I recently returned from my first trip to Jordan, where the Empowerment Institute (EI), for which I serve as co-founder, is working in partnership with the Jordan River Foundation (JRF) to further the empowerment of women.
Arriving back home in New York just one day before the attacks on Paris, I have since been struck by the dramatic polar opposites of the unconditional hospitality extended in Jordan, and the unfathomable acts of violence committed by ISIS. Jordan and my JRF colleagues offer not only an antidote to the tragedy in Paris, but also a timely lesson for our world.
One year prior to my trip to Amman, at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), I heard President Clinton implore those of us working in Jordan--whether grassroots, government, or business organizations--to increase our efforts in supporting Jordan, where 1.4 of the four million Syrian refugees are now living. Following President Clinton's impassioned words, both King Abdullah and Queen Rania spoke eloquently about the strain of the refugee situation on their country's economy, schools, hospitals, and other public services, as well as about the growing tensions between the host communities and the refugees. A year after the CGI meeting, and just one month before I left for Jordan, Queen Rania said this at the Women in the World Summit in London:
"Help and hope are in short supply. The refugees now comprise 20 percent of Jordan's population, and a full 25 percent of our budget goes toward the cost of hosting these refugees. Jordan is not a rich country; it's not like the countries in the Gulf. The magnitude of this crisis has overwhelmed our ability to cope."
So here I was in Amman to strengthen EI's partnership with Jordan River Foundation, which was committed not only to the refugee population, but also as a leading NGO working toward child safety and empowering communities by engaging Jordanians to realize their full potential and overcome social challenges. Chaired by Queen Rania, JRF was bustling with purpose and a dedicated staff. I was mightily impressed as I observed their different initiatives, including the impact of EI's work to empower women.
From my indomitable JRF colleagues I quickly learned that since the dawn of civilization the Kingdom of Jordan has been a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. Sitting at the exact crossroads of the Middle East, Jordan is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and east, Iraq to the northeast, Syria to the north, and Israel and Palestine to the west. Considered the safest country in the Middle East, the Kingdom has welcomed many waves of refugees, including an estimated two million Palestinians, thousands of Iraqis, and now the one and a half million Syrians.
I asked the same questions not only to my JRF colleagues, but to drivers, translators, shopkeepers, and waiters in restaurants: How can Jordan keep on taking more refugees? What is going to happen to this country? Some of those I queried were themselves Syrians or Palestinians who have settled in Jordan, and others were Jordanians. None of those I talked with had easy answers for the current crisis, and all spoke of the tremendous strain on the social systems when a quarter of the country's budget is being spent on refugees. But underneath their pragmatic considerations there was a distinct philosophical theme. Hospitality is a way of life in Jordan, a sacred contract.
The roots of this sacred law of hospitality are explored in Jordanian Director Naji Abu Nowar's current award-winning film, Theeb. Nowar probes the Bedouin principle of dakheel: If a stranger arrives at your tent requesting refuge, it is your duty to grant this person protection until the threat can be peacefully resolved--even if your guest has killed a member of the host's family. In Bedouin culture, one's reputation is defined by what he or she does in such difficult circumstances, and someone with the strength of character to endure such an ordeal is called a theeb, meaning "wolf." Four decades ago, at the end of my Peace Corps service in West Africa, I experienced this Bedouin hospitality when I crossed the Sahara with Tuareg nomads on their camel caravan. I was the only foreigner, and the big-hearted generosity of the Tuareg was forever imprinted in my psyche.
In a recent interview in the Jordan Times also broadcast by the Euronews channel, HM King Abdullah said, "The crisis in Syria must be dealt with from a holistic perspective . . . . We have to be very careful because different countries that are involved in this Syria puzzle have their different views, and I think . . . standing on a soapbox and taking strong positions at this stage is not helpful . . . . We have to put the global differences aside. We need the rest of the world to work with us in this direction." Here is the modern version of the ancient edict of hospitality, and here is HM King Abdullah as a theeb.
Throughout my time in Jordan we gave away small pins of the globe with the word Imagine inscribed across blue and green planet. Imagine is the name of EI's women's empowerment initiative. I shall never forget the scores of dignified Syrian refugee women in colorful headscarves carefully pinning the small globe onto their long robes as my JRF colleagues translated the words of John Lennon's song into Arabic.
Imagine there's no heaven It's easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people Living for today...
Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will be as one
The citizens of Jordan already understand these words and are doing all they can to put these difficult principles into action. Now it's time for the rest of the world to take a lesson from Jordan's legendary hospitality.