The Power of Individuals: Grass-root social initiatives in Jordan | Dana Marie, Hamzet Wasel, Zikra, Grassroots, Rabee Zureikat, Ghor Al Mazra’a, Urban Discovery Hunts
The Power of Individuals: Grass-root social initiatives in Jordan Print
Dana Marie   

One hour and fifteen minutes away from his residence, Rabee Zureikat drives more than 100 Km’s south-west of Amman, Jordan’s capital, to get to his work place. Ghor Al Mazra’a is one of the marginalized rural communities in Jordan and Zureikat has been working there for the past 5 years.

Since he was born and raised in the city of Amman, Zureikat was part of the urban “bubble” as he likes to call it. Yet his yearning to contribute to his community has driven him to volunteer with local NGOs and then to shift his attention to Ghor Al Mazra’a especially after learning that its people were living the consequences of discrimination as a result of their skin color. Before he created Zikra, which means “a memory” in Arabic, Zureikat belonged to a different world. Zikra is an initiative to reduce the socio-economic gap by conducting programs where urban and marginalized community residents may engage, interact, and exchange resources.

//Rabee Zureikat with the kids of Ghor Al Mazra’aRabee Zureikat with the kids of Ghor Al Mazra’aAt the cusp of two worlds Zureikat used his expertise in marketing to position his initiative in a way that is attractive to people. “When I started, I used to collect donations and I got contributions, but no one ever wanted to go to Ghor because people don’t want to go see despair”. Yet after Zureikat developed his idea of exchange, the initiative managed to bring 4,000 visitors to Ghor Al Mazra’a till now.

The exchange tourism program is a manifestation of Zikra’s motto “We Exchange to Change” which revolves around the idea of equality, changing the perception of Al Ghor’s inhabitants from victims to people of value who have something to contribute.

Bandora Day, meaning Tomato day, is one of the most popular tourism exchange activities, where groups of visitors from Amman join the people of Ghor Al Mazra’a for a day of tomato picking, cooking and sharing a meal together. The volunteers pay for the trip, which is used to fund local development programs, learning a new skill in the process while Ghor Al Mazra’a residents get to share expertise from their daily reality and traditions.

“When I created Zikra I was independent. Independence of thought allowed me to discover who I am and what my abilities are”, says Zureikat about his experience of starting his own initiative. One of its benefits is providing “freedom to experiment and freedom to fail without being controlled”. Yet the success of Zikra according to Zureikat is due to “People’s thirst to return back to the roots”. Young people living in the capital cities have an affluent, westernized lifestyle and are generally out of touch with their roots and indigenous culture. “We were able to transform our roots and traditions to something cool” adds Zureikat.

Despite the numerous awards and acknowledgements of Zikra, Zureikat thinks that “People still don’t believe in grass-root initiatives. Funders still have the traditional image that a big NGO is the best choice. We are sometimes treated as beggars, yet this is changing because of the failure of the big NGOs and because the grass-root initiatives come up with creative ideas with the least costs”.

Other notable challenges for Zikra include the physical distance from the capital, maintaining sustainability and the need for constant development, “we can’t afford not to change, the secret to your success in the beginning stops being a success factor after a while. You constantly need to come up with something new” Zureikat shares.

Another grass root initiative that is attempting to surpass the silos that currently exist in the Jordanian society is Hamzet Wasel, which means “hyphen” in Arabic, created in 2009 by Raghda Butros. Hamzet Wasel is a social venture that aims to revive and enrich the social and cultural fabric of urban communities in the Arab region, beginning with Amman. According to Hamzet Wasel’s website “social inclusion is the single most important factor in creating positive change in our cities and towns. It has never been more crucial in the Arab world to reach out beyond our comfort zones, to connect with one another across socio-economic borders, and to revive and enrich the social and cultural fabric of our communities”.

Her programs use Urban Discovery Hunts to connect the people to their city, “explore Amman while meeting and interacting with people different from your-self” is the marketing pitch. The hunts present an opportunity for the people of the city to come together in diverse groups to explore new people and places around the city and uncover Amman's cultural heritage and contemporary urban reality.

7-Jar, whose motto is “Know your neighbor”, is one of Hamzet Wasel’s popular programs, which is basically a treasure hunt with clues that take the participants all around Amman with a focus on the east side, the impoverished part of the capital. They need to use public transportation and ask around to find out their next clues. According to Butros it got attention because “it brought a great deal of fun and adventure to the process of breaking out of one's comfort zone” it also changed the approach from “beneficiary-benefactor to one of mutual respect, learning and engagement”.

//Participants in the 7-Jar event that took place in May 2011Participants in the 7-Jar event that took place in May 2011

For Butros the biggest challenge she was faced with was “growing Hamzet Wasel as a social venture”. She took a different approach whereby she positioned her initiative as a for-profit business that works for social change, rather than an NGO or a non-profit organization. “I believe this is the way of the future for development work in our region, but it is a challenging process because it means you are relying on generating your own funding, rather than relying on donor funds or other support. This requires you to have a viable value-proposition and to know how to effectively grow and develop a business, while at the same time keep your core social offering at the heart of the process and not compromising on it”.

“These are very exciting times” Butros shares, “As individuals and citizens in the Arab world we are beginning to take our rightful place at the heart of the change and development process. We are no longer beneficiaries of change according to the agendas of our non-representative governments, nor of the governments of others through donor funding, but rightfully leading the process of transformation that we seek to bring about. It's worthy to note that many initiatives in the region predate the Arab Awakening and this movement was a contributor to the process of revolution and the call for change, and not just a result of it”.

Two different people with different initiatives came to the same conclusion: creating connections and bridging gaps across society is of utmost importance for the future of the country. They both rejected the idea of charity and embraced an approach that celebrates people’s differences instead of changing them to fit a standard. Zureikat sums it all up by saying, “They keep asking me who inspires you and my reply is, The Jordanian People. The treasures I see motivate me to keep going”.



Dana Marie