Marcela Garcia is not ready to talk yet. But at the same time she wants to. Her recent trip to Jordan left her reeling with unanticipated emotions from the surprising experiences she had with people she met on her visit. It has proven to be a life-changing experience.
Before her departure, Marcela, a behavioral therapist and Masters Candidate in Special Education, described herself as someone who “lives in the moment, and in the seat of my pants.” She enjoys traveling and speaking with people about their dreams and aspirations. To date, Marcela has lived in Japan for a year and has done some international traveling. None of her trips have taken her to the Middle East, and none were volunteer-based. Until now.
Last month, Marcela joined six other Americans for a ten-day trip to Jordan through America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) to build homes in the village of Salt. AUA aims to improve America’s relationship with the Muslim world by providing opportunities for private American citizens to volunteer in Muslim-majority countries, from Indonesia to Morocco, on various development projects in areas such as education, health, human rights, and economic development.
AUA’s recent trip to Jordan was entitled Build Peace by Building Homes. Together with Habitat for Humanity, AUA ambassadors built homes for Salt’s most deserving families.
Before her departure to Jordan, Marcela shared her motivations for volunteering, “I went on this trip because I always wanted to volunteer and the opportunity never presented itself. I knew one of the organizers and I felt that this was the best time to go. I have always wanted to help build a house for others.”
After a whirlwind ten days, Marcela found herself crying in her hotel room the night before the flight back to the United States: “I came back feeling sad – very sad. While packing in Amman – I just started crying, I was not ready to leave.”
Marcela’s eyes were opened on this trip. She came away wishing she could have done more for the people she met in Salt, particularly on behavioral therapy issues, her area of expertise. After experiencing first hand the positive impact on both volunteers and recipients, Marcel’s goal is now to find a way to continue helping and volunteering.
“I am still processing it all, I was not expecting this sadness,” Marcela said the day after she returned on Sunday June 3, 2012. “I could not have been so wrong about my impressions about everything going into it, the people were so amazing!”
Like many of the organization’s ambassadors, Marcela did not have much exposure to the Arab world or generally know many Muslims or Arabs before the trip. “The trip exceeded my expectations. Anything I knew about Muslims or Arabs was from the media or from people around me and it was so way off! I thought they would treat me ‘badly’- but they appreciated that I was different – there was so much love, we did not know what to do with it!”
While in Salt, Marcela and the AUA team spent their days helping a family build a second story on their home. In the evenings, they would field invitation after invitation to people’s homes. They were repeatedly offered tea, food, sweets and given gifts. “The people were always feeding us and they treated us like family but we are nothing like them,” said an awed Marcela, “The hospitality and love and care were amazing. Every day brought more than we could take and every night we could only anticipate what the next day would bring.”
During her visit, Marcela was able to meet with a number of village women, as well as with several female university students. She joked about how they were “happy in their relationships,” unlike most women. “For me, being around the women was the most exciting part of the trip. We talked about everything – women of all ages, in all jobs, because they have so much to contribute to society and their families. They are articulate, intelligent and powerful.”
Before coming to Jordan, Marcela had viewed women in the Middle East as oppressed silent women: “I thought they did not work and that they just stayed home and had kids and wore the scarf, boy was I wrong. I am so glad I was wrong.” When men were not around, Marcela was shocked to see the women take off their headscarves and dress as they wanted: “I was so surprised to see them in short dresses and laughing and happy and talking about the same things we do here.”
To Marcela, the biggest surprise was witnessing family dynamics in the village. “The women have all the power in the home,” Marcela observed. In Amman, she saw how “so many women in Jordan are educated and worked.” While Marcela had originally thought the veil was an imposition, a way to “strip [women] of their freedom,” she “learned that it was their choice. They chose to wear the hijab. One girl explained how she opted to wear it but her sister did not. It was true, in the same household, two sisters with different approaches to clothes.”
For Marcela, learning more about Arab and Muslim women helped build a bridge of understanding. She experienced firsthand the open-minded and non-judgmental nature of these people. “I was nervous that they would judge me and my way of life, instead they wanted to know about it and did not think I was a ‘bad person’ at all,” Marcela said giggling.
For Marcela, the trip very much exceeded her expectations and she admits to having learned so much about a people and culture she did not even know existed. “I was so wrong about everything – so wrong. It is great to have friends there now and I am looking forward to making more Muslim friends here in the US because they are truly wonderful people,” she said.
She concluded by saying that her “message to people is that Muslims are amazing and loving people – and that we should not allow what they believe in to get in the way of accepting them,” she added matter of factly, “And I want to tell people that the women are amazing!”
* Sarah is a communications consultant for America’s Unofficial Ambassadors. Of Algerian origin, Sarah has lived in Lebanon and traveled all over the Middle East in the past few years.