Guided by Compassion—Serving the Needy in Jordan

How do they find impoverished Bedouin people and Syrian refugees scattered across the deserts in Jordan? It’s as if a GPS had been implanted into their heads—wherever needy people are, they find them. They never get lost in the vast expanses of arid desert.

Volunteer Chen Chiou Hwa can always locate needy Bedouin people and Syrian refugees spread across the deserts of Jordan who are receiving aid from Tzu Chi. Huang Xiao-zhe

In 1997, Tzu Chi volunteers began carrying out charity work in Jordan, helping needy people in the country and refugees from the Middle East. After the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011, the local Tzu Chi chapter also began rendering aid to Syrian refugees who had escaped to Jordan. How does a Buddhist organization like Tzu Chi carry out philanthropic work in a Muslim country? Master Cheng Yen’s words serve as a good guidance: “Remove all human-created barriers such as skin color, nationality, and religion, and leave only love in your heart.”

In May of this year, just before and during the month of Ramadan, volunteers in Jordan spent two weeks traveling across the country and distributing aid to over 2,000 families. More than 10,000 people benefited from their efforts. Aid recipients included impoverished Bedouins, Syrian refugees, and other people receiving long-term aid from the foundation. I was on a Tzu Chi delegation from Taiwan that participated in the distributions. From May 1 to 14, we witnessed how our Tzu Chi family in Jordan gave love to the underserved in the country which some have called “an oasis of peace in the Middle East.”

Much of Jordan is covered by desert. Volunteers in the nation often have to travel through desert terrain to visit the needy. Oftentimes, there are no road signs to guide them. Despite that, Chen Chiou Hwa (陳秋華), the head of Tzu Chi Jordan, seemed to have a GPS implanted in his head and is always able to locate the Bedouin people and Syrian refugees who are receiving aid from Tzu Chi spread across the deserts. He has never been known to lose his way.

On May 2, we traveled south from Amman, Jordan’s capital, to hold a series of distributions in Al Abasyiah, Al Thaghrah, and Wadi Feynan. In three days, we distributed aid to 250 Bedouin families. The aid included rice, sugar, cooking oil, lentils, tea, dates, date spread, sesame spread, and other essential items.

Volunteers visit single mother Hlala and her family after a distribution. Sitting in an open shelter and sipping Arabic style coffee and black tea served by Hlala’s children, the volunteers enjoyed the warm hospitality of the Bedouin people.

A cup of tea

Tzu Chi Jordan’s connection with Wadi Feynan started in 2002. That year, Princess Sumaya bint Hassan of Jordan, the daughter of Prince El Hassan bin Talal, visited the poor in the region. When she returned home from the trip, she phoned Chen Chiou Hwa, crying as she said, “People there are so poor! Could you go there and take a look? I’ll ask my driver to take you there.” A couple of days later, Chen and a fellow volunteer, Abu Thomas, went to Wadi Feynan as requested by the princess and saw for themselves the hard lives people there were leading. That’s how Tzu Chi began helping people in the area.

I met Fatima at the distribution held at a school in Wadi Feynan on May 4. She was garbed in black from head to toes, showing only her eyes. People had told me I couldn’t photograph Muslim women, so even though I was very curious about her, I lowered my camera.

Fatima nodded at me, her eyes showing goodwill. Then she turned around, facing away from the square, and indicated that I could photograph her from the front. I understood her meaning; she was telling me that as long as the men in her family didn’t see it, it was okay for me to take pictures of her. After I had photographed her, we started talking, she in Arabic and me in Mandarin Chinese. Along with our body language, we seemed to communicate okay. We agreed that I would escort her home after she had received her aid supplies.

Tzu Chi conducted a distribution in Wadi Feynan on May 4, benefiting 155 families.

Fatima received 25 kgs (55 pounds) of goods. I walked over to her and took some of the goods from her to ease her burden. Then we headed together towards her home. When we arrived, a goat approached her and bit into a plastic bag containing some of the supplies. Fatima hit the goat with her hand, as if she was disciplining a naughty child in her family. Then she flashed a shy smile at me.

Walking into her tent, I looked around and wondered where she was going to store her supplies. There was no furniture, no obvious place to store the goods. In the world where I came from, we put our rice in a rice bin, sugar in a sugar jar, and sesame spread in the refrigerator. In her world, in a tent devoid of any furniture, where to store the goods seemed to be completely irrelevant.

A neighbor came to us and asked if I’d like to have some coffee or tea. I smiled at her, thanking her for her hospitality. Fatima’s “living room,” which was right outside the tent, consisted of four poles covered by some flattened cardboard boxes and dry hay. The boxes were probably from a previous Tzu Chi distribution.

I suddenly remembered what volunteer Chen had told us, that it wasn’t as environmentally unfriendly as we’d think to use plastic bags to contain our relief supplies. The bags would be recycled for new uses by the aid recipients. The villagers, for example, usually put their clothes in the bags and hang them up to protect the garments from dust.

Fatima’s living room was crude and makeshift, but it provided good shelter from the hot sun. She asked me to have a seat there. I had been exposed to the sun all morning, so I found it very cool and comfortable sitting in the open structure. Fatima took out a big cup, rinsed it with a little water, filled it up with water, and carefully handed it to me.

I was so touched at that moment—I knew water was hard to come by in the desert. I took out my water bottle, told her I had brought my own water, and pushed the cup back to her. Only then did she cheerfully drain the cup herself. That must have been her first chance to have any water during the entire morning.

