Fasting and the Firing Line of Life: Turning Tents into a School for Syrian Refugees

Last week I started a fast. For five days I wouldn’t eat anything; I’d only drink water, herbal tea, and a concoction made from fresh-squeezed lemons, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. My goal was three-fold: to give my stomach a rest, to clear my mind, and to re-focus on what is important. Though it is difficult, fasting for me has become a necessary ritual. Living without food raises my awareness of life and reminds me to appreciate all that I have. Though it is always difficult to not eat, I thought this time would be easier. Since school was out, there would be no teachers or children offering milky coffee or sugary sweets. I could just be by myself, think, and write.

Well, yes, but no.

The second morning of the fast, I was heading to the industrial area of Amman to take care of some business. At 9 a.m., just after I had some tea, my driver Mohammed sent a message, “I am here, are you hungry?”

I laughed at the irony.

When I got into the truck, Mohammed hadn’t gotten the memo and asked if I wanted Nescafe to drink…and did I want a croissant with my latte?

In my child-like Arabic, I told him, “Alyoom, ma biddi Nescafe.” “Today, I don’t want Nescafe.”

Of course, Mohammed asked, “Laish?” “Why?”

Not yet armed with vocabulary to explain that I was fasting, I eloquently stated, “Ashan ma biddi sucar.” “Because I don’t want sugar.” Then I blew air into my cheeks and mimicked myself getting fatter to drive home the message. Mohammed laughed and accepted my excuse.

Absent of hot drinks, we careened at high speed through the traffic of Amman, dodging other cars, taxis, a herd of sheep, pedestrians darting this way and that, and a pile of gravel dumped in the middle of the road. I blocked out the chaos and thought about Syrian refugee children and my American friends who had donated thousands of dollars to help them.

It was just about six weeks before this moment that my friend Chris Holt had asked our American friends for money to buy the Syrian refugee children school supplies. He was about to visit me in Jordan and wanted to contribute something to these kids. To our surprise, after just four weeks, almost $9,000.00 had been donated.

With the first $3,000.00 we bought school supplies, toys and soccer balls, a computer, printer, and reference books for the teachers, and a couple of portable heaters to put in the canvas tents where the children were currently attending lessons.

On a freezing December morning, Chris and I packed all of those things into a truck and headed north of Amman to deliver them to the 50 or so children and their teachers.

After an overwhelming morning of hugs, laughs, spending time in the two tent schools with the children, and eating “Zarb” (a chicken and vegetable dish cooked in the ground) with the Syrian refugee teacher and the Jordanian farm manager, Chris and I tried to process the outpouring of generosity and love we had felt that day. I wrote an update on my Facebook page:

December 21, 2016

Where do I begin?

Do I start with the baby refugee? He smelled like fresh rain in the desert; pure happiness. The instant I kissed his cold cheek, he squealed with joy and kicked his mismatched boots right off; my heart burst open.

Or do I begin with the moment Chris Holt decided to start a fundraiser to get this baby and his cousins, siblings, friends, and teachers some much-needed supplies for school?

Do I begin with seeing the first $1,000 come in, and feeling surprised that so many Americans cared deeply about other humans, refugees in a foreign country?

Or do I start with the minute we walked into the tent school and the children shouted, “Good morning teacher!” while kneeling obediently on wet floor mats soaked with last night’s rain. 36 degree temperatures were no match for visitors with gifts!

Do I begin with my American friend telling me that seeing almost $6,000 dollars of donations accrue restored some of his faith in humans, that they do good and care about each other?

Yes, I will begin with all of that.

Because of over 100 friends, family, and even people we don’t know (really!) we were able to give these children some small things that they needed.

Hopefully on our next visit, we will be replacing their tent with a building.

Today I’d buy that building, a school.

But first, Mohammed and I drove in circles around the industrial zone, looking for the construction company. He stopped and asked random people for directions. A dog barked at me then followed us down the street. When we found the place, we parked and Mohammed shooed the pup away as we entered the construction yard.

As soon as we waked in the office door, the manager of the company offered me cookies and coffee.

I sat down and discreetly pretended to drink the coffee; I didn’t want to insult him by not consuming what he offered.

Quickly, we got to the business of buying a building. No one spoke English, so I hobbled along in Arabic hoping that I wasn’t acquiring a metric ton of cement, a herd of sheep, or a truck.

After showing me various models of modular buildings, I chose one with three windows and a door. It was a simple design, 4 meters x 10 meters. Perfect for a one room school.

