One in every 10 people in Jordan is a refugee, so I knew when my family decided to move back to Jordan that I wanted to get involved in some way to help Iraqis displaced as refugees or victimized by war and conflict.
Jordan has been a part of my life since my early adulthood. My husband is Jordanian, and we lived there between 1998 and 2005. During that time, I ran a number of community development and human rights projects throughout the country. Once we were back in the U.S., though, it was difficult for me to continue my international development work and the travel it entailed after I had my second child. I began studying and making documentary films, and when we returned to Jordan in 2011, I was working on a few documentary projects and also finding time to volunteer at Collateral Repair Project (CRP), an organization that really spoke to me because of its on-the-ground, community-building work with refugees.
During those few years, I worked closely with CRP's founder, who asked me to be on the board of directors, and when she retired in 2013, there was no one in Amman who could fill her role. The board asked me to come on as interim director, and I remember feeling hesitant and completely overwhelmed, thinking, "Oh my gosh, I know this is going to take over my life." There was no other option for the organization at that point, and we couldn't afford to hire anyone for the position, so I went into it with the idea that I could help in some way — even if it was only to ensure that our one employee didn't lose his job and that the 15 families we were providing monthly support to would continue to be taken care of.
Collateral Repair Project's non-profit tax home is in the U.S., but all our operations are in Jordan. Started by two American women activists who were saddened and outraged by the U.S. involvement in Iraq, CRP has been around since 2006. Our mission is to provide assistance for victims of war and conflict and to attempt to restore dignity to them. Prior to coming to Jordan to set up CRP in 2006 — when tens of thousands of Iraqi families fled Iraq — one of the founders had actually been a "human shield" in Iraq. She would seek out civilian victims of U.S. bombings, and, since the U.S. government did not actively provide reparations to these victims — the "collateral damage"— of the war, she would consult with them and raise funds to assist them. So, as you can see, we were very much started as a grassroots effort, and we still are very much about working from the ground up. Our great strengths are our deep knowledge of the community we serve and the great level of trust they have in us. In everything we do, we are in close consultation with them and seek to directly respond to their needs.
Early on, we focused on providing basic needs assistance to vulnerable Iraqi families and our operations were quite small. We have been steadily growing since 2006 and currently have over 5,000 families registered with us who regularly attend our community center activities and receive aid through our emergency assistance program. We serve people in need regardless of nationality, including huge numbers of Syrian refugees, Sudanese, Somali, Yemeni, and impoverished Jordanians. CRP spends the vast majority of our funds on taking care of families' emergency assistance needs. Most people first access us because they are struggling to take care of their basic needs, so our first step in helping them is to provide for these needs. More than anything, we provide families with food vouchers so they can get the food they need throughout the month. It is important to know that nearly all refugees in Jordan are forbidden by law to work. That, of course, makes for a very difficult existence, for not being able to put food on the table. Not being able to feed your family might mean that you take a child out of school to beg on the street or that you struggle with anger management, which makes your family more vulnerable to violence. CRP's approach is to make sure that we identify the most vulnerable families through careful assessment and ensure that they receive help. We have limited funds and it's very important that those funds get to the people who need them most.
By reducing the daily stressor people have of figuring out how they will put food on their tables, we are able to begin helping people with taking care of what they really need — and that's building community and healing from trauma. That's where our community center comes in. Everyone in the refugee community we serve has come to Jordan for safety, to flee the violence they experienced in their home countries. And nearly everyone suffers from trauma, including high numbers of people with associated illnesses like high blood pressure, depression, and even diabetes. Our community center programs offer them a place where they can begin to rebuild the communities they lost, learn new skills, and heal from trauma. Our organizational approach is a holistic one: take care of people's most pressing basic needs and then provide an environment where they can heal and become resilient through community service.
People begin getting involved in our community center activities as volunteer leaders, and it usually doesn't take much time before we begin to see them transform. They start making friends; start learning tools to manage their stress through yoga, support groups, and relaxation techniques; and start giving back to the community by leading trainings and activities. This cycle of empowerment and resilience has been amazing to see in action, because we see people all the time who are not only beginning to heal but also to thrive. Refugees regularly benefit from the activities in which they participate and then also want to give back by volunteering and leading activities themselves to help others. That's really been the strength of our model. We see that even though the future is so uncertain — refugees don't know when or if they will be able to return to their home countries, get resettled to another country, or even eventually be legally able to work in Jordan — people in our community are becoming resilient and empowered through the programs we offer and their own community service.
Community service has been the catalyst behind the widespread resilience we see in our community. So, for example, someone who comes to a support group or English class at CRP might lend his or her skills to leading our after-school kids' activities. Or a woman who participates in our women's leadership training is then provided with facilitation skills so she can begin leading training workshops for other refugee women. A couple of women who just a few years ago were barely coping with their own trauma after fleeing Iraq when ISIS took over their village did just that: began taking women's leadership sessions and are now confident and talented trainers themselves. We see evolutions like this again and again, and it's clear to me that people are receiving something meaningful and useful in participating in activities at our center that empower and transform them.
