We boarded the bus for what would be a two-hour trip north of Amman to be guests of Sheik Abu Nidal and his wife, Um Nidal. Sheik Abu Nidal is the Muslim tribal leader of his branch of 14,000 people. Um Nidal is the mother of eight sons and four daughters and the grandmother of over 30 grandchildren. I had now been in Jordan for four days.
I will admit I had some nervousness when I boarded the Royal Jordanian plane at JFK airport. My perspective on the Middle East was shaped mostly by the reports out of Syria, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So as I rode the bus with 21 participants of the CCCU’s Middle East Studies Program – students from dozens of our campuses and the leadership of the program – I wondered what I would find in this 4,000-person village made up of tribal family members. Tribes hold much of the civil society function in Jordan, and we were going to stop first at the tribal meeting house to be greeted by our hosts, their children, and their grandchildren.
Doug and Patti Magnuson are the directors of the MESP program and have 35 years of experience living in the Middle East. They set the tone and model a respectful and humble posture of learning when encountering a new culture. Doug shared the story of a transportation mix-up that resulted in a tense and unpleasant conversation between him and Nidel, the sheik’s son and the owner of a tour agency, shortly after he and Patti assumed leadership of MESP five years ago. After that mix-up, Nidel made sure that all the needs of the MESP students were met for the trip into Jordan, even at his expense, for the honor and reputation of his country. When MESP moved from Jerusalem to Jordan in 2014, Doug asked Nidel about his company’s services, even though he admitted that Nidel might not want to do business with him again because of the earlier mishap. They were the best prices, and each man was willing to start fresh on the relationship. Nidel and his wife, Erij, invited Doug and Patti to dinner, which began a deep friendship between them. It was Nidel’s family that was hosting a traditional Bedouin feast for us.
What a feast and party we had. Um Nidel had been up at 5 a.m. making the mansaf (a traditional Jordanian Bedouin dish) with her daughter and daughters-in-law, and preparing the communal platters of rice, lamb, and yogurt. There was laughter and good humor all around as we each attempted to master consuming our delicious meal using only our right hand. The encouragement to eat more was constant. Our hosts delighted in our presence. This is the Jordanian way: to take into their homes the stranger, the foreigner.
This “Jordanian way” is a national value and important reality. Jordan is home to around 1.5 million Syrians, with 655,000 registered as refugees, as well as many displaced Iraqis. Between 2-3 million Palestinians live in Jordan, with over 600,000 having refugee status. Citizenship, employment, and education are complex issues for this nation of just over 9 million people. While Jordan is predominately and proudly a Muslim country, Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, and protestant churches co-exist there. And the churches are also reaching out to refugees with education, mental health counseling, and job formation. A U.S. embassy official who spoke to the MESP class while I was there stressed the strategic importance of Jordan for the region, both economically and politically.
We knew these facts as we gathered for dinner and later reconvened to the outside patio space around a barrel bonfire for a time of speeches, singing, music, storytelling, and dancing. Out of respect for his guests, Nidel had asked his brothers and their families to be hosts for the evening. Nidel’s two daughters, both University of Jordan students fluent in English, came to be with our students. I felt like I was in a Jane Austen novel where all those present at a dinner would appreciate the richness of the evening. And that is what happened that evening. I experienced a level of hospitality and generosity, a level of vulnerability and intimacy, unlike a usual first meeting of new acquaintances. For Abu and Um Nidal and for Nidel, his children, and his brothers and sisters, the MESP program students and guests were not acquaintances – we were family.
In my work as a bridge-builder on behalf of Christian higher education, I think a lot about the great commandment to love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When I boarded the plane for Jordan five days earlier, I had not expected that I would be so instructed in that commandment by my new Jordanian friends. This feast didn’t just fill my stomach; it filled my heart. It also confirmed my conviction that experiential education – whether on our home campus or in settings around the world – is used by God to teach us his truths deeply so that we can become people who are rooted firmly in our Christian faith and live by the great commandment. To quote David Brooks, this makes us “human beings [who] have a devoted heart, and a courageous mind and a purposeful soul.” This is Christian liberal arts education at its best.
Shirley V. Hoogstra is the president of the CCCU.
Spotlight: How MESP Alumni Are Changing Lives
Hundreds of students have been part of the CCCU’s Middle East Studies Program (MESP) since its launch in 1993, and many have incredible stories to share about how their experience at MESP, combined with their education on a CCCU campus, prepared them for a life of service in many different areas. Here are just a few examples.
When students go to MESP, they fall in love with the local culture and imagine how they can contribute to raising up the next generation of leaders in Jordan and throughout the Middle East. Key to those leaders’ success is learning English, so four MESP alumni are working at the American Academy of Jordan, where they teach elementary schoolchildren various subjects in English alongside a Jordanian co-teacher.
Two alumni, who attended different CCCU institutions and went to MESP at different times, married each other and went to Canada to work in a small town in Saskatchewan. When Syrian refugees began to arrive, they were the only people in their small city that understood some Arabic and had a better understanding of Middle Eastern culture. They were asked by government leaders to help these refugees resettle. They returned to Jordan to perfect their Arabic and intend to return to Canada soon to be contributors in bridge-building and help the many refugees coming to Canada.
Another married couple, one of whom is a MESP grad, helps disburse aid to help relieve the suffering and displacement of refugees. The graduate works for USAID, while the other works for UNICEF. They credit their experience in the Middle East with helping them understand the complexity of the region and the significant role the region plays in world stability.
After graduating, a MESP alumnus wanted to get into law enforcement, so he became a police officer in San Diego. But he was so impacted by his MESP experience and his love for international work that he has since become a deputy security officer for the 300+ person embassy in Jordan – among the top 10 largest embassies in the world – where he also supplies security for heads of state and visiting dignitaries.