Reflections on Israel and Jordan: A Final Poem

“As I’m reflecting I don’t know where to start,
There are so many memories and lessons I’ll cherish in my heart.

However, today is where our adventure ends,
And I’m already missing hearing us being called “Marylands”.

Highlights include: Jerusalem, Dead Sea, and walking Petra,
Tell Aviv, Amman, and touring old Jaffa.

Bedouin tea, Wadi Rum, hiking Masada;
and of course the love of my life…shawarma!

Lots of experiences, some happy some sad;
But all have been good, none of them bad.

We heard about the environment, equal rights, education and peace;
There are so many challenges facing the Middle East.

Yet in spite of those challenges we met inspired heroines and heroes;
To make a better world, people who have moved beyond their egos.

I’ve learned a lot from the speakers, but most of all from my colleagues;
I’m a better person and working on improving my follies.

Younger and older they’ve all influenced and taught me,
This importance of communication and self-discovery.

The leaders of the trip did a marvelous job;
Noah, Maggie, Betty, Dick, Rebecca, and Bob.

Meticulous planning, and very leadership skilled;
Thanks to them all the participants are leaving fulfilled.

I speak for myself when I say my goals for the trip weren’t just met;
They were surpassed and exceeded as I was enlightened at every step!

I have no doubt in my mind that now each of us will be,
Better leaders in this world by understanding philanthropy.

To the generous donors who helped us to go;
I am more thankful than they will ever know.

Back home I try to describe to others what I’ve experienced and seen;
But it’s impossible to find words to capture my wildest dream.

How do you explain witnessing a young man struggling with desires for peace and revenge?
What words can do justice to describe the view of the Dead Sea from Masada’s ledge?

How can I verbalize the reflections and insights of 25 friends?
Is it possible to share the streets of Jerusalem with its curves and bends?

As I’m sitting back in DC and pondering here,
I realized this trip is a pivotal point in my 31st year.

If there is one thing to the whole group that I have to say;
Just know that you’ve all impacted me in a special way.

This is an experience for which I am forever grateful;
For that I say toda, shoukran, and thank you.”

 –Kahlil K.

Reflecting on Good vs. Evil

On Friday, we ended this amazing academic voyage with two absolutely inspirational speakers. I drew an interesting connection between our morning speaker, retired General Mansour Abu Rashid of Amman Center for Peace and Development, and our afternoon speaker, Madian Al-Jazerah of Books@Cafe. Madian told us about how he and other Jordanian disenfranchised populations were constantly on the run from the ministry of intelligence. By stark contrast and quite ironically, General Abu Rashid was formerly the head of intelligence for Jordan. Although the timing of their careers makes it unlikely that these two individuals ever were directly nemeses, for me it shed light on an important truth: there are blurred lines between good and evil, and two people’s perceptions of good can easily be at odds with one another.

If one speaker’s good could be another speaker’s evil, then the dichotomy of good and evil that was ingrained into us at an early age through Disney movies and other such stories implodes. Today, I think it’s more important than ever to tell ourselves and our teach our children a truer narrative, one that recognizes that every human (as well as every societal group) is his own special mix of good and evil, that this mix is always changing, and that any interpretation of someone’s good or evil depends pretty heavily on who is making the judgment.

When I saw Jordanians at the market or on the street I saw their humanity. I saw good people striving to make a living for their families and just trying to enjoy life. These people could be the heroes in a movie. But statistically speaking, it sounds like some of them are anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and/or homophobic. To many people in the world, that’s evil. Israel mirrors this, too. With everything astounding about Israeli society from being able to turn the desert green, innovate and be the first democratic government in the Middle East, it could also be a hero in a narrative (as it is in every Birthright trip). But we saw the horrible human toll of its Occupation of Palestine has taken up close and personal when we heard the stories of Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost loved ones to the conflict. What about the psychological trauma one must undergo from living their whole life under Occupation? The strength of spirit it must take to choose peace and reconciliation over retaliation and revenge was another example of how a battle between good and evil was playing out within a person, with good eventually triumphing.

