With many thanks to Kelsey Whiting-Jones for this piece on the UK Friends’ walk in Jordan last May.
Some call them the ‘Three Musketeers” – Mahmoud, Abu Ibrahim, and Eisa – three local Abraham Path guides and leaders of the Al Ayoun Society. Mahmoud invites us to join in a song, huddled beneath the shade of a live oak tree. Abu Ibrahim bends down to show me a yellow plant that is used for stomach-aches. Eisa points to the hillside and explains the names of each peak and cave.
These trails run through their blood and they know shortcuts, where you can find the stunning black irises growing in April, or where to stop for a rest from walking and a enjoy cup of sage tea. They are proud of the landscape of their ancestors and of the history in the stones – the ruins of mosques, Byzantine mosaics, and castles. They tell tales of holy men – like the prophet Elijah –who have made this place a site of age-old pilgrimage. And they tell tales of the travelers they have come to meet on the path and made lasting friendships with. In the Ajloun region the path winds though forests, olive groves, and steep ravines. Huge boulders create narrow passages ways you nearly have to climb through. Summit vistas open out to rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Through the haze you can spot the rolling hills of Israel and Palestine and on a clear day, even see the city of Jerusalem. Wildflowers bedeck path – purple hollyhocks, red poppies and little white daisies. You’ll wander through meadows pulling out little thistles and thorns from your trousers. Pistachio trees here, red-barked strawberry trees there. Tortoises may even join your walk. You will encounter countless flocks of sheep and goats, their bells tinkling through the valleys, accompanied by their herding dogs and friendly shepherds. Young boys on horses or donkeys many ride past you with a flicker of curiosity in their eyes. And as you pass through the hamlets along the route, school children will run to their windows giggling and calling you with shouts ‘Hello! What is your name!’ Shopkeepers and women in their homes will come out to greet you, saying Ahlan wa sahlan (loosely translated, it means: “May you arrive as part of the family, and tread an easy path” or “welcome”). They will invariably invite you in for tea. If it is hot out, you may be lucky enough to be offered a refreshing lemonade made green with the generous addition of mint leaves. The people on the path light up at the thought of sharing their hospitality with you – wherever you come from, wherever you are going. At the end of the day, my feet feel relieved as I take off my shoes to enter the homestay where I am spending the night at in the village of Orjan. Iman has spent the entire afternoon, after returning from her job as a school teacher, to prepare what was possibly be a feast unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The centerpiece is maqluba – a fragrant pillow of savory rice cooked with vegetables and chicken. Countless dishes served family style surround the maqluba – lentil soup, eggplant dip (moutabal), stuffed zucchinis (kousa mahshi), flavorful cooked tomato dip (galayet bandoura), stuffed grape leaves (yalangee), cauliflower fritters (mshat), tabouleh salad, and plenty of freshly baked bread. This is more than enough to satisfy an army, let alone a group of walkers. You dine on cushions, which line the perimeter of the family’s living room. Iman is beaming from ear to ear watching you enjoy her home-cooked meal. She asks eagerly which one was my favorite. I tell her I must have her recipe for mshat. We took to the balcony as the sun lowered in the sky, sipping on sweet tea and looking out onto the pomegranate, fig, and apricot trees that surround the house below. The next morning we awake to another feast – this time of various hand-made cheeses, olive oil and za’atar, humus, grilled taboon bread, thick savory yogurt (labneh), and pomegranate molasses. I am sad to leave Eisa and Iman and their children – especially 2-year old Tamar who was always up for hugs. I have brought a bottle of maple syrup from my home in New England as a gift for Iman and her kitchen. She bursts with excitement at the sweet taste. She has welcomed all of us strangers so warmly into her lovely home and I can’t even begin to repay her hospitality. But it makes me happy that in exchange for an unforgettable experience; she can have a little piece of my home with her. We are all nearly in tears as we say goodbye to one another. But as all goodbyes in the Middle East go, we say with a smile “See you again soon, inshah’Allah (God-willing).”
Thanks to Jeanne Coker for this blog – edited from a record of the journey written for ‘Christians Aware’.
Note to readers: Italicised sentences have been added to the original text for additional clarification.
