Fighting for basic human rights: a diasporic journey of Jordan societies
By Cesilia Faustina
Photography by Cesilia Faustina
“There are so many Jordanian families living in poverty that are completely ignored because they aren’t refugees.”
Humanity deserves a right to live as basic human beings, according to one NGO owner.
Aminah Kausar is the founder and CEO of a grassroot organisation based in Amman, Jordan Humanitarian Family Aid. The 27-years-old wanted to create change within the community — aiming to provide aid for all people.
“When I came to Jordan, it was not what I expected,” she said.
“I didn’t get many opportunities to volunteer, I didn’t get any opportunities, to be honest, and it just got to the stage where we began doing so much more work and it just made sense to open up an NGO — so we could give a name to the work we were doing.”
Aminah came to Jordan in the hopes of being able to help refugees. She said the whole thing was not planned and it happened when she started doing home visits and realising the amount of people suffering from all areas.
“This was kind of unplanned, to be honest with you, I never planned on opening up an NGO,” she said.
“One thing that made me start this — working within the humanitarian field — was the lack of transparency within NGOs.
“When I first came to Jordan I didn’t realize what the situation was with refugees.
“I didn’t know what to expect, I assumed that I knew much more than I actually did.
“I didn’t know how the lives of these refugees were impacted by actually entering this country. “How everything was dramatically changed for them — and not only for them but also the Jordanian nationals.”
The UK national wanted to create equality amongst those who needed it, which was why she wanted to focus on all groups and nationals.
“There are so many Jordanian families living in poverty that are completely ignored because they aren’t refugees,” she said.
“So I guess the first two years I kind of spent learning, trying, failing, and I just kept going and I saw it as a continuous cycle.
“I’m learning every single day and there are things we do that are amazing and other things that can be done in a better way. There’s always room for improvements and I’m trying to focus on those areas and hopefully make it stronger for that.
“There’s just so much that needs to be done and I guess one thing that I learned early on when I first came here was that initially, everybody was focusing on the camps and the situation of the refugees there, but I did a lot of research and I was made aware that the families that are in need of support are actually the ones that leave from the camps — as not all of them get the support from NGOs so they kind of need to stand on their own two feet.
“Food is not provided to them as it is in the camps, they don’t have shelter, and the list goes on. “There’s this saying that I heard, if you throw a net into the sea, you’ll just assume you’re going to capture all the fish, but then there are fishes that go through the hole, so those are the families that we are trying to focus on — not the families that are already receiving support.
“I don’t know if that’s a good example, but then I thought ‘wow, that’s actually what we do.’
According to the Jordan Times and UNHCR, Jordan consists of around 2.9 million non-Jordanian nationals — making up 30.6 percent of the overall population, with the Syrian population making up around 658,000 individuals.
When Aminah first arrived in Jordan, she was living in Petra and wanted to help out Syrian refugees in the area. She said she didn’t see any NGOs or opportunities to help, which was why she decided to take efforts into her own hands.
“I lived in Petra for eight months and I didn’t see any NGOs there and that’s why I’m here now,” she said.
“I came here to help people, to help the Syrian refugees. There were no NGOs here but I saw a lot of Syrian families that lived in circumstances so I though there are no NGOs here but these families need help, what can I do to help?
“When I was walking on the streets, I saw young kids walking in dirt, they had no shoes on, it was freezing, they had summer clothes on, so I thought at that point, this is not normal and then I went to ask to meet the family — and I didn’t know any Arabic — so I went there not knowing any Arabic, not knowing the culture, not knowing anybody in this country.
“There’s a lot of sign language of trying to understand each other and home visits which should only take 40 minutes would take four days to understand what issues that they had.
“Then again, it’s about going out there and being committed, you’re continuously going out there and not giving up and that’s how we found out what the needs were and in the beginning, they were at a stage where they said they needed help with everything.”
Aminah said she didn’t know how to do [humanitarian-based] jobs in the beginning and had to teach everything by herself.
“I didn’t know how to do these work and I thought the only way to figure out the support they needed was through home-visits,” she said.
