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From Suits to Boots–A Recap of the Habitat for Humanity Jordan Build

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What An Awesome Team!

Habitat for Humanity Global Village teams come from all backgrounds.  We were very fortunate to assemble such a unique team for the Jordan build, including 13 members from seven countries, with seven men and six women.  Six members had participated on builds before, with seven members brand new to the GV experience.  It’s uncommon to have so many new members on one team.

We also had the pleasure of having four members who were ages 16-21 (Niklas, Kateri, Suchir, and Veronica).  What a great experience for them, and I’m impressed by their desire to give back at such a young age!  What a rare quality today.

Team members of the Habitat for Humanity Jordan build pose at the worksite with the family. Team members cam from seven countries.

Team members of the Habitat for Humanity Jordan build pose at the worksite with the family. Team members came from seven countries.

On the second day of the build, Steve celebrated his 57th birthday, and I appreciate his selflessness in sacrificing his special day to give back to others less fortunate.  We made the day as special as we could for him, first with Twinkies at lunch, followed by a large cake — complete with candles — after dinner at the home of a local family.  They sang “Happy Birthday” for him in their best English, which made the day even more special.

I was also happy to have Aparna on the team.  She is the mother of 16 year old Suchir, and per Habitat policy on minors, a parent had to accompany him.  She made a great sacrifice to be there, having to not only take time off work, but also pay the volunteer fee and airfare.  She made the sacrifice for Suchir, but I knew in the months leading up to the build that she’d quickly catch the contagious enthusiasm of participating on a GV build, and that’s exactly what happened.  They both are already planning their next build.  She was a hard worker and kept us all laughing with her charm and wit!

Immersed in the Culture…

One thing that Habitat for Humanity stresses on any GV build is cultural immersion.  These trips are about more than just building houses.  Habitat wants their volunteers to come away having learned something about the country and people they went to help.

Cultural excursions may include anything from museum visits to seeing the major tourists sites in a country to extended interactions with the local people.  In Jordan, we had what I consider to be the best experience when it comes to learning about the people, cultures, and traditions of a country:  We spent each evening in the home of a different local family, where they hosted us for dinner.

Imagine as we were graciously invited in to the home of a family each night after having worked all day.  As a team, we were tired from working, as well as hungry.  We would take a 15-20 minute walk from our guest house each night to a home in the community, where we were greeted with genuine and sincere smiles from the families upon our arrival.  We would remove our shoes and take our places on mats on the floor.  Sometimes we ate dinner inside the house, and other times we were outside in a courtyard.  The children and/or women of the house would serve us hot tea while they finished preparing the meal.

Eating dinner in a Jordanian home, outside in the courtyard under a grape vine.

Eating dinner in a Jordanian home, outside in the courtyard under a grape vine.

They served us more food than we could even possibly imagine finishing.  We hated to turn away third and fourth helpings, but we just couldn’t eat any more.  Food was served in several small dishes on the floor, along with giant platters of chicken, lamb, and rice with yogurt.  Oh, and lots of flat breads.  We would tear off pieces of the flat bread and dip it in the various other small dishes.  In many parts of the world, food and dining together are significant parts of showing hospitality, and meals can last for hours.  It was certainly no different in Jordan as we were treated to traditional Arab hospitality.

Food, food, food. And more food.

Food, food, food. And more food.

Another significant and interesting part of each evening’s meal is that we as a team had the opportunity to ask the homeowners anything we wanted.  Mohammed, our Habitat for Humanity host coordinator, would translate for us.  These Q & A sessions started out a little slow, but eventually gained momentum as we became more comfortable.  Topics ranged from family life, culture, religion, and — yes — politics.  These were free and open exchanges that remained respectful and cordial, and the homeowners had questions for the team as well.  You can see and hear stories about the Middle East in the news, but sitting in the home of an Arab family and having an open dialogue will give you a perspective found no where else.  I was especially grateful that our young team members could experience this.

One evening we were hosted in the home of a man with two wives (yes, both were present and both served us dinner) and 16 children.  We talked about how marriages are arranged in the Middle East, and they had questions for us about our marriage traditions.  Since we had team members from so many countries, we all got a chance to learn about how things are done around the world.

Aside from the delicious dinners each night, we drank more tea in a week than the Queen of England does in a year.  Several times a day while we were working, ladies from the community would bring us hot tea — a sweet, minty, hot tea.  It was actually very refreshing, even while working.  And of course, we had tea at lunch and dinner.  And in case we were still lacking in the tea department, we were randomly invited in for tea at various times and places.

Tea, tea, and more tea. We drank tea at least seven times a day.

Tea, tea, and more tea. We drank tea at least seven times a day.

One day after lunch, we visited the home of the parents of the family for whom we were building, and were served tea.  And one day we visited a local bakery, and after leaving there we went across the street to a home for tea.  We sat on the balcony for almost an hour, just enjoying tea and conversation.