I gave the manager 1,000 dinar. He shook my hand, thanked me, and said the building should be ready for delivery in 10 days, “Inshallah,” “God willing.” As he signed the receipt, he smiled and placed an unwrapped chocolate bar in my hand. As soon as everyone looked away, I dropped it into my purse.

On our way out, the little doggie who had followed us earlier ran towards me barking happily and wagging his tail. Loving his enthusiasm, I bent over to pet him. Instead of leaning into my hand, he quickly nabbed the chocolate bar from my purse and scooted away without so much as a lick of acknowledgment. At least he wasn’t fasting.

When I got home, I was elated that the process of getting the refugee students a school was one step closer to becoming a reality.

For the next few days, I continued my fast. I was wrong when I assumed this time would be easier. It was harder now because I was concerned with political developments in the United States and wanted to make sure my actions abroad were contributing to a better reality. As I had hoped, hunger gave me the mental clarity I needed to reflect on what was happening around me, and to question my place in it all.

I still didn’t eat, I reflected.

Here in Jordan, I do my best and try to understand others. I make mistakes (yeah I shook a sheikh’s hand, oops) and learn from them. I lazily study Arabic and entertain my teacher with poor reading skills. I open my heart and make friends too. I train teachers, some of whom are refugees. I coach at a CrossFit gym on the westside of Amman where people don’t worry so much about hunger and strife, they are just hard-working humans who love fitness, their family and friends, and life. Sometimes I go to the refugee camp close to the southern Syrian border and give the kids hugs and the teachers advice. On occasion I speak with Iraqi refugees about politics or philosophy and why our lives are, as they are. I sit with my friend Emily and chat about cultural differences and how to better communicate with our Jordanian counterparts and friends.

Everyday I talk to Larry about everything, and miss him, for he is also doing the work of building nations and learning about other cultures, but in another country. When he is here, we take pictures, travel, climb rocks, write about it all, and love each other fiercely.

Upon reflection, I understood that I have come to the right place at this point in time.

Two days ago, I received a text from the manager of the farm where the refugee children go to school.

He wrote, “The tent school blew away in the wind, but we re-built it again. The Syrian children ask all the time about Jaala and will she bring us a school?”

I looked at the message and smiled. After a month of ironing out the details, I had just put a down payment on a modular building for that school.

I wrote back, “Yes. We are working on it. It should be there in two weeks. Please tell [the children] a school is coming.”

The farm manager wrote back, “Thank you and your friends.”

Later that day, I broke my fast.

I sat quietly savoring the first bites of food I had eaten in five days. I was happy, not only because I was eating, but because I was about to deliver a school to kids who needed it.

I checked my messages and, as if poetic justice sought me out, Chris Holt sent this excerpt from a book he was reading:

“Your job now is to be at the place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others, so never hesitate to go anywhere if you can be helpful. You should not hesitate to visit the most sordid spot on earth on such an errand. Keep on the firing line of life with these motives, and God will keep you unharmed.”

And so I ate and thought, “I am just where I need to be.”

15 thoughts on “Fasting and the Firing Line of Life: Turning Tents into a School for Syrian Refugees

  • This is great article you are amazing person you get back smile on this kids this is so beautiful !
    Keep up the good work and spread smiles on the faces of these innocent children.

    • Thanks so much! The kids are great and love going to school. It’ll be nice to have a warm building to attend those lessons. Can’t wait to see their faces when they walk in for the first time!

  • You are an amazing amazing person! You have given so much to the kids, and the smiles on their faces are so priceless! may it come back to you in overflowing measures!

  • Omg! Thank you for sharing this post . This is very inspirational and I would love to try it! I’m just so scared to go cold turkey and passing out in the middle of the day! But I can’t wait to try!

  • Fasting is a great way to detox our body and clear our minds. You do an amazing job there for those kids and I admire you for the kindness and courage to do that.This is the kind of things I think about lately, but still haven’t figure out yet what should I do and where should I go. And your post helped me to decide to take some fasting days (not more than 3, however).May God bless you!

    • I think that as long as you are doing your best at what lies before you, it is the right thing to do. Helping the world become a better place is as simple as being the best version of yourself that you can be, doing your job to the best of your ability, and treating others how you wish to be treated. Living a life with good intentions makes a difference.

    • I work with a nutritionist to advise me on what is best for my body, so if you feel like fasting is a good idea, I’d get professional advice. Certain things work for certain people; every one is different. Good luck!

  • I am always inspired and awed by your projects and tireless involvement in the Jordanian people. Your mission to bring education and facilities to the teachers and children of Jordan is amazing. I read your posts , and my eyes are full of tears when I see the happiness on your face. I remain a proud mom full of love for you and Larry and excited to hear about your life and work in Jordan.

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