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Exchange to change

Brooke Lake
Brooke Lake

AMMAN, Jordan — We have all seen them: depressing 30 second clips of starving children with flies crawling over their face, with wide eyes staring at you through the camera with tragic music playing in the background.

Usually there is no narrative to accompany the images of poverty. However, you are left with an immense sense of melancholy and then at the end you are berated with guilt to donate money, time or sympathy towards those nameless faces on the other side of the screen.


Or maybe you have been a part of a volunteer trip where you visited an impoverished situation and gave your time, energy or effort towards fulfilling the needs of those less fortunate. Maybe you spent a couple hours handing out clothes to homeless, snapped a few quality FB photos capturing your act of charity and that was that.

You were the civilized hero extending your hand out to the uncivilized victims in need. Because what could a seemingly dirty, formally uneducated human in a desperate situation ever give you of value in return?

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Ghor al Mazra’a, a community declared as a poverty pocket by the Jordanian government located just south of the Dead Sea.

If I were to be absolutely honest, I can recall a distinct feeling of discomfort as we drove past decrepit looking tents made of cloth and agricultural scraps. These tents, which normally constitute living quarters for a family of six (sometimes more), were surrounded by refuse and a herd of sheep.

These scenes of poverty continued as we moved further into the village and questions started forming in my head. Why do they allow garbage to build up beside their home? How do they make bread or survive without electricity or plumbing? Don’t they want the basic necessities of that of our fellow Jordanian counterparts in cities such as Amman?

I felt a lack of commonality between myself and the scores of people who met our bus as we arrived into town with looks of bewilderment. I suppose that bewilderment was felt by both parties — my group and the locals of Ghor.

I assume if I had simply toured Ghor from the comfort of my bus, and never had a conversation with a citizen of the community that sense of pity and confusion would have remained intact.

Thankfully, I was welcomed by Rabee, the founder of the Zikra Initiative, an NGO which hosts city residents who may provide workshops or money for the local community of Ghor in exchange for a trip where the marginalized community may teach them new skills from their traditions and lifestyle.

Founded in 2007, the Zikra Initiative aims to eliminate that ever so common ‘give and take’ dynamic between varying socio-economic classes and instead replaces it with a basic exchange which denotes an ‘equal relationship.’


Not only did I spend my day alongside members of the Ghor community learning about their brilliantly sustainable lifestyle but I also downright enjoyed conversing with the beautiful women who participate in the program.

From Um Omar I learned the traditional way to make bread without electricity as well as the amazingly delicious and healthy qalayet bandoora (tomato pan). Um Atallah showed me how they save the bags used to hold onions and refurbish them into lovely and durable purses using yarn and needle. Additionally the women who are a part of the Zikra Initiative taught me how to make my own khool (organic eyeliner).

The people of Ghor practice simple yet innovative methods of sustainability such as keeping the leftover bread and tomato scraps from cooking to feed the goats. Water used to wash dishes and hands are then employed for watering plans and crops.

We danced to dabka, shared a meal, laughed, had conversation about religion and life and started a friendship. Um Omar even extended a warm invitation for me to return so I can perfect my bread making skills and learn more about the sustainability which is integral to her way of life.

I think it is safe to say that between both parties there was an equal exchange of respect and value of lifestyles. I look forward to assimilating these sustainable practices in my every day and share these lessons with my friends back in Amman and also the United States.

The community of Ghor of Mazra’a may seem poor in regards to financial resources, but it is rich in tradition, history and splendor. I appreciate the NGO in its effort to highlight the strengths of the Ghor community in order to work their way out of poverty.

Brooke Lake is an international and arabic studies major. She studied abroad in Meknes, Morocco and currently studies abroad in Jordan. She can be reached at

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