The meals in the homes of locals in the community continued to be a topic of conversation throughout the week, and I’m sure will be remembered as one of the major highlights of the week.

Team Member Spotlight…

With such an awesome and unique team as I was fortunate to have led, it’s difficult for me to pick out just one team member on whom to focus.  We had two members who were completing their fifth builds each (Phil and Laura), four members 21 and under, and one member who just a year prior to the Jordan build was on his way to do a build in Nepal when he became very, very ill during a layover in Istanbul, having to return to the States and take it easy, per his doctor’s orders.  So the Jordan build was an opportunity for him to complete his personal goal of participating on a GV build.

Suchir, age 16, and his mother Aparna participate on a Habitat for Humanity build in Jordan.

Suchir, age 16, and his mother Aparna participate on a Habitat for Humanity build in Jordan.

But I think that all my team mates would agree that if there was one special member of the team, it would be Suchir Govindarajan.  Suchir is just 16 years old, and this build was something that he had a burning desire to complete.  He is one of those really, really smart kids, wise way beyond his years, multilingual and well-traveled.  He approached his parents last spring about wanting to go to Jordan:  “Hey, mom and dad, I know I’m only 16, but I want to go to the middle east this summer and build houses.”  You can imagine the response he got!  But after several weeks of research about Jordan and Habitat for Humanity, and having spoken with me several times, they decided he could go, with just one condition:  Per Habitat policy on minors, he would have to have a parent accompany him.  His mother, Aparna, made the sacrifice (time off work, expenses) to go with him.

Suchir was one of those team members that I never had to ask to do anything.  He was always keeping himself busy, and if he was given a task, he completed it efficiently and properly.  He did have one complaint, however:  He was upset that we didn’t work all day, every day, and that this was such a “short” build!  How many teenagers complain about not having enough work?

He is one of those volunteers that I hope joins every build I lead.  He was a joy to work with and supervise, and I also enjoyed getting to know Aparna better.  He and his family are already planning their next GV builds with Habitat for Humanity.  If Suchir can do it, so can you!

A Big Thanks to Mohammed!

Mohammed Mawlaki is the Habitat for Humanity coordinator in Jordan (he works for Habitat Jordan, the  affiliate for Habitat for Humanity International).  In the months leading up to the build, he was my “point man” in Jordan, and I have to say that this trip would not have been anywhere near the success it was if it was not for him.  We communicated for weeks via email, coordinating all aspects of what it takes to coordinate a build:  itineraries, special dietary needs of the team members, cultural activities, housing, transportation…the list goes on.

A big thanks to Mohammed, the Host Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Jordan.

A big thanks to Mohammed, the Host Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Jordan.

Once the team assembled for the official start of the build, my fellow team mates realized why I was so impressed by Mohammed.  He stayed with us at our guest house (our accommodations for the week), was our translator, and participated on the build as well.  Mohammed is a Jordanian citizen, as well as a Muslim, and he practiced his religion throughout the week.  But he also went way out of his way to ensure that we, as Westerners, were comfortable in our surroundings.  While we had certain cultural traditions that we had to recognize, he was always concerned that we were comfortable.  I could use the entire contents of this post praising him and still not convey just how great of a person he is.  Suffice it to say that the Habitat operations in Jordan would not be anywhere nearly as successful as they are if it were not for Mohammed.  I am truly honored to call him a friend!

The Family Profile

Families who receive homes through Habitat for Humanity are known as “partner families.”  There is a careful selection process, and those chosen must contribute at least 500 hours of “sweat equity.” So that means that the family for whom we built worked alongside us.  Families must also take financial management, budgeting, and household management classes, and they also have to make some financial contribution towards the building.  So families are not just “given” houses.  Rather, Habitat for Humanity gives families the tools and resources to lift themselves out of poverty.

The wife of the family for whom we built serves us tea and Turkish coffee.

The mother in the family for whom we built serves us tea and Turkish coffee.

The family we built for consisted of a husband and wife with four children — three girls and one boy, ages two to eight.  The husband, Siaf Abd Allah Al Qedah, is 40 years old and served in the Jordanian army, and his wife’s name is Shadiah Shaheen, 25, and she is a stay-at-home mom.  The family currently lives with Siaf’s parents, as well as his brother and his wife, and his sister.  There are a total of 11 people in one house.  The family currently has a monthly income of about 340 Jordanian Dinars ($500 USD).  They will contribute $106 USD per month towards their new house.  It’s been proven that safe, secure, and stable shelter contributes to a family’s financial independence as well as a child’s education.  There was much more to this project than “going to Jordan to build a house.” We as a team, along with the donors towards this project, helped establish a long term solution towards breaking the cycle of poverty housing.

