STUNNED. This one word captures the meaning for the multitude of feelings surrounding our sojourn to Jordan. The cacophony of sounds, the contrasting smells of earthy spices along with the delicate scent of flowers, the rich and deeply delicious exotic flavors of foods never eaten before, and the diversity of the Jordanian landscape left us surprised and delighted. And the people we met along our various paths opened our minds and hearts. Ultimately, though, it was the youth and children that humbled and changed us. These young people worked through trauma and pain to find resilience and joy through self-expression in poetry and art. By doing so, they forged a connection with children halfway around the world in the Skagit Valley, involved in the same shared experience. This was our purpose and Voices of the Children, a non-profit organization based in Mt. Vernon, was instrumental in carrying us, and our mission, to Jordan where we formed bonds that will always remain with us.
We were a team of four: Aaron Wagner, the positive and compassionate executive director of Voices of the Children, Sarah Denby, a talented artist with a wicked sense of humor, myself, a teacher with a loving heart and a passion for working with youth, and Rawan Risheq, a beautiful Jordanian-Palestinian poet and lyricist who met us in Amman. We left Sea-Tac on the afternoon of March 1, fueled by the adrenaline of anticipation, and arrived in Dubai after a long (14 hours) flight on Emirates Airlines.
Dubai is a beautiful, opulent city brimming with wealth and in a state of perpetual growth. It was here, in the United Arab Emirates, that we encountered many Arabic men and women along with others from a wide variety of nations. Though jet lag was an issue and it was a couple of days before we felt “normal” again, excitement of the work ahead buoyed us. We could hardly wait to take a much shorter flight to Amman the next morning and begin our adventure in Jordan.
When we arrived in Amman, we were taken by its understated beauty; White stone homes, layered in tiers, surrounded us, and there was the buzz and hum of a thriving business community downtown. There were lovely date, fig and lemon trees ripe for the picking, and the sweet aroma of jasmine and joury flowers floated through the air. Chants and eerily beautiful “songs” emanated from large and architecturally amazing Mosques calling people to prayer several times a day.
The resonance and cadence of so many sounds assaulted our ears: the assertive jibber-jabber of multiple conversations in the Arabic language, seemingly aggressive, but really just discussions of the ordinary kind; the nostalgic and melodic chimes from what sounded like an ice cream truck, but was actually a man selling propane and gas; the mocking taunts and teases of two boys before a fight; the constant blare of horns; a father chiding his son, his message clear even though it was in Arabic; a man yelling out loudly in an attempt to collect and sell used goods, the swish and swoop of the wind; the ripples of laughter from children playing a game; the lilt and unfamiliar chords of Arabian music leaking from an iPhone. We took it all in.
There seem to be no particular rules or laws for driving in the city and a series of “nosing in” strategies from all directions prevail with a chorus of honking horns (not considered rude) to alert fellow drivers to go or that you are coming through. Somehow it seems to work. We felt safe enough with Aaron at the wheel in our rented car, though I have to admit I gasped and had to close my eyes on occasion.
Jordan is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. There are many levels of security and the Visa and baggage people at the airport are particularly vigilant in their duties. Passports were examined several times daily as we went from place to place, and many questions were asked along the way. Armed police were in evidence wherever we went, and bags were sometimes scrutinized whenever you entered a store or building. I felt safe the entire time we were in Jordan, and never feared anybody or anything, despite the turbulence in all the countries around it.
It was finally time to begin and we could hardly wait!!! The first Sunday morning, we met with officials at the NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council), the NGO that placed us and was to oversee our visit. The NRC takes precautions to protect refugees from groups wanting access to camps for exploitative reasons. Since Aaron and his team had worked with such dedication in Jordan over the past few years, Voices of the Children had established a respected reputation and we were welcomed. There was a lot more security talk, and we learned that our clearance for the refugee camp had not been finalized. While awaiting our permits, we were placed in a Youth Without Borders Host Center for refugees and Jordanians alike, engaging with young people ages 15-22. Eager to get going, we jammed into a waiting car and hit the road to Ramtha, our work site.
Along the way, we saw houses, slapped together with rebar and shaped with stones from a nearby hillside. They were layered on slopes that peppered with patches of green and trees and small herds of sheep and goats could be seen wandering the hills. The subtle blending of shadows, then light, on the rolling hills evoked a sense of timelessness and awe. I was surprised by the green and then learned that in Jordan, as in the United States, there are many different landscapes.