Because of Fatima’s hospitality and generosity, I felt as if a nourishing stream was flowing through my heart.

A child breaks into a bright smile as he carries on his head a bag of rice distributed by Tzu Chi.

Hlala and her children

There were many barefoot children at the distribution site. Born in Taiwan in the 1960s, I was familiar with the sight; children going barefoot were common in the countryside of Taiwan back when I was small. However, the environment in Taiwan was far friendlier to shoeless kids. Here in the desert, I wondered how kids could manage to walk around on hot sand and “foot-unfriendly” gravel without the protection of footwear. I felt like asking the youngsters: “In the desert, with the temperature so high, every piece of rock is hot enough to bake flatbread. If you’re attending school but have no shoes to wear, how can you possibly cross the desert to school?”

Hlala was another aid recipient I met at the distribution. She was a single mother with seven children. Her husband had left her for another woman, leaving her to support their children alone. With such a heavy burden, she had a hard time sending her children to school. Tzu Chi stepped in after learning about the family’s situation.

Aided by scholarships provided by the foundation, Hlalas’s oldest daughter, Tahanai, graduated from college last year and was now happily married. Hlala’s second child, Mohamad, started receiving Tzu Chi scholarships when he was 13. He was in college now. “After I graduate, I’ll come back here and be a teacher,” he said.

A younger brother of theirs was also receiving Tzu Chi scholarships. He had dark skin, deep-set facial features, and wavy hair. If he couldn’t go to school like his sister and brother, he’d be like many other Bedouins in the area, herding animals and roaming the wasteland barefoot. He would probably be here his entire life, unable to climb out of the poverty that had bound generation after generation of his fellow nomad people.

Hlala (middle) has had to bring up seven children on her own. Tzu Chi volunteers help her children go to school. After many years of interaction, she and her children are now like family to the volunteers.

Hlala brought four of her children to help at the distribution. When the event came to an end, several volunteers and I went home with them. Like at Fatima’s place, we were invited to sit in an open shelter. And like at Fatima’s place, I felt the warm hospitality of the Bedouin people. We listened to Chen Chiou Hwa recount his history with the family, as we sipped Arabic style coffee and black tea that Hlala’s children served us.

“I feel like I’m visiting family every time I come here,” Chen said. “We go back a long way. We’ve seen kids in the family grow from little ones to adults over the years.” Chen recalled that when Tahanai first left home to attend college, he asked Hlala, “How much money did you give her?” She said 12 Jordanian dinar (US$17). “Was that for transportation only?” Chen asked again.

“That was for transportation and a week’s meals,” She replied.

“How could she possibly live on so little money?” Chen exclaimed in surprise.

Hlala told him that her daughter even came home with two dinar left. Chen was shocked at the answer. Among his circle of acquaintances, the smallest tip some gave was ten dinar.

When volunteers learned that Tahanai needed a computer, they obtained one for her. Chen and another volunteer, Abeer Aglan M. Madanat, took the computer to her school. When they visited Tahanai in her dormitory, they saw that all she had on her bed was a blanket distributed by Tzu Chi. Her meals each day consisted of flatbread her family had made and tomatoes they had picked.

Tahanai was overjoyed to see Chen and Abeer, saying she would treat them to a meal in a restaurant. Chen said, “Let’s just have some tomatoes here,” but Tahanai retorted, “I have tomatoes every day!” As a result, they finally ended up eating in a restaurant—but Chen insisted on footing the bill. Tahanai ordered the cheapest item on the menu: a sandwich that cost one dinar. “She loved the sandwich,” Chen recalled. “She kept saying to me, ‘This is so delicious!’”

“That was her first time eating in a restaurant,” Chen continued. He said he still vividly remembered the scene that day.

Chen recollected another episode connected to the family. One time he and other volunteers went to visit Wadi Feynan, but their vehicle couldn’t get into the area because of some flooding. “In the end, Hlala, carrying two pots of food, walked five kilometers [3 miles] from her home just to see us,” Chen said.

At this point, Hlala brought out a freshly baked flatbread and served it to us. It had to be at least the size of a washbasin and was big enough for everyone present to share.

My heart was filled with warm feelings, and I felt cheerful. “Ah!…the black tea was so sweet, the coffee so aromatic, and the flatbread so yummy,” I thought to myself, very satisfied.

Volunteers have a fun time with local children at the distribution site in Wadi Feynan.

Two-kilometer-long water pipes

After we said goodbye to Hlala and her family, our vehicle traveled across an area where we could see a long stretch of water pipes installed by Tzu Chi for the local people. The pipes were two kilometers long, bringing water to villagers from a water source located somewhere up in the local mountains. If we followed the pipes, we would return to the school where we had held the distribution. Though the weather was perpetually hot, water ran down the pipes, past Hlala’s home and past the school. Thanks to the pipelines, local villagers could save money from buying water.

Our volunteers in Jordan, despite their small number, have done what they can over the years to aid the underserved. They help children go to school, ease people’s lives by providing them with material supplies, and help refugees receive medical treatment. They don’t just give help one time; they provide long-term support to those in need. They persist at their missions, day after day, year after year. Love and compassion know no bounds. They will continue to bring love and hope to people’s lives.

Children walk across an expanse of desert. Without education, it’d be difficult for them to break free from the cycle of poverty that has trapped generations of local nomad people. Lin Ling-li


September 2019