“Eventually over time, once I left Petra and went to Amman, that’s when I was able to open up so much more in a sense that I was being introduced by organisations saying ‘this family needs help.’
“When we were coming to collect the aid that HFA had funded, I saw they had an appearance — and I’m not judging them based on appearance — but they had smartphones, the latest smartphones I couldn’t afford.
“Just, in general, they had some gold on them and I was thinking ‘hold up, if that is the case then they don’t meet the criteria,’ but what criteria? I didn’t have a criteria.
“I was putting all my faith and trust into these NGOs and then it just got to a stage where it was exactly how all the NGOs were operating back in the UK seemed to be the same here. Again, we need to do something about this and ensure we’re helping the poorest of the poor.
“Then I thought about that and how can we know the poorest of the poor — we were only focusing on the Syrian community, we didn’t know about the African community or any of the communities for that matter.
“I thought what are the right questions to be asking, what do I feel, what kind of template and questions can we ask that would determine whether they needed support or not.
“That’s why question number one is do you have a job? If so, how much rent do you pay on a monthly basis? Do you have any medical issues within the family that you have on a monthly basis?
“So we can figure out where this funding is going where it’s going towards and whether they are receiving funding from UNHCR, financial cash system, where is that money going, how are you spending it?
“If you’re going to the mall and spending 200 JD then you definitely don’t meet the criteria. If you’re so desperate, then why do you have gold? Why don’t you sell it?”
The activist said it was hard for her to put together a criteria and not everybody always needed help, however, she said they eventually came up with a suitable template.
“Gradually over time, it took us several months to finally create a template that we are extremely happy with at present,” she said.
“It’s very similar to the template that UNHCR uses, I just feel that it’s a little bit more humane.
“So we tweaked the questions a little and removed some questions we feel weren’t relevant.
“We don’t care how many tomatoes they’ve eaten last week — it doesn’t matter — and tomatoes are relatively cheap compared to other stuff.
“Having meat — or how much meat you eat — that’s a different thing. I very rarely eat meat, it’s expensive here.”
Start of everything
“In terms of food survival definitely the first two years we were giving off food parcels to families and I didn’t have food of my own. I was surviving off of bread and tea and every time I was hungry I would just drink.”
Aminah said she first came to Jordan after working for an NGO back in the UK where she felt a lack of trust and confidence in what they were actually trying to accomplish.
“I volunteered with and NGO previously in the UK and they managed to have a good system with the donors where there was good funding coming in, but I felt there wasn’t much change where it was promised,” she said.
“That was just through images and videos they were showing, and so forth. So in terms of why I came to Jordan was because it’s basically all over the media that the Syrian refugee crisis was getting out of hand and a lot of the refugees were coming to Jordan.
“So I thought if I really wanted to make a change for these people’s lives, I should come to Jordan and start up in here.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just thought if I try to come here and volunteer with an NGO or teach English at a camp, and so forth, at least I’ll be giving back and making a difference.”
She said she started her efforts when she started talking to families in need.
“The first step was I reached out to NGOs in Jordan while I was in the UK and I offered to do fundraising for them or anything — whether it was clean the toilet or sweep the streets — anything, I just wanted to contribute and nobody got back to me,” she said.
“So then that’s when I started going out meeting with the families, it just got to the stage where it made sense that they had a lack of food or the place they’re living in they can’t afford the rent.
“I just put an appeal on Facebook and I said ‘for those who know me, you know that I’m very passionate about helping these families that are in desperate need of food and in general shelter, medical treatment, and so forth, can you please help?’
“Within less than a week, we raised around 8,000 pounds and for me, that was a sign. Instead of me going out trying to reach out to a number of NGOs, why don’t I just do it myself?
“At this rate, I can make sure there is transparency where the funds are coming, how much funds did we receive, where they’re going, how did this impacted the family’s life and so forth.”
“It just got to a stage where the money kept coming in,” Aminah added.