Madian seemed to understand this internal interplay of good and evil. While he told his own story in a way that made him to be a hero, he at one point said the words, “I am corrupt.” It was in the context of the strategies and tactics he used. To me, though, it showed a large amount of humility and self-awareness on his part that even the Harriet Tubman of Jordan understands he has his character flaws, that he gets there is some evil within his good.

I spent a lot of time on this trip reflecting on these ideas of good and evil. Actually, I explored this topic in our first group reflection. It was after our day at Yad Vashem. While I had a deep, spiritual experience at Yad Vashem and I think it’s probably the best-run museum I’ve been to, I also noted that they left out an important piece of the puzzle. To many Westerners, the Holocaust represents the epitome of evil done on a societal scale, and Yad Vashem is our doorway into the darkest depths of human capacity for evil. One of the tour guide’s goals appeared to be putting us in the shoes of the Jewish victims and survivors through telling their personal stories and literally showing us their shoes. However, this is an incomplete story. Because if the goal of Yad Vashem is truly “Never Again” then they should also put us in the shoes of the German Nazi perpetrators. A lot of academic research has been done as to how regular German people over time could come to commit such horrible atrocities and a lot of it came down to fear and dispersion of responsibility. Most academic research such as the Stanley Milgram experiment points to a sad, dark truth that any of us would likely have acted similarly if we were born as Germans during that period. Moreover, our professor made the case that in large groups we regularly discard our better moral judgment and remain silent or even participate directly in injustices when the economic and social incentives reward it and a dispersion of responsibility dissolves accountability.

Once we can come to terms with the capacity for evil within each of us we can reject the dangerous Western logic of us being good and others being evil. Once we do this, we’re already half way to world peace. Every person has the ability to change himself and his immediate society much more so than he can change some distant evil. And when others see you fixing your wrongdoings they’re more likely to fix their own.

A case example for me is the fact that even as we mourn and honor the stories and lives of Holocausts victims and survivors with the phrase, “Never Again,” we as a society have allowed genocide to occur again right under our noses, remaining silent. In the mid 2000’s in Darfur, Sudan, hundreds of thousands of people were systematically murdered by the Sudanese government. The United States Congress officially named it a genocide, and yet it persisted for many years as the death toll multiplied. Every one of us had real power to help end the genocide in Darfur, but unfortunately we as a society largely remained silent.

Genocide is an extreme example, but I think a similar principal underlies a lot of social injustice in the world – climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty. Often large injustices are the accumulation of innumerable smaller injustices that we have the power to easily change if we take the approach of focusing on ourselves and our immediate communities first.

The fact that there are so many problems plaguing society and so many entry points to fix them is the reason why I’m on my personal path of social entrepreneurship. Hopefully, it’s why everybody else is on this trip as well. We all have a call to action, a unique opportunity to make a difference. Understanding how we’re part of injustices makes them easier to change.

-Ben S.

 

Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses

After visiting the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we had the opportunity to visit with a humanitarian nonprofit that is deeply involved with providing medical support to the refugee population in Jordan. This mainly consists of the more than 1 million refugees that have flooded into Jordan due to the Syrian Civil War. However, this organization is also involved with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. To respect the privacy of this organization and those with which it works, the names of the organization and those that hosted us have been left out from this post.

We began by visiting a clinic in Amman, right in the hustle and bustle of the city. The range of the work that they do in this space is absolutely phenomenal, from dental to mental health to labor and delivery. With up to 100 patients a day, the resiliency of the staff there is a testament to the miraculous work being done by those who are responding to humanitarian crises in the Middle East.

