The following blog post is written by AUA’s Advisory Board Member Sarah Hassaine. Her article has also be published by the Arab American Institute. Read below to see what she has to say about the recent AUA trip to Jordan. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.
Marcela is not ready to talk yet. But at the same time she wants to. Her recent trip to Jordan left her reeling with unanticipated emotions and experiences from the people she met. Before her departure, Marcela Garcia, a behavioral therapist and a Masters Candidate in Special Education, described herself as someone who “lives in the moment, and in the seat of my pants.” She enjoys traveling and learning about people’s dreams and aspirations in life. Her trip to Jordan, however, has proven to be an unanticipated life-changing experience.
Marcela has lived in Japan for a year and has done some international traveling, but none of her trips took her to the Middle East, and none were volunteer-based… until last month, when she joined six other Americans at New York’s JFK airport and flew to Jordan for a 10-day trip through America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) to build homes in the village of Salt. AUA aims to improve America’s relationship with the Muslim World by providing opportunities for private citizens to volunteer in various development projects across the globe, from Indonesia to Morocco. Unofficial Ambassadors volunteer in various fields like education, health, human rights, and economic development in communities throughout the Muslim World.
Marcela’s recent trip with other Unofficial Ambassadors was entitled Build Peace by Building Homes, which focused on building homes for deserving families in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. Before her departure, Marcela said she was going on this trip “because I always wanted to volunteer and the opportunity never presented itself… I have always wanted to help build a house for others.”
After a whirlwind of ten days in Jordan, Marcela found herself crying in her hotel room the night before their flight back to the United States. “I came back feeling sad – very sad. While packing in Amman – I just started crying, I was not ready to leave,” shared Marcela. Ultimately, this trip opened her eyes to the fact that she wasn’t doing enough with her skills in behavioral therapy: “I wanted to stay and work with teachers and children there… the people were so amazing!”
Like many Unofficial Ambassadors, Marcela had not had much exposure to the Arab world or to many Arabs or Muslims in general. She said,
The trip exceeded my expectations. Anything I knew about Muslims or Arabs was from the media or from people around me and it was so way off! I thought they would treat me ‘badly’- but they appreciated that I was different – there was so much love, we did not know what to do with it!
Every day, Marcela and the AUA team helped a family build a second story on their home, and in the evenings they would field invitation after invitation to people’s homes. They were repeatedly offered tea, food, sweets and given gifts. “The people were always feeding us and they treated us like family [even though] we are nothing like them,” said an awed Marcela, “The hospitality and love and care were amazing. Every day brought more than we could take.”
Marcela went on to say that the “most exciting” part of the trip was being around “women of all ages, in all jobs, because they have so much to contribute to society and their families. They are articulate, intelligent and powerful.” She also joked about how all the women she met, be they villagers or university students, seemed “happy in their relationships;” which is not something you see often.
Marcela, like many westerners, had viewed women in the Middle East as oppressed silent women: “I thought they did not work and that they just stayed home and had kids and wore the scarf, boy was I wrong. I am so glad I was wrong.” Marcela and her AUA female counterpart Constance Castrence spent some alone time with the women. When men were not around, Marcela was shocked to see the women take off their headscarf and dress as they want: “I was so surprised to see them in short dresses and laughing and happy and talking about the same things we do here.” Marcela also noted that “so many women in Jordan are educated and worked,” and discovered that headscarves were not imposed: “I learned that it was their choice. They chose to wear the hijab, one girl explained how she opted to wear it but her sister did not… in the same household, two sisters with different approaches to clothes.”
For Marcela, learning more about women in Arab and Muslim cultures really opened her eyes and helped build a bridge of understanding. She experienced firsthand how open-minded the people were and how non-judgmental they were of her. She admits that her expectations of the trip were beyond exceeded, and she came away having learned so much about a people and culture that she did not even know existed. “I was so wrong about everything – so wrong. It is great to have friends there now,” she said happily. She concluded by saying that her “message to people is that Muslims are amazing and loving people… And I want to tell people that the women are amazing!”