“I’m glad to say that the families no longer needed the support and we still had money coming in, so I thought ‘ok, so these families don’t need the support, but I’m guessing in a month or in other areas of Jordan, they might need this,’ there’s definitely bound to be families that need the support.
The HFA founder said she learned a lot within the first two years, reaching out to NGOs on how to build her very own organisation.
“So I reached out to a few NGOs here and I met up with a lady who was doing kind of similar work to what HFA is doing and she was doing it on an independent basis,” she said.
“She wasn’t registered or anything and she put me in touch with quite a few NGOs and from all the NGOs she put us in touch with which we chose to create a partnership agreement with one of them, which is in Azraq — who are doing amazing work.
“That’s how HFA really started. We started by just listening to people.”
Aminah said she didn’t know anything about Jordan and what to expect at the time — taking a chance on the situation — which led her to a hard financial situation.
“Before I got to Jordan, I really didn’t know the situation going on here; believe it or not, I thought there was a war going on here,” she said.
“I kinda gave away all my savings when I came here, I thought I wouldn’t need money — I had very little money.
“When I arrived in Amman, I couldn’t spend that money on staying in a hostel for a short while and it got to a stage where I didn’t have any money left and I was going to be homeless.”
“Thank God, I had a good network of donors,” Aminah added.
“There was this one donor who was also a volunteer back in the UK and he asked me where I was staying and I said ‘ actually tonight I’m going to be homeless;’ I was hoping I can just put my stuff with the owners of the hostel I was staying in and I can just wander around for a while throughout that night.
“I didn’t know anybody in Amman then, I didn’t know anything and I wasn’t as connected with the families then because I was relatively new here.
“I was fortunate enough that they sent me money for an apartment
“I found an apartment, but again, I was living under tough conditions, it wasn’t until last year — well, it’s kind of continuous.
“In terms of food survival definitely the first two years we were giving off food parcels to families and I didn’t have food of my own.
“I was surviving off of bread and tea and every time I was hungry I would just drink. Tea and coffee were available but it wasn’t Nescafe, it was the cheap brand.”
Despite the hardships, Aminah saw the positivity in going through the situation.
“When we were distributing to families and they said we can only drink Nescafe, that’s when I could put myself in their position and said ‘hold up, I had been drinking the high-end stuff in the UK all my life and then I went to drink the smart price in Jordan because the situation is we couldn’t afford anything else,”
“They’re at the same position as me, we couldn’t afford to be picky.
“So it wasn’t that only one rule applied for me or for them, I was at the exact same position as them and I have to limit the amount I drink and eat with this intense work I was doing alone.
“I was handing out food parcels alone — the food parcels weigh 30kg; I was extremely malnourished.
“Up until mid-last year when I went back to the UK, I had a doctor check me out and he said I was extremely malnourished, I was very very weak and I was working very hard and it was physical labour, so I guess that’s how I had empathy for the families.
“It wasn’t just that they went through war and I have empathy for them, I was able to connect and this is what I feel is fair — this is something you can live without and this is something you can’t.
“I know this because it’s a position I’ve put myself in, I’m living it, but it’s something I didn’t share with anybody; let them think I’m rich because it’s not their burden to bear, I’m struggling myself.”
Why not only Syrians?
Aminah said the concept of HFA started when she realised there were more than just Syrian refugees out there suffering.
“The first step for us was going to Azraq and meeting the NGO there and again, it was the same they were ‘these families need help,’ she said.
“It was in Azraq that I was first educated that Jordanians were suffering.
“At first I thought ‘no, this country’s not at war,’ we went out and I said if we were going to distribute these parcels to their homes, I need to see the condition that they were living in.
“I was not happy with the situation if we had to give this aid that the donors paid for without knowing the situation, so we went out and I saw the situation and some of them I thought no but the remainder, the Jordanians and Syrian.”
“The Jordanians are actually suffering because when international NGOs come to Azraq village they tend to turn Jordanians away because they’re not Syrian,” Aminah explained.
“So it’s caused tension between the Jordanians and refugees and what we don’t realise is that we are causing more damage by going and doing this — so that’s when we decided we’re going to be fair.
