By Alec Hernández
A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Ali Shawar, TD ’18
As fall leaves its mark on campus and the leaves turn red in New Haven, Timothy Dwight freshman Ali Shawar is constantly reminded how different his new home at Yale is from the one he left behind in Amman, Jordan. Coming to the United States after four years of attending a boarding high school outside of Amman, Ali is considering studying business here at Yale, with a focus on entrepreneurship and its relationship with tech startups. After spending this past summer working for Oasis500, an investment company that funds specifically Middle Eastern start-ups, Shawar found himself entirely enthralled in the Middle East’s rapidly developing start-up culture.
“There’s definitely a lot of potential for companies like that in Jordan, and I can definitely see myself going back to Amman after I graduate to get more involved,” Shawar thinks. Culturally, though, Ali has found that life in New Haven is drastically different from his life back in Amman.
“The biggest difference is obviously that nobody speaks Arabic here,” Ali mentions as he looks back down to his phone, at his Whatsapp message thread. Back in Jordan, Arabic was most often the language of Ali’s daily interactions whether with friends, family and others.
“Sometimes I’ll talk to my parents on the phone and they’ll ask me, ‘What’s wrong with your Arabic?’ I don’t use it that much here, so I guess it makes sense that it’s harder for me to remember certain words even though I’m fluent.” Although his first language is Arabic, he has been developing his English since he was young. Seeing as both of his parents speak English, they found it important for Ali and his two older siblings to attend schools that taught entirely in English, no matter where they lived – and his family has lived in quite a few parts of the Middle East and the world. Although the Shawar family currently lives in Amman, they have also lived in Saudi Arabia, where Ali was born, and even as far as London for a short period of time. In this sense, Ali has spent a lot of time away from home, but he and his family have always maintained a strong connection to their Arab culture.
No matter where Yalies come from, we all have to sacrifice a small part of ourselves culturally in order to become a part of the larger Yale community to develop new traditions and habits to fully immerse ourselves on campus. We change our eating habits to fit the dining hall schedules, we tweak our quotidian practices to fit our class schedules, and mold our weekends around spending time with friends or participating in different campus activities. And like most Yalies, Ali has faced these same challenges but on an even greater scale.
“It’s definitely hard to stay completely connected to your culture when you’re living so far away from home,” he comments. Especially this fall, which is a busy time of year for practicing Muslims, Ali has noticed how much of a change he has made in his life coming to Yale.
“I’m not particularly religious, but it’s definitely hard to be away from home this time of year. For example, on Eid everyone back home was celebrating a major Muslim holiday, which is like the Muslim equivalent of Christmas, but here you would have never known that it was even a holiday. The MSA hosted a banquet the next week, but that was basically it.” For these same reasons, ironically, Shawar at times finds himself brought closer to his Arab heritage and has already found a local outlet and community to express himself culturally. As soon as Shawar arrived on campus, he was immediately drawn to the Arab Students Association’s weekly meetings.
Thinking back on his first few weeks on campus, Shawar recalls, “The beginning of the year was stressful for everyone, so I was glad to find a really easy way to be able to stay culturally connected to the Middle East.” After only a few meetings, Ali was elected as the club’s newest Freshman Liaison and now acts as an Arab connection to the greater Yale community.
No matter how many challenges Shawar faces culturally or personally as he makes his transition to living full-time in the United States, there is one part of Jordan that he will forever identify with – no matter how far away from home he is.
Glancing down at his family’s group chat on his phone, Ali glances up, putting his conversation on hold for a moment. Even while we talk, his phone buzzed with new messages not only from his parents and two siblings, but also from distant cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles that live anywhere from Amman to Austin, Texas.
“Arab culture is tied really closely to family connections,” Ali comments as the phone continues to buzz. “Being Jordanian means spending loads of time with your family. Not just your brothers and sisters, but your cousins and grandparents too.” Back in Jordan, Shawar, his parents, and his siblings, would make a weekly trip to his grandparents’ house in Amman for a meal with his entire family. Jordanians pride themselves on their hospitality and open-door traditions, making these end-of-week meals quite special for Shawar.