Visiting this clinic gave me a moment to compare and contrast observations from our trip as a whole. While visiting Israeli nonprofits, it was a common theme to see the names of the donors, usually North American Jewish individuals or organizations, which made the work of the nonprofit possible. But in Jordan, in their place hung posters bearing the names and logos of large international aid organizations. This gave me pause to think about how the donor profile across borders influences allocating funds and resources. In addition, how does the type of crisis being addressed by an organization affect how it branches out?

Luckily, these questions were addressed later that afternoon when we traveled to the main offices of the organization and spoke with its head official. This was one of the most invigorating experiences of the entire trip, as the man who hosted us spoke with such vitality and understanding about not only the refugee crisis, but the political climate in the Middle East as a whole. This organization in particular has grown enormously over the past year, and when our host was asked about what characteristics of the organization made this possible, his answer was to the point with no holds barred. The focus was on structuring relationships with international organizations not as that of a donor and recipient, but as a partnership. He spoke with a “get-it-done” kind of attitude, describing how employees of the organization work directly in foreign nations and gain access to countries and regions regardless of the political climate there. And he did not shy away from politics, speaking to the necessity to respect opinions and backgrounds, and the potential strength amongst Middle Eastern nations when they do not get hung up on the divisions between themselves. He made the point that it is no coincidence that God sent the three great prophets, Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses, to the same region of the world. This was an incredibly powerful moment that I will take with me long after this trip is over.

Later that evening, we were treated by the organization to an amazing dinner. Full of good food and Arabic hospitality, it was one of the best meals we have had on the trip thus far. And that is saying something! The food in both Israel and Jordan is absolutely incredible. As someone whose favorite foods involve delicious sauces, the culture here around spreads and dipping food is deeply appreciated. We were humbled by the graciousness of our host, and everyone seemed unable to keep from speaking about the experiences from that day all the way back to the hotel.

I look out my window as I write this and see the incredible expanse of the city of Amman below me. It is a metropolis like none I have ever seen before. It seems to go on forever, tan box buildings and mosques, each holding their own unique story and history. And when the sun goes down, the lights from these structures stretch off into the distance and create their own horizon. I can hardly believe that my time here in the Middle East is almost complete. Truthfully, I have learned more about culture and philanthropy than I would have ever thought possible, and I do not believe for a second that the impact that this has had on me will ever diminish.

-Kyle S.

As-Samra: The Government as Philanthropy

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Hello everyone! This is Kyle Siefering writing to you today. I am an undergraduate at the University of Maryland studying government and politics. However, after wrapping up my bachelor’s degree this May, I will be pursuing a master’s degree through Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Therefore, amongst the ten grad students and ten undergrads that our taking part of this trip, I am neatly situated in the middle.

This morning, we travelled to the As-Samra wastewater treatment facility to learn about the work of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) in Jordan. The MCC is a United States aid agency, established with bipartisan support by Congress in 2004. By providing grants, it works to reduce poverty in countries by encouraging economic growth. However, this mission is specific to countries that the MCC believes will use the money well, as determined by the characteristics of good governance, economic freedom and investment in their citizens. Alex Russin, who graciously hosted our session at As-Samra, explained it well, using the example of choosing to give a loan to a friend who has the knowhow but not the money to help themselves, as opposed to giving money to a friend who you know will not spend it wisely. Likewise, the MCC aims to partner with countries that already have plans for the incoming funds, as opposed to directing what funds must go to.

The work of the MCC is well within our trip’s purview of global philanthropy, specifically in terms of how governments and their various agencies work as philanthropists when assisting projects abroad. How do the ways they evaluate projects compare to those of private donors, corporations, or international organizations?  Do they have similar motivations? Does the assistance they provide work in similar ways? These are the lenses through which I viewed our group’s interaction with MCC.