“In the beginning, we did name it to Syrian Family Aid but then we changed it to Humanitarian Family Aid because we are all about humanity and I thought that’s what is still lacking that NGOs are carrying out in the humanitarian field.
“It’s something we need to think about more or else; it’s going to get worst. In terms of home-visits, we started doing it through the NGO in Azraq and that motivated me to target communities in Amman.”
The Somali community
“The homes that we walked into the condition was far worst than any home I’ve ever been to. I’m talking so bad that I was struggling to breathe.”
Aminah said she didn’t know the African community here existed and finally found out once somebody connected her with them.
“The home visits happened when we found out there was an African community in Amman and I was shocked because overall in Jordan I had been here for a year and I didn’t even know there was an African community here,” she said.
“So I contacted the NGOs and asked them to put me in touch with an individual vocal point within the Somali community, so they did and I contacted him.
“I’m not the type of person to just go out and visit a poor family and go ‘awww, that’s sad.’ We go meet the family and if they meet the criteria you have my word we will find a way to bring in support for them.”
The aid worker felt the African society were in need of a lot of support and attention, which brought HFA to take on the community.
According to a 2014 report by UNHCR, Jordan consists of around 3,000 Sudanese refugees and around 500 Somali refugees.
“I assumed there were going to be a few families that needed help, he brought me to this street [in Jabal Amman], there were hundreds of families — honestly that day, my heart dropped.
“I thought I was doing good helping out families, I didn’t know there were so many families that still needed help and were neglected.
“Within the first few days, that’s when I said ‘ok, we’re going to take this community and I’m going to visit as many families as possible, you put me in touch to see the neediest families as possible.’
“The homes that we walked into, the condition was far worse than any home I’ve ever been to. I’m talking so bad that I was struggling to breathe.
“I was just asking questions and there was this young kid sitting there and their lungs are so much smaller than us, you know — that honestly just broke my heart.
“They’re the forgotten refugees, these guys are the ones that need help, they’re the ones that truly need help.”
Aminah said she started with the Somali community by conducting home visits — asking families what they needed, eventually, connecting more with them and understanding their needs better.
“When I was introduced to the Somali families and when I asked them what is it you feel you need the most support in, they first answered food then education with kids,” she said.
“For me, education is quite important. I’m a college drop out as well; I wanted to be a doctor and then I wanted to be a nurse, but my heart was just not in it, then I worked for a bank which was totally different, but education is very important to me
“They once stated their concern about not being able to take their kids to school so I thought ‘we needed to do something about this. Food I can handle, we can do a fundraising and we’ll get food for them, education, we can’t put them in school. What we can do is create a place for them to study and learn, we can get a group of volunteers — which is why I got volunteers.
“We got them anything they needed, asked them what they needed then discuss with the volunteers what they felt was important — they had experience teaching before.”
With the hopes of implanting more knowledge for the children, Amniah created a youth centre for them to socialize and do homework.
“In 2015 we opened up the center, we used it as a place to educate women, we brought them in in the morning, we had somebody teach them Arabic — because the women didn’t know how to speak Arabic. We also taught them about health; we had a doctor come and teach them — a lot of them were diabetic — he taught them how they can control their diet and first aid,” she said.
“English, they were excited to learn English and we had them make homemade jewelry with the aim of selling them, unfortunately, it was not sellable, but they had a great time making it.
“It was beautiful because they had people focus on their needs and it was only possible because of the volunteers.
“Then late in the afternoons, we would have the kids come in and do an arts and crafts project. We had everybody — foreigners and young Somali boys that were educated, they wanted to give back to the community. It was beautiful to see everybody come together trying to make a change.
“Believe it or not the Somali community were in tears because it made them so happy and that just made me sad because this should be your right — every human being has the right to feel lived to be given an opportunity.
“These are just stuff that in the UK, education, you would get it like that but it’s such a struggle here. Even the mothers would be here at half past six when the class starts at 9 am, I would be asleep because I moved into the centre — it didn’t make sense that I still had to be homeless.”