The group met together at the delightful Amman Pasha Hotel. A meal on the roof, overlooking the Roman amphitheatre, to introduce ourselves before setting off the next day. We start by driving to Ajloun Castle, built by one of Saladdin’s generals in 1184. We walk North up and down the rocky hillsides and along the wadis. It is tough walking but our guides take good care of us. We are led by Murad from “Experience Jordan” (the Jordanian travel agency which is the local AP partner) and accompanied by a person from the local community. The trail has recently been marked by a group of young people from the local community together with people from the UK and the USA. The team need to explain to local villagers what they are doing. There is some suspicion that they might be a political party and need to overcome this! Another problem is what to mark. The only static objects are electricity poles but in between rocks are chosen which are unlikely to be moved by a local farmer. Our trail takes us through the village of Baoun and visit the site of Mar Elias (known as Tishbe in the Bible) the home-town of the Prophet Elijah. It has been a hot, tough day so we are pleased to reach our homestay in Orjan where we will spend two nights. Homestays are an essential part of the itinerary – local people provide food and somewhere to wash and to sleep. The money we pay for this hospitality goes directly to the local community. We are also able to learn a little of the local customs and culture. Some visit the Soap House, a local income generation project, but I need to rest my weary feet! Our hosts feed us well, too well; the showers are very welcome and the beds are comfortable so we are refreshed for further walking – Rasoun, Beit Idis, and finally Pella which is one of the Decapolis cities located along the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.
Sharhabil Bin Hassneh Ecopark
Here we participate in some community service
The Sharhabil Bin Hassah Dam (Ziqlab) is the first dam built in Jordan (1964). It is one of the clearest water resources in Jordan.
The park was established in 2005 – to rehabilitate and conserve the natural ecosystem of this area. Prior to that time this area was suffering from pollution, overgrazing by livestock, and soil erosion. Now it is a green oasis. Staff outlined various projects, the aim of which is to improve the lives of people in the local communities in the Jordan valley.
There are 10 wooden eco lodges which are used for residential conferences and the paying public (to raise money to resource the park). Visitors are guided on the walking trails – another source of income. There are two natural wetlands which are major breeding grounds for birds and animals. There is a small artificial wetland where grey water from showers and sinks is treated and then used in plant irrigation.
A geodesic dome was built by local students. These domes are easily built with no need for internal support. They have good acoustics so can be used for lectures without the need for amplification. It is also used for theatre where the audience sit outside.
The area is green with mature trees (which need little water) where once was stony desert. We spent some time weeding with hoes around established plants and filling 2 litre drinks bottles with sand to create the walls of a bird hide.
The next day we took to transport instead of walking which was considered unsafe by our guide after 24 hours of rain (more rain fell than during the winter rainy season) which pleased the Jordanians but limited our activities. As we drive north along the ridge we see the River Jordan way below and the Ash-Shaykh Husayn crossing into Israel. One of our group took this crossing into Israel and then on to Nablus where he was planning to set up a town twinning in Colorado. Onwards to Um Qais, another Decapolis city. It is a large site with paved Roman road looking over the Golan Heights down to Lake Tiberias. The town is called Gadara (reference Mark 5 vv 1-15. And v20 – So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.). We return to Amman for our first encounter with refugees.
Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ)
Founded in 2011 in response to the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan, HRJ is a volunteer organization that seeks to support local and international charities meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees and Jordanians. HRJ currently supports over 20 local charities all over Jordan and many formal and informal schools. These numbers are expected to rise.
Funds permitting, HRJ is able to respond quickly to needs highlighted by these charities, acquiring essentials such as baby and children’s clothes, shoes, toys, blankets, kitchen supplies, milk powder, hygiene items, school supplies and medical equipment.
HRJ has over 150 international and some local, non-political, non-profit charities working with refugees and Jordanians in the host communities. The close working relationship between Mercy Corps and HRJ ensures that items bought complement existing programs, plug any gaps and meet any emergency needs that are highlighted by field workers in host and camp communities.
We went out, with other international volunteers, to a refugee camp in an industrial area of Amman. There are about 200 families living in tents on waste land beside modern commercial buildings. We took craft material and other activity material together with a clown from Ecuador! On the way we bought bananas, tetra packs and cakes. We were told to expect 100 children, we catered for 120 but many went away disappointed. I watched three brothers who walked around holding hands, disappointment on their faces not to get a banana; they only know the daily round of having nothing to do, nowhere to go where a shared banana is their greatest treat. I walked around the campsite and talked to a teenager in a wheelchair. The mother invited me into their tent where there was another severely disabled child about 8 or 9 (both children probably have cerebral palsy). Inside the tent the thing that struck me most was the total absence of possessions.