The Millennium Challenge Account – Jordan (MCA-Jordan) is the MCC program working in Jordan specifically, so it was their projects that we were observing today. MCA-Jordan works particularly with the water challenges that Jordan is facing. The challenges surrounding water in the Middle East have been a main focus of conversation on this trip, with Jordan in particular as one of the bottom ten poorest nations in terms of access to water resources. To put things in perspective, Mr. Russin pointed out that Jordan is projecting a deficit of 150 million cubic meters of water for 2015, an amount that will only increase with Jordan’s growing population. This is where MCA-Jordan and their work at As-Samra come in. The As-Samra wastewater treatment plant was completed in 2008 with the support of USAID to replace the system of water waste stabilization ponds that had been in place before. Now, MCA-Jordan is in the midst of expanding this facility while also laying down piping and other infrastructure to better serve the Jordanian people, especially those living in Jordan’s second largest city of Zarqa. This project is being done in a unique private-public 25-year partnership between the Jordanian Government and private firms, guaranteeing financing for the project as well as high quality construction, operation, and management as the firms make a return on their investment. In the end, the facility will be transferred to the Jordanian Government in full in 2037. By putting this unique structure in the context of other funding mechanisms that we have observed during this trip, our group was able to partake in discussions about the motivations behind a private-public model. How do the strategies employed by a government program to provide the capital and manpower for a project requiring massive amounts of capital and manpower compare to the activities of traditional nonprofits? What are the similarities and differences between partnering with a private organization and accepting a corporate grant? It was fascinating to evaluate motives based around the scale of a project and the need it addresses, such as providing essential water to over 2 million Jordanians.

In conjunction with our discussions was our bus tour of the treatment plant itself. We got an up-close look at the water as it was being treated in large open tanks, with bacteria digesting out the waste from the water and the resulting “sludge” being separated out. This led to a conversation about sludge and the new initiatives in MCA-Jordan’s work to better convert this sludge into fertilizer. If I may hazard a guess, this may have been one of the most in-depth conversations about sludge amongst philanthropy students ever witnessed. So hooray for that! We then wrapped up our visit from the scenic overlook that they have of the facility at As-Samra.

All in all, it was great to see American international aid in action, especially considering the deep interest in international development amongst many members of this trip. So often, budgeting for international aid comes under fire. Therefore, seeing the substantial work that is being done with American dollars up-close is very gratifying. Truthfully, this blog post is only scratching the surface of the colossal amount of work being done by MCC and MCA-Jordan. From engaging communities about water use, to using incoming wastewater to create energy to power the facility, the work being done by all working with and through MCA-Jordan is very impressive, and I wish them all the best as they work to provide water for Jordanians in the future.

-Kyle S.

Mind the Gap

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On our first NGO visit of Jordan, we met with a vibrant leader who is working with a community-based organization to support children, Syrian refugees, and survivors of gender-based violence. (For security reasons, details of the organization cannot be named).  He discussed the challenge of the work they are doing; in addition to the typical obstacles of being an NGO, work in Jordan has become increasingly more complex due to an influx of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, totaling more than one million people (Keep in mind, Jordan’s total population is around 7 million people. That is equivalent to adding 50 million people to the US).

So what happens when a small organization like the one we met outside of Amman searches for funding for its programs, including psycho social support, after school activities, counseling, legal workshops for divorced women, and more. Typically, he explained, there are few long-term employees, as NGO workers are hired contract to contract. As the programs are dependent on donations, the hunt for funding is imminent. Here, then, is the where the gap comes in.

Consider this example.

1. A large donor, perhaps Foreign Government A, wants to provide $1 million to support or tackle a broad issue: food security, healthcare, gender-based violence, education, refugees, the list goes on.

2. Government A gives this $1 million to an international NGO, such as Save the Children, UNICEF, or others.  This group, employing international workers who are typically paid a competitive rate of their home country, use some of that $1 million for salaries, monitoring, and other mechanisms to select the next tier of recipients:  country wide or regional NGOs.

3. This may happen several more times, as the larger groups and NGOs whittle down the initial funding in search of a local group.

4. As the NGO coordinator said today, the local community based organizations who are actually on the ground doing the work may receive 50% of the initial funding.

