Camel Races and Smiling Faces

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

-Iain S. Thomas


As we bumped along discreet sandy roads over camel tracks and random brush, we talked about traditions, values, and Syrian refugees.

Mohammad explained that our visit to Wadi Rum would be auspicious, “Tomorrow, for the first time in a decade, there will be a traditional camel race here!”

My friend Chris and I laughed and asked him to tell us more.

“When Wadi Rum became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they banned camel racing because it hurts the dunes and plants. I agree that we should protect nature, but tomorrow we will have a race, because it is our culture and we do these things to keep our traditions alive.”

Mohammad is a quiet guy and shares his values by example more than words. His camp out in the dunes is devoid of the trash characteristic of most tourist spots in Jordan; the place leaves a tiny footprint on the nature it occupies. He uses solar power, employs family to run the place, serves local food, shuns partying and loud music, and feeds the stray cats.

Abruptly, our bumpy truck ride chat shifted from camel races to Syria.

“Jaala, I saw that you, Larry, and Chris are helping Syrian refugees. How can my village help with this? Do the children need second hand clothes for winter?”

Taken by surprise at the turn in the conversation, I asked him how he knew about the school.

Mohammad smiled, “I saw your photo on Facebook. I can’t look away when I see children suffering. I want to speak at Friday prayers at my mosque and ask the village to collect clothes for these children. We can even deliver them to the North.”

Be still my heart.

Let me back up a moment and tell you what has happened.

Just a few weeks before that moment, my friend Chris Holt, who was about to visit me in Jordan, sent a message, “I want to raise some money for the Syrian kids at the school you visit. How does $1,000 sound for a goal?”

Though I wasn’t sure people would donate to a cause so far from their lives, I told him to go ahead and we would do our best with what we received.

The rest is history. Over the course of one month, we raised over $8,350. The “Go Fund Me” campaign was shared 886 times on social media and over 137 people, mostly friends and family from America, donated to the cause.

Much more important than the money raised is that in the face of tragedy, humans rise to the occasion to help those in need no matter how far removed they are from the horror of it all. In the largest displacement of a population since World War II, people share the same view that it is necessary to ease the suffering of those that have fled their homes under dire circumstances. Despite different political views, religious affiliations, countries of origin, and many other dividing forces, we all agree that helping is necessary.

It was freezing the day we delivered supplies and toys to the children. Most of the time I couldn’t feel my toes and fingers, but being with those kids, and their teachers, made me truly happy. Smiles abounded as we distributed supplies, taught lessons, played with, and hugged the kids. Soccer balls were the biggest hit; when we brought them out, studies were shelved as a torrent of children rushed out of the tents to play on the frozen mud.

The giving did not stop with the fundraising campaign.

Just as Mohammad offered clothes from the people in his village; other friends here in Jordan offered helped too. My Arabic language teacher Umayma came with me and Chris to deliver the supplies and toys to the children. She hugged the kids, taught them vocabulary, and cried when we left because “…I am so cold, imagine living here and suffering this everyday…I cannot understand how they have such a terrible life and still laugh, love…I must do more for them…”

Shahira, a friend who coaches at my gym, offered to get desks for the kids so they don’t have to sit on the ground during lessons.

Mohammad, Umayma, Shahira, and hundreds of others saw how the children were living and needed to do something. Chris was the catalyst; his campaign offered people a way to help those who were (and still are) suffering in this small corner of the world.

My friend Conrad summed it up well when he told me that after seeing all of the money we raised, it restored a bit of his faith in humanity. It made him happy to see so many Americans, and others, giving to refugees far removed from their lives at home.

A few days later, after Mohammad proposed his help to the refugees, he offered to make our lives a little sweeter too. The next morning Chris and I watched a traditional camel race from the back of Mohammad’s truck.

Hundreds of jeeps, trucks, and other off-road vehicles sped through the desert. Clinging on for dear life, we followed about 30 camels on a 10 kilometer long race. More than a camel race, it was a rally event; drivers jockeyed for position trying to get closer to the leaders while dodging each other, brush, tire tracks, and school-age drivers. We hooted and hollered and laughed our way into sunrise. Our joy, and the celebratory fire from AK 47’s, echoed off the desert walls.

After the race, Mohammad asked us if we were happy, if we enjoyed life.

For a moment I reflected on his question and thought to myself that the only way it could be better was if my love Larry was physically there. I answered, “It can’t get much better than this.”

I mean, can it?

Our friends had just given thousands of dollars for us to build a school for refugees. Locals were doing what they could to help as well, and we had just seen 30 camels racing through the desert.

When the trip was over, we said our goodbyes and returned to Amman. Since our “Go Fund Me” campaign was still active, and we had been without a great internet connection for a couple of days, we immediately checked our website. Within 48 hours we had raised another $1,300, purely by word of mouth.

Mohammad was right. Not only was our trip to Wadi Rum auspicious, but also our lives.

Never forget, there exists great suffering, great elation, terrible inhumanity, and bright hope in the blink of an eye, everyday. Being awake, knowing that all of this is so, and letting yourself experience and share it all makes us human. Caring for one another, especially in the face of things which we cannot justify or explain is the most righteous and important thing we can do.

In one week, a combination of camel races, smiling faces at the refugee camp, and the giving hearts of my friends and family showed me that amidst all the sadness, there is love.

13 thoughts on “Camel Races and Smiling Faces

    • Hi Marcie, This was a traditional camel race. Traditional ones have jockeys (the camel owners’ sons usually) and are generally long distance. There are also more modern (and controversial ones) where the camels have no jockey and race after an electric smaller animal.

  • Thank you for sharing! Love to see people caring about eachother across cultural borders. How long have you been in Jordan for now? Also, would you be interested in writing a guest post for my blog, Pages of My Passport? I have really enjoyed reading this post and perusing through the rest of your blog. I think you have some great content, and I’d love to help promote it. Please email me at if you are interested. Anyways, best of luck in future travels.

    • Hi Elisabeth, thanks for the comment. I love seeing the outpouring of support for these children too; it warms my heart. I’ll send you an e-mail about writing!

  • It’s so heart-warming to read your post. These experiences really make us realise how fortunate we are, so that we appreciate every moment of our lives more 🙂 And the fundraising campaign was amazing! If possible, could you write a post about what you’ve learned from that campaign so that others can also chalk up to experience?

    • Hi Fiona, thanks for the comment! The campaign was pretty passive, actually. My friend posted a link and put it on his facebook then shared it with other friends. Just by people sharing (with others, then those people sharing it too) we were able to make that much money. I think the key to raising money is the cause. No need to do much more than tell the story if it is compelling enough.

  • A beautiful example of conscious traveling. I enjoyed reading your story and I hope the kids will get more the following year. Well done to you!

  • Enjoyed reading your post and what a lovely adventure. The kids are sweet! Loved that he asked you those questions and wonder how we would all answer. The camel races look like fun too. Glad you had a meaningful visit , take care and happy travels.

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