Aminah said it got to the point where the kids didn’t want to leave the centre and preferred it rather than school.
“They had been enrolled in governmental schools but then I found out they were planning on leaving the schools because they wanted to come to the centre so I shut it down,” she said.
“Then the mothers came and asked for help because most of them are illiterate and most of their fathers were either killed or missing, so they asked whether there was anything I could do to assist them, so we ended up opening a homework club.
“We’re now at the stage where kids come here from the age of 2 to 17 and some do homework and some just socialize.
“It has become a safe haven for them, a form of escape from their problems, some these kids have fled from war, most of them have PTSD but in this country, it’s another form of war, because they are African.”
The conducts of discrimination
Aminah said it was not always easy — witnessing the discrimination faced by the African community and even towards HFA for trying to help.
“It’s going out watching the stuff that’s been said to them in front of me, it’s not human,” she said.
“Over time, we’ve been spat at, we’ve been punched, we’ve been physically abused, we’ve been verbally abused, and our truck had been stabbed by a knife.
“I will forever be in debt to this country for the work they’re allowing us to do but unfortunately there are some — as there is in every single country — you’ll come upon groups that just don’t have a lack of empathy I guess.
“To a certain degree, a lack of education, quite ignorant, the list can go on, but they are the ones making it difficult for the African community to survive here.”
Aminah saw the centre as a place of escape for the children — as a place where they were able to feel loved.
“This is a safe-haven for them. They’re loved and I genuinely feel they’re loved,” she said.
“It’s a struggle and sometimes after the kids leave, it would take me two hours to clean up and there have been times when the kids offered to clean because they said I looked tired — these are the kids saying it.
“So they just inspire me so much, they don’t complain, they’re so passionate, and they know when they grow old they want to make an NGO like HFA.
“The first time they were here they were with their mothers and they wouldn’t speak and they’re mothers refused to go home without them, now some kids would walk 40 minutes all the way here — and I know this because I’ve walked with them.
“There were times when it was raining and snowing and we expected to close the centre but they still came.”
The goals and struggles of no goals
“I used to dream for myself when I came to Jordan and I guess now I dream for others.”
Aminah said she constantly faced challenges in her journey, however, it’s something she just needed to get used to.
“I’m faced with them on a daily basis,” she said.
“One of them is that I’m a woman and I’m in a position where I need to lead, especially when we partner with NGOs and meet with people in a position of power.
“They tend to question my ability of how I can lead a team and how I can provide support to families.
“The second thing is my age, I’m 27, when I first came here I was 24. Believe it or not even when I met mayors they would ask who’s my manager and I don’t like to say I’m founder and CEO so I would just say we’re all volunteers and they would still want to speak to the person in charge so they would say things like ‘is that it?’ — they’re quite obvious with their facial expressions and some would actually say ‘really?’
“The third thing is the fact that I’m foreign. For me to be able to run an NGO that’s been quite successful — we’ve had quite a few partnerships with UNHCR, they like to hand us referral cases which they need help with.
“People often question how can a foreigner be doing this? I barely know any Arabic, the very little Arabic I know, I picked up from the families.
“It’s impossible for you to be in a million places at once, but I make them possible — so the families feel comfortable because they always see my face.
“People tend to question my capability of how I’m doing what I’m doing.”
The NGO owner also saw this journey as a very secluded one, but she was grateful for the volunteers that helped to reduce the burden.
“I feel as if this journey is going to be a long and lonely journey for me,” she said.
“We do have a team but we’re all volunteers — myself included.
“We have a 100% donation policy and the way it works is there are a lot of expats that come to Amman to learn Arabic and sometimes they would want to volunteer, so they would contact us or a lot of the schools know what we do so they tend to refer them to us.
“Also some local Arabs that tend to want to volunteer do get in touch with us and they do help.
“So I’m still struggling 12 roles at the moment but bless them, the volunteers that we do have now they help with a lot of stuff, they help with doing reports, they attempt to help out with social media — but you do tend to have to be in the field for social media, they do a lot of admin roles, and they assist a lot with distribution.