Often, when people first come to our center, they're despondent and traumatized beyond belief to the extent that they can barely make eye contact. I remember a man I first saw in the center a handful of months ago: his whole body was rigid, and turned in on itself, and it seemed like he had some kind of physical disability. His shoulders were shrugged down and his hands were kind of curled up around his stomach. He wasn't able to speak clearly and it was very difficult to understand what he was saying. Finally, I made out that he was asking me for help, and it was clear that he was struggling. I remember saying to him, "We have our men's support group starting up in about a half an hour. Why don't you check it out?" Fast forward months later and we now see him at our center nearly every day — and he looks like a completely different person. He's now involved in one of our mind/body medicine groups where people learn relaxation techniques, and, honestly, when I see him I'm always struck by how he seems to be lit from within. It's really amazing to see. This man is thriving now, and he tells me that he now has a community of friends who he can talk to who support him. He also says that his stomach troubles have waned and that he barely takes any medication at all anymore for them. I have seen this with so many people at the center, but his story particularly warms my heart.
Even early on when I was just volunteering at CRP it was clear that trauma was everywhere in our community. I would teach English classes where I would be shocked at the things people would just come out with over the course of a conversation class — shocking and heartbreaking stories of violence and trauma they had undergone. In my first months as director, I was overwhelmed by the huge role trauma played in everyone's daily lives, particularly since we ran on such a shoestring budget and had no expertise or funds to help people in a traditional psychological manner. We had to do something, and what we landed on was offering men's and women's yoga classes at the center. We figured that the first step in helping people was to assist them in becoming more aware of what was going on in their bodies. So we tried out yoga to see how people would respond, and we were happily shocked by the great enthusiasm people had for these classes and the manner in which they became interested and adept at their own self-care.
That was a wonderful discovery for us. We've seen how yoga and other programs have helped people begin changing their own lives. We have an inspiring men's support group which runs as a listening circle. Men find great comfort in having this space to connect and reflect. So many programs have been initiated at our center that focus on the mind-body connection, and we are thrilled with the great impact they make on our community. People are desperate for tools to better manage their stress and connect with their own self-care, and these activities are giving them that.
We not only have given our beneficiaries tools for their own self-care and wellness, but we also make a point for our staff to take up these practices. This is especially important since many of our staff members are refugees themselves and carry great trauma of their own that is reignited daily as they hear the stories of other refugees petitioning us for assistance. I learned to take this very seriously myself, since secondary trauma became a big part of my experience early on in my work at Collateral Repair Project. After nearly two years of listening daily to refugees' stories of trauma, I began to struggle with back issues and anxiety. That was the beginning of a journey for me that set me on a path where I began to really take my own self-care seriously. I began to learn transcendental meditation and yoga, and I practice both daily every morning before I go to work. These daily practices are non-negotiable for me, and I realize that my own experience in finding tools for myself has been instrumental in underscoring that importance to my staff. As refugees, my staff members need these tools just as much if not more than I do.
Like I mentioned, one in every 10 people in Jordan is a refugee. The number of people in need is huge, and as international funding wanes more and more people need help. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at it in that context, but it's important to put it in perspective and realize that engaging in whatever way we can is meaningful and worth it. Collateral Repair Project serves hundreds of refugee families every month, and while the big picture is daunting, we are still able to do a lot of good for the many people we help. As women, I think we often have a tendency to discount the impact we make and feel we should always be doing more, but I feel happy and grateful to have found work that is compelling and to know that I am doing the best I can under the circumstances.
It also helps to look back to five years ago, when I first found myself in my new role leading the organization. At the time, we were feeding around 15 families and had one employee — and now every month we feed 500 families and have 23 employees. I'm thrilled to be part of this work and feel grateful every day for the opportunity. Even though the need is great, I know we all are doing our part.
Amanda is an accomplished international development professional with extensive experience working in international community development, refugee relief, and the non-profit sector in the Middle East, U.S., and Africa. At Collateral Repair Project, Amanda manages an international staff that provides emergency assistance and community-building services for urban refugees. She heads the organization's fundraising efforts and is responsible for program planning, partner relations, and communications. As a consultant on international development program evaluation and design, Amanda helped international governmental and non-governmental organizations assess their ongoing programs and she designed culturally appropriate programs in close consultation with potential stakeholders. She headed up British Council Jordan's governance and youth programs, designing and managing projects around the country that emphasized community engagement, human rights, and sustainability. Before coming to Jordan, Amanda consulted for non-profit boards of directors in Seattle, made a number of short documentary films and promotional films for non-profits, served on the board of directors of the Arab Center of Washington and served in the Peace Corps (Cameroon, '93-'95).
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Amanda Lane