Reflections from Amman
While searching the shops of downtown Amman for a reasonably priced necklace for my mother, I stumbled upon a silver shop called "Aleppo Gold". I found it unusual that a silver shop would have the word 'gold' in its name, so I decided to check it out. After a bit of browsing and haggling, I mentioned to the shop owner that my mother was Syrian, and her family originally from Aleppo. The owner looked up at me with genuine surprise. He explained that up until recently his shop used to sell gold from Aleppo, but after the start of the civil war in Syria, it became impossible to procure gold from over the border. He switched his trade to selling silver, but kept the old name of the shop. He described the beautiful craftsmanship of the gold necklaces and earrings he used to receive from Aleppo, and hoped that when the war ended he would go back to business as usual. The name of the shop would make sense again.
In July of 2017, I traveled to Amman to participate in the training of medical students from the University of Jordan on interviewing research participants with Samsung tablets. The trained medical students will help the Women ASPIRE project to collect data on the health needs of Syrian refugee women living outside of camps in Jordan. I had joined the ASPIRE team for a visitorship earlier that summer to do some translation on the survey. I had never traveled to the Middle East before, but being half-Syrian in background and pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to travel to Jordan – it was a trip long overdue.
The streets of Amman were filled with life. Everywhere I went I saw amazing food. It felt strange to see all these foods I had grown up with casually strewn throughout the daily life in Amman: ghraibeh butter cookies, kibbeh in its various forms, the famous knafeh, and mountains of rolled grapes leaves. Seeing Pistachio shells discarded in ashtrays (just like my grandparents' house) jolted me with an unusual sense of nostalgia and familiarity – even though I had never been to these places before! I could practically see my grandfather walking the streets in Amman, haggling for foods and textiles.
The local television news stations in Amman surprised me. As I flipped through the channels it became clear that, unlike in the US, the issue of the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis continued to be a big deal in Jordan. At times the refugee crisis dominated the news cycles for extended periods. In the US, many Syrian-Americans feel that the plight of their native land is forgotten, or that world powers just don't care about the Syrian people. In Jordan, a different sentiment exist in that this sort of travesty could happen to anyone, and without warning. Perhaps it is the distance, geographically and culturally, that has made the US grow cold to the plight of the Syrian people. Jordan, bordering Syria's South, has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees since the civil war began and it is widely believed that actual number of Syrian refugees in Jordan far exceeds official estimates.
During my time in Amman, I was floored by the tragedy of the situation. Yet, I was amazed by the compassion and sense of obligation displayed by the Jordanian medical students and their professors. Dr. Maysa’ Khadra, from the University of Jordan, displayed such an inspiring determination and attitude toward alleviating the plight of so many women who had suffered so much. The medical students were the most intelligent, passionate group of students I have ever encountered. Many of these students had visited refugee camps. When they spoke of their opinions on war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis, they revealed a certain level of guilt towards their privilege in having comfortable lives, as their neighbors to the north fled destruction and lived in deteriorating living conditions. Many felt a sense of responsibility, after being exposed to the tragedy and complexity of the refugee situation, to help the refugees coming into their country.
Shortly after returning to the States, my suitcases filled with Baklava and an entire bazaar's worth of spices, I felt a similar sense of responsibility to continue providing assistance and support to Syrian refugees. My time in Amman had been short, but eye-opening. Without a doubt, the work being done by ASPIRE will yield some of the most meaningful positive change for those who have so desperately needed it for so long.
Thaddeus De Caprio
Masters Student of Middle Eastern Studies - City University of New York
Visitorship with ASPIRE