa line, many began wondering, some even panicking as to where we should go to get our luggage. I already had a plan. If we followed the few people who were so very panicked and determined to find their luggage, some because they thought it had been stolen or because the luggage fairy had sent it on to Djibouti or Turkmenistan, we were sure to find ours as well. We would just do as they did, minus all the worry and panic...and it worked! Once my airport parents and I had all of our luggage and boxes loaded onto a cart, it was off to customs where they would then be taken off the cart. The man at the security and customs counter asked to open my boxes, and of course I said yes. He then starting asking me a round about circle of questions including but not limited to the following. What is in these boxes? Who are these boxes for? If they are for children are they for your children? If their not for your children then what children are they for? Where is the address of these children? Why are you bringing these children these things? What is in that box? What is in this box? Why are you bringing musical instruments here to Jordan? What is a harmonica? Finally, but believe me it took quite a while for the man to realize he was still talking regardless of whether my answers made any sense, he said "Okay, thank you. Have a good day and welcome to Amman".

As the woman who runs the the center for which I would be working came down with bad cold the night before, a friend of hers Mr. Sulliman came to pick me up at the airport. I am not exactly sure how he knew it was me since he did not have a sign or my picture, but some how he just knew. As my airport parents and I were walking to the arrival lane just outside the airport, a man looked me straight in the eye and said "Meera?", and I said "yes?". Although his English was greatly limited, he found a way to convey to me the fact that he knew who I was as well as Sasha, the woman I would be working with here in Amman, and that was enough for me to be convinced. My new parents had me double check just to make sure their newly adopted child wasn't getting in the car with a complete stranger...except I kind off was!

While I am completely grateful for this protective instinct that human beings, especially parents posses, there is another side to this story. Travel and trust go hand in hand. Traveling requires building long-term trust in the form of relationships as well as some degree of instantaneous trust. Many people assume the ultimatum that says that if one trusts, he or she gives up safety and/or security. Furthermore, because he or she has already prioritized safety or security at the top of the list, that person is then hesitant to trust based upon this ultimatum. I have found that one cannot have safety without trust, and in return trust creates a much safer environment. If my new airport parents had watched me get into "Sulliman's" car back in the U.S., I highly doubt that their level of concern for my well being would have matched that equivalent situation here in Amman. This simple experience with my new family and Mr. Sulliman illustrates for me, how important it is to trust and to trust fairly. Trust one stranger as you would another, and impose judgement only upon yourself, for your own actions, as that is all you are able to control.
Posted by Meera at 11:50 PM