“It’s cool because I get to be so close to my relatives, like my aunts and uncles, whom people in other cultures aren’t that close to. Back home I would see most of my extended family every week, so I definitely miss being able to do that. Now that I’m here, I realize how unique that part of my culture is.”
This same Jordanian hospitality and connection to family transcends the mere individual and truly shows itself in Jordan’s foreign policy, especially with regard to its Middle Eastern neighbors. According to the CIA World Factbook, Jordan ranks second in the world for the highest refugee population, with a national population of just under 8 million and a refugee population upwards of 2.5 million. The majority of these refugees have fled to Jordan from Palestine and Syria, where Arabs are having a more difficult time living safely in a nation in turmoil. While Palestinians have been entering Jordan through its open borders for refugees since the 1940s, the influx of Syrian refugees has severely increased in the past three years since the beginning of the civil war and especially now with the national struggle against ISIS. Although Jordan receives a small amount of aid from the United Nations to maintain such high numbers of refugees within its borders, the country still feels the economic and social burdens of hosting these displaced people.
For instance, Zaatari Refugee Camp, a settlement only a few miles from the Syrian border in the north of Jordan, is stretched past its limit with Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS and their government (The New York Times).
“The biggest problem that we face as a nation is definitely handling the overflowing amount of refugees coming over the borders,” Ali comments. “Jordan is already really resource poor, especially with water, so it becomes a big challenge to support even more people with such a small pool of resources to share. Trying to support these millions of refugees also greatly strains the Jordanian economy, but it’s more important for us to keep our borders open to people in need.”
Zaatari itself is under the joint jurisdiction of the Jordanian government and UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and receives about $1 million USD per day in international aid which still only reaches the bare minimum to support some 80,000 Syrian refugees in the camp (The New York Times).
Inside Zaatari, the Jordanian government, lead by King Abdullah II, has made several efforts alongside the UNHCR to make life more comfortable for the refugees, even though conditions for the majority of the camp are quite rough. The camp itself is beginning to urbanize and morph into a small city, self-run by the refugees, but most of its population lives without electricity or running water in dirt-floor tents. During his time at King’s Academy, a boarding high school in Manja, Jordan, Ali and his classmates made a trip to Zaatari to contribute to local community service efforts in the camp, but he recalls how harsh the living conditions could be.
“We visited the camp in the middle of the winter,” Shawar remembers, “and because it had recently snowed, many of the streets were flooded. We heard stories about some members of the camp stealing others’ tents and how the teenagers who are not able to attend school form gangs and become progressively more violent with nothing to preoccupy them in the camp. The camp faces a lot of problems, but we were there to help in any way that we could.”
Despite the efforts of Jordan and Jordanians like Ali and his classmates, Zaatari will never truly be home for these refugees. Although this may be true, the local government allows their refugees feel by any means, letting them leave their cultural mark wherever they can in the desert camp by allowing the refugees to open coffee shops, grocery stores, and even bike shops. At the same time, according to the Jordanian government and the UNHCR, family units are never separated, making sure that their escape from their country of origin does not become even more traumatic as they enter Jordan. Not only has Jordan given these refugees a home, but they also allow them to live as comfortably as possible in such bleak Middle Eastern current affairs. The Jordanian Minister of the Environment has even pledged to plant thousands of trees on the premise as well as providing 10,000 bikes in conjunction with Amsterdam’s urban planning office, giving the camp a more permanent and comfortable feel.
In this sense, hospitality and connection to family for Ali is not only a luxury that he misses from home, but also a connection that he shares with greater Jordanian culture and tradition. For Jordanians in general, life back home cannot be defined without contact, whether directly or indirectly, with refugees and the happenings of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries. Whether distributing coloring books to refugee children at Zaatari or gathering with fellow ASA members to reminisce about life back home, Ali expresses Jordanian culture no matter how distant he feels from home. Although he will not travel home before Christmas, he looks forward to feeling more at home at Yale.
“Of course I love Amman and of course I miss my family, but TD is also pretty great. I live here, my friends live here, so there’s really not much more that you could ask for.”
Alec Hernández ’18 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.