At checkpoints there are armed police wearing red berets who wave stop signs at unmarked or suspicious vehicle. There are questions and sometimes a search.
Rubble and rock everywhere, surrounded by and lined with tufted and exotic trees mixed with pine and sycamores. By the side of the road, we saw small thrown-together tarp shelters, each with a narrow mattress inside. Fruit and vegetable vendors set up colorful and precarious-looking displays propped on wooden boxes. They sell mangos, bananas, dates, figs, oranges, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, arugula-whatever is in season.
Bright billboards with smiling children, grinning real estate agents, glamorous Middle-Eastern women, and Arabic food are scattered along the way, as are random coffee stands, convenience stores and gas stations. Cell towers and power lines are dispersed near more populated areas. As we near Ramtha, clusters of villages appear, with businesses, shops, government buildings, restaurants, etc.
After an hour and a half, we arrived at the Youth Without Borders Host Center and practically jumped out of the car in expectation of meeting the youth, who were remarkably warm and welcoming. To say that our week there was profoundly meaningful to them and to us is still an understatement. Despite language barriers, relationships were quietly structured and mutual respect for one another became very evident as the self-portrait project took shape. Their lives found voice through the I AM poems and they were eager to be heard (recitation day was one of my favorite activities). Though the language was Arabic, we could begin to understand what they were saying by their tone, expression, gestures and body language, and the feelings reflected in the poems was evident.
Rawan and I worked together on the writing component. She is young and such an engaging presence and was invaluable in supporting the youth at both sites with their poems, which were initially written in Arabic, of course. I took her basic English translations and formed them into true poems so that both languages are evident when they are shared.
As the week progressed, personalities were revealed and there was much revelry and laughter along with the serious business of writing a self-reflective poem and embedding it within the self-portrait created with canvas and paint. We listened to their stories, with the help of a translator, and were challenged by some of the tragic tales of loss and longing from the Syrian youth and by others who shared deeply felt images of childhood experiences. We were honored by their trust and their willingness to open themselves up to the others in the group. It seemed a release, and a “family” of sorts emerged in that room over the time we were there.
By the last day, the boisterous and talkative boys started showing up early and wanting to join the girls, who were much quieter and serious, and spend more time, so we eventually merged into more-or-less one group. Mammas with their babies, adults there for classes, and everyone who worked there made their way in at some point to see what was going on. One person brought us delectable Middle Eastern food on occasion and once we had a lunch of marinated eggplant, crushed walnuts pomegranate seeds on greens and pita-hot and fresh.
Younger children wanted to be a part of the process too, and I worked with them on a simpler art project when there was time. By the end of the week, we had become a seamless part of that host center, and the people there will linger in our memories.
On our “day off”, we arrived at the local branch of the Kahlil International School-the English Talents School-brimming with anticipation and excited to have the youth teach us about a project already in progress. Dina Malkawi, a friend of Aaron’s, and a bright, engaging and committed teacher, asked us to become involved directly with an articulate and enthusiastic group of 13 year-olds dedicated to raising awareness of global issues such as pollution and the value and importance of protecting marine life. All students were eager to meet us and could not wait to describe the what and why of their multi-step project and how, by creating it, others would know more the about world problems affecting us all. Our experience and the English Talents School was unlike any other and we were thankful to become a relevant part of THEIR project, if only for a day, and to have an opportunity to listen carefully to their ideas, opinions, and hope for the future.
Our final week, with permits finally cleared, we traveled to Azraq to work with Syrian children in a refugee camp. The time there was simultaneously chilling and hopeful and cannot be adequately expressed in words. The hour and a half ride, so different than the road to Ramtha, revealed nothing but desert and sandy hills all around, with the occasional camel herd in the distance. It gave me time to think and to wonder. One thing I learned while in Jordan was how to let go of all expectation and any desire to have control over circumstances. We learned to be completely open to whatever came our way and to realize that flexibility was the name of the game. In approaching this place, I considered what I feared and how I could help. I know that the weight of assumption carries the seeds of distrust. My fear was that the lack of understanding and the choice to misunderstand or not to listen, or not to care, or to approach another as a stereotype is the fuel of hatred. All we wanted to do, through this opportunity before me, was to help these children find themselves in a new way through their words and then their art. We wanted to be fully receptive, with no preconceived idea of what would happen. We wanted to accept each expression in any form as a gift. We were eager for them to know that children in small towns in Washington State want to know them and share an experience so that both groups realize that understanding one another, in ways small and large, is critical in our troubled world.