“They’re very good, I don’t have to carry the 30kg distribution. However, I’m very lucky I can commit to this full time but that’s not a luxury they have, they do have other commitments.”
Is everything worth it?
Despite the hardships, Aminah was still grateful for everything that had happened, stating that the whole experience had truly changed her.
“One thing I do say to the volunteers is that if you’re planning on joining the team this will change you in every way possible, it’s just a rollercoaster. It’s changed me, as a person, to such a way that it’s hard for me to express.
“There were times when I’m speaking to my family who are very very supportive but I wouldn’t know what to say to them or explain how it changed me.
“It’s also something that scares you — I don’t know if it’s a positive or a negative — but I still have nightmares,” she said.
“I struggle to sleep at times and if I do go to sleep I have nightmares, and when I wake up there’s a whole load that needs to be done and it’s just a whole new battle.
“Sometimes I would wake up from a nightmare and just forget about what the nightmare is about. “I dream as if I just went through 12 rounds in a ring and I’ve got the whole day to get through and I don’t really see it and think about it and if I just sit I think I wouldn’t stop crying.
“So I just focus all that energy on just trying to do something about the situation.
“A lot of people think I’m a workaholic but what people don’t know is that I’m just trying to survive and working is the only way I know how.
“In England, I started this work because I just didn’t understand why I deserved to have such a sheltered and good life and people are going hungry. It’s not fair, these are children, these people are old enough to be my mother, it could’ve been my mother, I guess it’s guilt.
“I told myself, as long as I’m trying to do something about it and I don’t feel I’m doing enough — no way — but I’m confident I’ll do so much more.”
The end goal
Aminah said she didn’t have an end goal, she just wanted to see help for the families grow.
“I have no goals, I have no plans, I just feel that we’re not making enough of a difference,” she said.
“There has been many barriers that have been put up for us, which is the reason we can’t connect with that many people and what I want to do is to be able to continue what we’re doing.
“We have a number of projects, in Azraq we give mobile homes, food projects, water tanks, food projects, we take on medical cases — we try to provide it on a monthly basis, it’s all done on donations. I just want to do it on a larger scale.
“I want to reach out to so many more families. Right now I go out and people find so much happiness in the distribution that we do, and I know this is probably the wrong way of thinking but out of all these families, how about the ones we don’t help?
“The reality is we don’t have the mind power for thousands of home visit and what’s the point if we don’t have the funds to do it? What’s the point of hearing their heartbreaking stories, invading their privacy if we’re not going to help them, what’s the point if we don’t have the funds?
“I want to be able to do HFA on a larger scale, I feel like we have failed. We’ve failed so many families and I can feel it in me, we will get there, we just need to stay strong and keep going.”
Aminah said the whole experience had changed her and despite everything she had been through — and is still going through — she saw her journey as something indescribable.
“I used to dream for myself when I came to Jordan and I guess now I dream for others,” she said.
“These kids, I feel like they’re my kids but if it means so much to them, I’ll find a way.
“If you’re committed and dedicated you’ll always find a way.
“I can’t explain it, they’ve changed my life. Honestly, all the families I owe them so much, they are my everything; even if I thanked them for the rest of my life, it would never be enough.
“They will never know how much they’ve changed my life, they made me who I am today and they gave me so many opportunities and I’m grateful for it.
“And this youth centre is going to go on and it will be better.”
Aminah Kausar is the founder and CEO of an aid-focused NGO based in Amman, Jordan Humanitarian Family Aid. The NGO has a donation only policy which covers aid and distribution packages for refugees and families in need. Currently, they cover five areas of distribution, Jabal Amman, Jabal Jofa, Ashrafiya, Hashmi Shimali, and Al Azraq — covering the Somali, Yemeni, Sudanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinian communities and families.
Originally from the UK, Aminah set out to create change for the Jordan communities hoping to aid families through their distributions and youth centre. Please show your support by visiting their Facebook page or make a donation.