Young Catholic studies in Jordan with hands, heart
Summer internship opens up wide world of cultural experiences, self-discovery
“What am I doing here?” I ask myself. “Am I brave? I don’t feel it. Sometimes I feel wildly in over my head, but mostly I feel unprepared. I knew I was going to be alone going into this experience. I just didn’t know what it meant.”
This is a journal entry I wrote a week into my summer in Amman, Jordan. I landed a 10-week internship with Caritas Jordan, a Catholic non-governmental organization associated with the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, and was set to leave in May.
I had never been to the Middle East before, didn’t speak the language well and didn’t know anyone there, but I had never been more excited in my life for the work I would be doing.
The first big culture shock was how differently the sexes are treated there. Jordan is a very conservative society and the most respect a woman can expect to get is to be ignored by men she doesn’t know. Women not wearing the headscarf attract attention wherever they go; throw in my “exotic” blonde hair and I was a magnet for harassment.
All of it was worth it when I went to work. Caritas Jordan operates mostly in Amman to distribute humanitarian aid to poor Jordanians, migrant workers from southern Asia and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia. Nour, the case worker I was partnered with, showed me how the different Caritas and United Nations databases worked and within two weeks I was taking cases of my own. We focused mostly on women who moved to Jordan from Sri Lanka or the Philippines whom we helped with medical care and/or humanitarian assistance at our center.
Among our cases, people spoke varying degrees of English and Arabic. Some spoke neither and we would have to get our Sri Lankan nun, Sister Concy Perera, SDS, to translate the Sinhalese. It was the funniest game of “telephone” as “Where is your husband?” went from English to Arabic to Sinhala and back again.
For medical care, from the routine to chronic conditions and surgical procedures, people were seen by our in-house doctor for free and we would also help with the cost of medication, anywhere from 30 to 200 Jordanian dinars ($42-$282), depending on the case. For the humanitarian assistance, we provided money for a plane ticket back to Sri Lanka, milk and diapers for children 2 years old and younger, baby blankets for newborns and the occasional gift when the administration found some.
At the end of June, Caritas administration notified the center it would be receiving food packets for distribution, a surprise development that required completing an insane amount of paperwork in addition to our daily cases. Once the migrant workers heard about the food packages, we quickly became famous in the Sri Lankan neighborhoods and despite having been allotted just 200 food packages for the week, at least 150 people showed up every day.
Every morning, when we handed out numbers determining place in line, people would storm the gate and we would just shove papers into their reaching hands.
I came to feel like a useful part of the team when I could take a whole case in Arabic and complete the paperwork by myself. The administration even trusted me with the whole operation for a week and a half when Nour went on vacation.
Confidence on the job quickly translated into confidence in other parts of my life in Jordan. I traveled almost every weekend. It was definitely scary traveling by myself to remote parts of Jordan, Israel and Palestine, but I knew that if I was ever going to see the places I wanted to see, I was going to have to go it alone. A wedding ring and some quickly improvised stories about a fake husband warded off most harassment.
There is a distinct gratification in figuring things out yourself, especially as a young blonde woman in the Middle East. I explored ancient cities, lost a camel race, conversed with Bedouins, made some friends, accepted many drinks, walked below sea level, fought a fire, got two new stamps in my passport, walked about every registered biblical site, passed interrogation by the Israeli military, explored my limitations, cried, became intimate with my thoughts and learned so many things about myself that I thought I already knew.
The whole summer was like a big test of my inner strength and sense of self, fortified by a Scripture passage I heard at an English Mass one weekend that kept reverberating in my head: “It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” (Deuteronomy 30:14) This is the life I’ve always wanted to live, full of adventure and helping people, and this is the person I’ve always wanted to be, independent, daring, unafraid. I knew what I was doing in Jordan, and no matter how scary or uncertain things seemed, I just had to keep carrying it out.
I left Amman in August with tears in my eyes. Nothing prepared me for the attachment I felt for this land so different from my own. Jordan became my second home and Caritas my second family.
Joslyn Hebda is a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., majoring in international studies. She is a 2010 graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy and a member of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.
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