The things that struck me most, along with the initial detainment by armed police at the entrance, were the tall fences and barbed wire and the row after row of small prefabricated tin “houses” as far as the eye can see, people wandering around or riding bikes and children digging holes with a stick because there is nothing else to do. It was desolate and monochromatic. It was a woman trying to make a garden between the caravans in the desert with the desperate hope that she might grow something there. It was teenagers fighting and small children playing with a dog. It was this and so much more.
When we got to the school, a compound of its own within the camp, we were greeted by children happy to see us and waiting to get started. The boys, ever active and expressive, met with us first and we worked with the girls, who were quieter and a bit more serious, in the afternoon. A translator helped to begin initial communication and soon we were on our way. We played some initial games to get to know names and then gave them time to practice with the crayons and oil pastels and to try out an acrostic poem with their names in Arabic, and then we started the project.
Each child approached the poem in a very personal way and all were quiet and thoughtful while writing. One boy’s poem was particularly lyrical and he asked to sing it. It was beautiful and heart-rending. At the end of the day, a girl asked to recite a very famous poem by a Syrian poet, but she broke down in tears toward the middle because the images of Syria were so painful. We were touched by the fact that she chose to recite it again for us at the end of the week.
We listened to their stories, with the help of a translator, and were challenged by some of the tales of loss and longing for their homeland, Syria.
The art project that Sarah led was equally well-received and it was wonderful to watch the children’s faces as THEY watched their self-portraits take shape with paint on canvas. The casual chattering and giggles and trickles of laughter while they worked made for a safe and relaxed classroom environment. We all felt comfortable.
The only thing I can say is that, throughout the course of that week, we came to really know these children and that made all the difference in the world. Their open vulnerability the very first day almost took our breath away. We expected them to warm up slowly over the week, but their voices were clearly bursting to be heard and they did not hesitate to sing, recite, dance, joke and draw from the beginning. We were grateful and humbled to be trusted with their stories and felt the weight of them. But these children carried them and they still carried on. They loved the process of the project, worked hard, and were proud of what they created. It was sad to leave the children, but gratifying to know they had discovered something deep within themselves through poetry and art and that knowledge would stay with them.
Our time in Jordan ended on March 20. We visited Aaron’s friends from former projects and made many friends and acquaintances of our own, shared food and hospitality, got to visit the Citadel in Amman and the ancient and glorious ruins in Petra (where I rode a camel), encountered many kinds of beliefs about what it means to be Muslim and have Middle Eastern roots, and played with children and babies everywhere we went. After living together in our ill-equipped, but adequate “flat” for those weeks, Aaron, Sarah and I laughed until we doubled over, cried for several reasons, shared toothpaste, turmoil and magazines, had heartfelt talks long into the night and became very close.
Our sojourn was meaningful and life-changing in the truest sense. As for the children, we were moved by them, we were shaken by them, we were touched by them, we were astounded by them. In her poem, one girl said, “I am not one thought, one mind, one feeling. I am one individual joining with others and celebrating our common humanity.” One of the boys stated, “I have the right to express myself, but also the responsibility to listen to others and to try and understand.” We will to continue to listen. Inshallah...An Arabic word meaning “If God wills it.”
*The Self-Portrait Project in the Skagit Valley was made possible through a joint collaboration with the Museum of Northwest Art, the Skagit River Poetry Foundation and Voices of the Children, three non-profit agencies all committed to nurturing and lifting the diversity of voices of children through the arts in all its forms.
Sherry Chavers is a retired teacher with a passion for writing. She is an active volunteer in classrooms working with youth of all ages to support teachers and foster literary arts. In addition, she teaches the Kids’Life Skills Program for homeless youth at the Anacortes Family Center, is a board member for the Skagit River Poetry Foundation, and has a deeply felt interest in and strong commitment to Voices of the Children. Sherry traveled to Jordan with Voices of the Children to help facilitate the poetry component of the Poetry & Art: Cementing a Bond project connecting youth in the Skagit Valley with Syrian refugee children in Azraq refugee camp.