So, why the gap? There were a few ideas discussed today. Is it a lack of trust of the groups on the ground? Is the issue at the macro level, where governments, international aid groups, and other large donors are too far removed to know what is happening at the grassroots level?  And is it fair or conceivable to require this connection in the first place?

The issue is more complex than just networking.  The distance from the government to the groups is too great; in other words, the gap is too wide. Small NGOs may not have the workforce available to dedicate to grant writing and research. In some scenarios, they may not qualify for the strict requirements set forth by the donor, or have the communicative technology necessary to complete applications.  Furthermore, the large donors may have requirements for training or a budget system.  Essentially, it comes down to whether or not the donors trust the local organizations on the quality of their work.

All this is not to say that (a) governments have poor intentions, (b) employees at international NGOs don’t deserve competitive wages, or (c) fraud among NGOs does not exist.  But isn’t there a better way than seeing fifty percent of an intended donation lost to networking and middlemen?  As future nonprofit professionals, we should seek out a way to work with donors to help mind the gap.

– Rebecca S.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I knew I was in trouble when everyone started chanting my name. Normally when someone asks you to dance you can politely decline, but when that someone is a Bedouin desert guide you are obliged to clap your hands, shake your hips and pray that no one is taking pictures. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Our first full day in Jordan began with movement of an entirely different ilk and was far more impressive. Hiking through the stone city of Petra early in the morning was a unique experience among unique experiences. Like many of my generation who grew up with a skewed perception of what it meant to be an archeologist (thank you Indiana Jones), my familiarity with the city was the stuff of legend. There was no hidden treasure, though plenty of souvenir shops at the entrance advertised their inventory as such with prices to match. As a result I was not prepared for the absolute size and splendor of this once great city/civilization. Built by the Nabataeans nearly 2,000 years ago, there were homes, temples, shops and crypts of varying size and lavishness that dotted mighty canyon walls. Time and nature had done their best to erase many details, but it did not make the view any less spectacular.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our tour was that Bedouin tribes occupied Petra as recently as 1985, when the Jordanian government finally recognized the city’s potential for tourism. As compensation for moving out, the Bedouin were offered new homes and schools in a nearby location. However, this compromise begs many important questions including why not before, what would’ve happened to these people had they been in a less lucrative parcel of land, and how much better is their standard of living today? I was reminded of Native Americans being relocated to reservations generations ago and the abysmal living conditions they have since endured as a result. Adding to the complexity of this issue is that the Bedouin were also promised exclusive rights to sell goods and services. Could souvenirs and donkey rides up and down the rugged terrain sustain a high standard of living for such a large community? Based on the rather haggard appearance of young children selling various wares I remain skeptical.

Although it was tempting to take a ride on Mr. Michael Jackson, the donkey for a “very good price” I relied upon two legs and three cups of coffee to power me around Petra. Over the course of several hours I literally hiked through history, exploring Nabataean enclaves, perusing well preserved Roman ruins and climbing up a Crusader fortress currently occupied by a platoon of goats. This last location was actually an accident, my fellow Terps thinking we were on the trail to see the supposed home of the prophet Aaron and a monastery built there centuries ago to commemorate the site. Fortunately the view of Petra from high above was worth the climb, intended or not. Our detour also proved the city still offered unscripted surprises in spite of its creeping commercialization. Whereas most tourist sites in the United States clearly delineate points of interest as well as boundaries there were few official signs and/or instructions to follow in Petra. This might frustrate the average Western tourist (of which there were many), but the overall lack of organization also served as a reminder that a little bit of chaos in an otherwise regimented existence can be a healthy experience, and in some cases a beautiful one.

With the help of a friendly tour guide (he merely pointed in the right direction) and a smattering of souvenir tents along the proper trail, each cleverly offering tea and the lowest prices, I and a few lucky others managed to reach the monastery. Once again we were rewarded with a spectacular view as well as the largest single structure in Petra, a former crypt with a façade measuring 40×40 meters. If the measurements fail to capture its overwhelming size hopefully my picture will, because that little dot at the base is me.