Other Highlights of the Week

There is so much to remember about our time in Jordan.  One thing I think we were all surprised about is just how friendly the Jordanian people are.  I’m not just talking about those with whom we interacted on the build or our nightly hosts for dinner.  But overall, we found shopkeepers and total strangers to be so helpful and wanting to engage in conversation.  Anything we needed, there was someone willing to help.  When I was on the plane from Abu Dhabi to Amman, I met Asad, a 28 year old Jordanian who is working on his Ph.D. in England.  He was returning home for a month on holiday.  When we landed, he made sure I found my way through the airport and customs, then he opened his wallet and gave me all the small Jordanian Dinar bills he had—13 in total, about $17 USD.  He also gave me his phone number and told me to call if we needed anything at all.  On our last day in Jordan, we had several hours to kill before catching our flights.  I called Asad and he invited us to his home, where we met his family and had —guess what— tea!!  Then he drove us around and showed us a couple of mosques.  His family didn’t speak any English, and we were complete strangers, but they made sure we were happy.

The old part of Amman.

The old part of Amman.

During the build week, several of us slept on the roof top terrace of our guesthouse.  It was so peaceful to sleep under the stars, with a slight breeze blowing, reflecting on our time in Jordan.  In the distance we could hear wolves.  Most of us didn’t get to to bed until midnight or after, but it didn’t take long to fall asleep.

Sleeping on the rooftop terrace in Jordan.

Sleeping on the rooftop terrace in Jordan.

We were awakened each morning by the call to prayer from the nearby mosque.  The call to prayers are live, not recorded, and the first one is at 4:15 a.m.  Several people slept through the call or went right back to sleep.  For me, it was a great time to get up and take care of some team leader administrative details and answer emails back in the United States (since it was just 8:15 p.m. on the east coast).

Security:  For months leading up to the build there were concerns about safety.  We found Jordan to be a completely safe place and a far cry from what you see in the media.  Sure, all travel has risks, but overall, Jordan is a safe and wonderful country, and it’s a place I will be sure to visit in the future.

Sightseeing:  Almost everyone on the team arrived a few days early or stayed a few days late to do some sightseeing.  We were able to visit Petra, the Dead Sea, the River Jordan, Jerash, and the old city of Amman.  If you’re a history buff, then Jordan is someplace you don’t want to miss.  The Friday before the build, five of us went to Petra.  On the way we stopped in the middle of the desert and talked to a Bedouin camel herder.  While there, two of his camels ran off, so we helped herd (chase) them back.  The second weekend of the build, some of us went to the Dead Sea and the traditional baptism site of Jesus at the River Jordan.  The river is not very wide (4-5 meters, max), with Jordan on one side and Israel on the other.  Armed soldiers from the respective countries guard the site.  A protestor decided to start something with the Israeli soldiers, who then taunted him, so then the Jordanian soldiers made everyone leave.

Thank You to Everyone!

As the team leader, I would like to thank everyone involved in this project.  There are so many people that make these builds successful.

Of course, it goes without saying that I appreciate each and every team member for sacrificing their time to be a part of this build and give a less fortunate family a better future.  Everyone brought a unique talent and contribution to the table, and I sincerely enjoyed working with and getting to know each of you in the months leading up to, and during, the build.

Laura (from Canada) passes a bucket of mortar down the line to Andrea (from the UK).

Laura (from Canada) passes a bucket of mortar down the line to Andrea (from the UK).

But I think that I also owe a special debt of gratitude to the volunteers’ families for supporting them in their endeavor.  Going to the Middle East certainly solicited a lot of cautionary words of wisdom, and I think it’s very important to have the families on board, and not just the volunteer.  If that support is not there, then the volunteer misses out on an overall complete experience.  This is one of the reasons why I, as a team leader, spent so much time taking phone calls and answering emails from family members.

One other group is certainly owed a special thanks, and that is the people who donated to this project.  Each volunteer had to raise $1,800 USD to cover project costs, food, in-country transportation, accommodations, and several other ancillary costs.  We raised about $30,000 USD for this project, and there were dozens of people who donated $25, $50, and $75 to various team members, and it’s the support of these people that make it possible for us to complete these builds.  Donors are the unsung heroes of the GV program.  We, as volunteers, get all the credit for “doing the work,” but I routinely reviewed the financial reports of the donations and still think about those who made it possible, so again, I thank every donor for their participation.

Finally, I appreciate the GV staff at Habitat for Humanity International headquarters.  Chealsea Cromer, my Engagement Specialist (my main contact at Habitat), worked with me as we finalized plans and coordinated recruiting, went over budgets, pre- and post-trip briefings, etc.  Chealsea is the Coordinator for Africa and the Middle East, and I look forward to working with her on my future builds in Africa in 2016!

Check out other posts in the Social Justice category, or posts about Habitat for Humanity in the Global Village category.

© 2022 Shane Werle