Humanitarian and Youth Programs


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Religious Youth Service

Salt, Jordan Hosts a Religious Youth Service Project

“Yes, both my parents are Jordanian,” Suleiman said, in Arabic.

The Petra guide who had asked him couldn’t quite figure out who these young people were…. There were young Jordanians singing local Arabic songs with Lebanese and Palestinian friends; Egyptians and Syrians were walking behind them talking to their friends from Ghana, Japan, Pakistan, Scotland and the USA. “R...Y...S is where … you ... learn…,” sang the group. The rhythm was still Arabic, but the words were English now.

They had stopped to visit the ancient Nabatean city of Petra on their way to Wadi Rum, the magnificent desert in southern Jordan. This was almost the end of the project that Religious Youth Service sponsored October 1-12, 2004 in Jordan, and the young people were heading to the desert for a special period of reflection before bidding farewell to each other and returning home.

Ten days earlier everyone had gathered at the King Hussein Youth Center near Salt, not far from Amman. Two days of orientation prepared them for their common tasks. They were going to be painting and cleaning alongside each other, but that was only one part of the task. They were also attempting to produce a model of peaceful cooperation, using the ten days together to build relationships of respect and even love for those from different faiths and cultures.

“How does your culture view manual work?” Kerim, the educational director from Ghana, asked those who had been slaving away alongside him with pickaxe and paintbrush. After a moment’s hesitation, most agreed that such work is generally looked down upon. Yet they felt proud to be doing it with RYS.

This, RYS’s first project in the Middle East, had been arranged in cooperation with Jordan’s Higher Council for Youth. This project had been selected from several proposed by the city of Salt. The work involved clearing the grounds around a disused building and redecorating it so the building could be used as a skills training center for local women and the garden made into a safe play area for their children.

In addition to the manual work, there was a lot of opportunity for learning about each others’ worlds. The rich educational and cultural program included sessions dealing with conflict management styles, handling cultural biases, taking an honest look at their perceptions of each others’ faiths, their vision for RYS, and seeing the strengths of others. Brief morning meditations each day were led by a person of a different faith from among those represented: Muslim, Christian and Unificationist. Cultural activities included visits to numerous sites of interest, including the tombs of Joshua and Shuaib (Jethro); Mt Nebo, where Moses is said to have died; the Dead Sea; and of course Petra and Wadi Rum. But no cultural experience is complete without the food, and the hosts were definitely not going to let them get away without tasting the very best of their dishes. They were treated to Jordan’s mansev, which some dared to eat in the traditional way–with their hands from a common dish; dinner in the desert was harb—lamb roasted under the sand. Some participants had come expecting to lose weight thanks to the hard work, but there’s no chance of that happening in Jordan!

The hosts were exemplary. The city of Salt provided transportation to and from the worksite and supplied all the necessary tools and materials for the work. Council staff assisted throughout the project, and the mayor himself spoke both at the opening banquet and the cultural evening that marked the end of the work portion of the project.

The city’s leadership grasped the value of such volunteer work and were keen to have their own local young people work alongside the RYS volunteers. After the young Jordanians joined in, arrangements were made for the entire RYS group to visit some of their families one evening. It was a special opportunity (particularly for the international participants) to experience first hand the hospitality of Jordanian families, both Christian and Muslim.

After the work portion of the program was completed, a cultural evening was held at the King Hussein Youth Center. The hall was filled with 120 people, including local youth from the city of Salt, families of Jordanian RYS participants, and others who had assisted in the months of preparation and planning leading up to the project. The first speaker, Dr. Sari Hamdan, Secretary General of Jordan’s Higher Council for Youth, spoke about the national strategy for youth and welcomed the RYS. After welcoming words from Engineer Maher Abu-Essamen, mayor of Salt, and David Fraser Harris, who helped make the arrangements for RYS, Senator May Abu Essamen, Secretary General of the Jordanian National Forum for Women, spoke on The Role of Youth in the Socio-economic Development of the Country. Dr. Hamdi Murad, Professor of Comparative Religion at Al Barqa University, and Dr. Odeh Sueiss of the Council of Churches in the Middle East, both addressed the topic of Collaboration of Religion and Society.

These speakers were followed by two RYS participants, Firas Faluji from Syria and Rasha Al Nasr of Jordan, who gave their impressions of the project. Finally, the RYS participants presented their own performances, including a poem in English, a bilingual sketch introducing RYS, a slideshow of their activities, and a spirited song. Local youth provided a singer to round off the evening before dinner, followed by time to meet and talk more informally. Since almost everyone present was an Arabic speaker, the entire evening’s program was conducted in Arabic, with Mr. Qusay Khlaifat, RYS participant, acting as master of ceremonies.

Two evenings later, after returning from Wadi Rum, the graduation dinner was held at a restaurant not far from the youth center. Twenty-one certificates of participation were awarded, and as people realized that their project was coming to an end, many tears were shed. The next day, as international participants headed home, the Jordanian daily newspaper, Al Dustour, published a report on RYS.

The world knows that this is a region where hope is hard to maintain, and the people of Jordan are aware of how much the future of their nation depends upon their young people, who make up 70 percent of the population. Perhaps the Palestinian parents of one Jordanian Christian participant were addressing both concerns when they told the RYS organizers: “When we see what you’re doing, we feel hope.”

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