The Christian Missionary Alliance at Al Mafraq
“Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity” psalm 131.1
It has opened the church to co-ordinate the work with refugees living in the community in the area of Al Mafraq to the northern border. The church is supporting Muslims – my brother in need. It has brought church members (about 70) together as a family. The paid pastors in the church are all Jordanian. Currently there are 38 short term volunteers, funded from where they come. These revitalise the long term volunteers where there are problems of “burn out”. There is a building programme at the church for more accommodation for the volunteers with much of the funding coming from a church in Surrey. The Missionary Alliance is audited (by Mercy Alliance) to see how the donor money is spent.
We were given a presentation on the CMA’s work with refugees. It was explained that there is limited access for volunteers into the UNHCR camp where most refugees start out. Refugees need to be sponsored by a Jordanian family to leave the camp but many leave illegally. (Hence the work of the CMA who run their own registration process to track the families they are supporting). About a dozen NGO’s support the CMA. These include: local Jordanian volunteer organisations; Docas Aid, a Dutch NGO; Medair, who pays the rent; Mercy Malaysia, who provides the heating; and the Czech Republic,a major donor.
(At first CMA’s work was mainly handling out a welcome pack to each family they registered. The welcome pack contents, in two parts, were:)
Basic provision: mattresses, blankets, pillows, floor mat, gas stove, gas bottle
Consumables: food packages, clothes, diapers, medical equipment
660 packs have been delivered in the last three months (February to May 2014).
40 families were registered in the winter 2011/2012; the following year this number was 3,000. Now there is an average of 40 new families registering, twice a week (family size average is 5.8 people). Families fled Syria with no possessions, and Jordanian families sheltered them (where they were supposed to pay rent). Now, over a year in, the CMA has turned its attention from basic relief toward development to address the long-term problems arising from permanent refugee status. Jordanian schools have opened a second (afternoon) shift for Syrian children but there is no capacity for the remaining 50%. Muslims pay 2% a year to local organisations. It is called Zakat and helps poor Jordanians too.
The CMA’s approach to the refugee challenge is governed by a set of simple principles: Everyone is an individual; Openness; Flexibility; Help in what people need; Do what can be done; Patience in listening to people’s traumas; Accountability; Weekly meeting for encouragement and feedback
After our morning with the CMA, we drove to the border at the Jabir checkpoint and crossing, taking with us packages of provisions (containing much the same as UK food banks) and clothing. We distributed these to families who fled at the beginning of the hostilities. They live in concrete rooms, open at the front, which were intended as shop premises. I asked about toilet facilities and how they managed to wash clothes. The response – “The neighbouring shopkeeper is so kind”.
Penny Cowell from East Sheen writes about the UK Friends walk in Jordan in May:
Tinkling goat bells, the smiling welcome of our Jordanian hosts and their wonderful hospitality, the muezzin’s call to prayer, ancient ruins lying long forgotten on the hillside, the laughter of refugee children – these are some of my abiding memories of a week in Jordan, walking along the Abraham Path, a long distance walking trail across the Middle East.
There were eleven of us from the UK branch with a local guide. We spent three days trekking and it was like stepping back two thousand years as we walked amongst the olive groves and watched the Bedouin shepherds with their flocks on the hills. We stayed with local families, enjoying wonderful Arab hospitality. On one day of unheard of rain we visited the vast ruined city of Umm Qais, where Christ cast out the devils and they entered the Gadarene swine.
At the end we had the opportunity for three days community service. We spend one day working at a Friends of the Earth Middle East ecopark and two days with Syrian refugees. Jordan has one and a half million living in the country and 600 more arrive every day, most of them hoping to return. We entertained children in a tented city and delivered food parcels to families living in a squalid concrete shopping mall within sight of the Syrian border. I was struck by their quiet dignity and welcome.
It was altogether an amazing experience and I felt immensely privileged to have been able to go. As the leader of our group summed up: step by step we are all walking side by side towards a common goal. Yahweh, Allah, God. Shalom, salaam, peace.