What do Amman, Jordan and the Church Hill area of Richmond, Virginia have in common? If I had been asked this question three months ago, I would have said probably nothing, except that people typically have a negative reaction when I tell them I have spent a significant amount of time there. I always figured that my interest in systemic poverty in America and my interest in international affairs in the Middle East were simply separate interests. However, I have found that my time in Richmond has greatly prepared me for my time in Amman.
Jamie Love, stands above Amman, Jordan. She is a student at the University of Kentucky and was a 2014 SHECP intern in Richmond, VA.
Last summer as a Shepherd Intern I worked at the Peter Paul Development Center in the East-End of Richmond, VA. This youth development center serves kids from 2nd grade through high school year round as either an afterschool program or full-day summer camp. The kids must live within a one-mile radius of the Center, which I have been told is the densest concentration of poverty outside of New York City. I worked primarily with the rising second graders who had barely caught a glimpse of the world outside of the projects where they lived, and weren’t allowed to walk to school so that they could avoid being caught in the crosshairs of street violence. To say that I was out of my element would be an understatement. Initially, it was hard for me to serve as a role model and teacher to kids in this environment when I myself was attempting to adjust to this new temporary reality. But as often happens, time softened my initial shock.
At the University of Kentucky I study International Studies with a focus on Africa and the Middle East, so when the opportunity arose to study abroad in Jordan, I was both ecstatic and apprehensive. While enamored with the idea of experiencing first hand the region that I had read about in books, I had only taken one semester of Arabic, so living independently was daunting. However, I decided to take the plunge and find myself here in Amman. I didn’t expect my experience last summer to often come to mind. As mentioned previously, I figured that poverty in America was distinct from international affairs in Jordan. But to my surprise, the lessons I learned working at Peter Paul have helped me to better understand the situation in Amman.
To put it bluntly, the issue of poverty is not just an international one. And more broadly, most of the issues that we see as solely a problem in the Middle East are also real problems in the United States. It is easy to look at the Middle East from the outside and condemn the region for its’ turmoil. But in reality, these issues are present in America as well. When we learn about the high unemployment rates in Jordan or the lack of nutritious food in refugee camps, it is easy for me to be judgmental and denounce the country’s leadership. But my experiences at Peter Paul come to mind, and I am reminded that these issues are not limited to this specific region; they are everywhere. My experiences in Richmond provide a frame of reference for understanding the similar issues Jordan faces, and enables me to better understand Jordan and have a fuller abroad experience.
My study abroad program includes an independent research project, and my topic is Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and their perspective on third country resettlement. Jordan has the highest ratio of indigenous population to refugees of any country in the world. It has welcomed thousands and thousands of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees giving it the reputation of being a ‘refugee haven.’ Jordan has been extremely welcoming and a safe haven in the midst of a turbulent region. However, it has not handled every aspect of the refugee presence perfectly. All refugees in Jordan, other than Palestinians, are technically ‘guests’ so they do not have the full rights of refugees. These restrictions seek to avoid another large refugee population becoming a semi-permanent presence like Palestinians have become, creating severe consequences for other refugee populations. For example, Iraqi refugees in Jordan cannot legally work since they are simply ‘guests.’ I have repeatedly heard of Iraqi families being forced to live on their savings because the situation in Iraq is worsening: the resettlement process can take over ten years: and they cannot legally work in Jordan. These refugees are forced to stay in Jordan, deplete their savings, and enter poverty. To be frank, this makes me mad. I am frustrated with the Jordanian government for not giving Iraqis opportunities. It frustrates me that Jordan has this reputation of being a generous host yet drives Iraqis into poverty. It isn’t fair. This issue continuously arises in my research, and I find it very difficult to check my own biases and remain balanced in my criticisms. Yet, I realize that this limitation on employment should be mitigated by the reality that Jordan is a very small, resource-poor country that was willing to open its’ borders. Sometimes, I am critical of the Jordanian government without remembering that it is not the only imperfect government in the world. To keep myself grounded, I remember Richmond.
Within the one-mile radius of the Peter Paul Development Center are four of the largest public housing developments (projects) in the city. These housing developments were built when the interstate that I took to the Center everyday was constructed. The government destroyed homes, and then relocated the people into the projects. Many of these families are still there, the grandparents of my students. The area is considered a food desert, meaning there are no opportunities to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. The interstate that displaced these people also cuts them off from the rest of the city, so they have to get on the interstate in order to reach fresh food, which requires a car. Yet, most of my students’ families could not afford a car. When I first learned this, I was mad. It all seemed so unfair. Why did the highway need to be built there? Why were the people not given a voice? Why were they overlooked just because they were poor? It seemed so unjust to find out that the government, which we are supposed to look to for guidance and protection, had so blatantly overlooked so many people because they did not have a political voice. I still get frustrated when I think about it. It is the same indignation I have thinking about the Iraqi refugees in Jordan being denied the right to work. It is a frustration with the lack of justice and the crippling power of poverty.
It is painful to think about. It is a feeling of indignation about both Jordan and America. Without my experience at Peter Paul, I would be left feeling angry and bitter only towards Jordan, which is not objective because poverty and injustice exists everywhere. When my research frustrates me with the lack of hope Iraqi refugees have, I remind myself of the issues I saw first hand in Richmond. Without this comparison, I would be unfairly bitter towards solely Jordan.
There was a certain point about half way through my internship last summer in which I began questioning the point of me being there. I felt the kids were facing such pervasive poverty that my work seemed insignificant. I was only there for one summer. What could I do to change their lives? But eventually I began to understand that I was not there to change their situation. I was there to be their friend and experience their lives. Getting a glimpse of what they faced, learning from it, and being their advocate when I got home was the point. I did not need to see the difference I made. Currently, I am again at a place in my research where I question the point of it. The more I learn, the bigger the problems seem and the situation seems more hopeless. Studying this won’t actually do anything to help anyone, so why do it?
What I try to do is remember Richmond. I didn’t do anything to take these students out of poverty, but what I learned from them will stay with me forever. I cannot solve the hardships that children in Richmond or refugees in Jordan face in a short amount of time in either location. However, I can learn from both of these experiences, and I can become an advocate for those who suffer from poverty who don’t have an adequate voice of their own. Wherever I live, I can become a voice for others, including home in Lexington KY. This journey will not end when I leave Amman, it will simply be the conclusion of a stage of learning in Jordan. Poverty is not limited to Richmond or Amman, and I am looking forward to continuing to develop my understanding of people and poverty wherever I go.