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Following the tour of Petra our group ventured into the desert. We took “jeeps,” which were converted pickup trucks with benches in the back deep into the sands and cliffs of Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Words cannot capture the immensity and beauty of the locale. Every angle was a scenic view (see below), but in order to get the most from the experience we made three stops: one to discuss the topography and geology of the region, one to admire ancient wall paintings by Bedouin nomads and one to learn about desert culture. Surprisingly the desert was teeming with life, but it consisted mostly of salesmen. At two of the three stops you could purchase a keepsake and/or rent a camel ride, but instead of being annoyed by this seeming intrusion I empathized with the workers. Apparently most of the population is under the age of 30, so there are few opportunities for employment beyond the tourism industry and more so in the most rural parts of the country. As a result many young men and women, including the ones who did well in school have little recourse other than catering to the whims of tourists, which I was for the day. I had to face the fact that they were not the interloper; I was. At the same time I wondered what residents of this area might do if not for the tourist industry. Wasn’t I helping the local economy? How might an NGO improve the region? If so, then in what way? Even if the natural beauty of the land is the most obvious and easiest commodity to capitalize on perhaps there are ways to do it that cause less harm to the environment and/or do more to assist the local community. Clearly the relationship between tourism and local residents remains a complicated one I will have to reevaluate later… which brings me to dancing.

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Our day away from NGOs and non-profits concluded with “camping” in the desert, which consisted of large tents with beds, running water and electricity for most of the night. During our desert drive we saw many similar camps nestled into cliff bases waiting to be filled by a flurry of tourists in the spring, but for the moment they were barren. We enjoyed tea and a lovely dinner followed by dancing with our camp hosts. We learned both traditional and modern dances, and were given the opportunity to show off our new moves. I did not receive a marriage proposal, thankfully, but many in the group did.

The day as a whole was spectacular and ending it surrounded by miles of sand and cliffs lit by a full moon made the evening truly memorable. Yet as with many moments during our academic voyage my experience was bittersweet. I relished the beauty of the land and the graciousness of our Jordanian hosts, but I could not help recognize that behind this thin veil of humanity resides a vulnerable economy and perhaps a culture as well.

–Mark R.

Complex Borders

A few days ago our group said goodbye to Israel and crossed the Jordan. While this may seem like a simple transition, our recent NGO visits and discussions regarding the intersecting socio-political, economic, and cultural tensions between Israel, Jordan, and surrounding territories–particularly the ongoing immigration struggles between the Israeli government and African asylum seekers–made this leg of our journey more nuanced and complex.
 
As our tour bus pulled up to the Jordanian checkpoint in the Negev, I thought about Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” which describes the relationship between two neighbors as they construct and maintain a wall (literal and figurative) that serves to separate their respective properties and lives. I thought about the fact that although Israel and Jordan are physical neighbors–sharing not only land, but resources, peoples, histories, and cultures–the process of crossing cover, perpetuates and intensifies divisions that make these neighboring countries appear worlds apart.
 
Additionally, our group trip to the Red Canyons of the Negev desert exposed the literal divides that exist between Israel and bordering territories. The barbed wire fences and guarded checkpoint were a visual reminder that peace and the ideals of an inclusionary democracy are tenuous and paradoxical processes in the Middle East. These and other thoughts occupied my mind as my passport was stamped and I was waived into Jordanian territory. Similar to Israel, I imagine that our tour of Jordan will present new perspectives and challenges on the peace process, the meaning of philanthropy, and the roles and interventions of NGO leadership.
 
As we continue our journey, the closing line of Frost’s’ “Mending Wall” resonates as question in my mind that aims to address universal struggles for peace and progress and strategize solutions that allow humankind to reach across divides and realize a true spirit of global philanthropy and peace: Do good fences really make good neighbors?

 –T’Sey-Haye P.