Fellows Speak Out: Raghda Boutros’s New Initiative

Raghda BoutrosOur Fellows represent some of the region’s most innovative social innovators – Arabs that are experts in their fields, and have committed their lives to bringing about positive social change. Our ‘ Fellows Speak Out’ series on this blog will present a platform for  these leading social entrepreneurs to share their views, to spread their message and to describe their daily work to create lasting impact in the Arab world.

This post comes from Raghda Boutros, a social innovator from Jordan who is working to reframe the policies and strategies of development work in Jordan and the Levant to be more responsive to real needs while providing a more cost effective, reliable and systemic structural change. She is introducing a comprehensive collaborative model whereby the private sector and the poor communities can interact and learn from each other. Raghda is promoting a comprehensive, participatory approach to development through her  initiative Hamzet Wasel. .

As active citizens, we are both entitled to and responsible for the preservation, development and sustainable growth of our cities, and the only way I believe we can achieve this is by genuinely engaging with each other and building authentic relationships, so that together we can find creative ways to tackle complex challenges and explore unique opportunities. This is the essence of Hamzet Wasel, an initiative I formed, along with several other citizens of Amman from all walks of life, and one which has quickly begun to gain momentum.

Hamzet Wasel stems from a passion for venturing into communities to meet people, interact and discuss new ideas and the simple realities of everyday life. The discovery of a new place, the stories that lie undiscovered in its alleyways and homes, the very existence of worlds within worlds and truths beyond stereotype, coupled with a deep desire to create change, is what takes me time and time again into Amman’s oldest and less-trodden neighborhoods.

The latest adventure takes place in Jabal Al-Qala’a, where human settlement dates back 7500 years and where excavations have revealed numerous Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic remains. Jordanian and tourists alike come to Jabal Al-Qal’a to visit the Islamic Ummayad Castle, the Byzantine basilica and the remains of the Great Temple of Hercules.

I have often visited the area to do the same, and to enjoy Jabal Al-Qala’a’s serenity and the spectacular view of Amman from the top of the highest hill in old part of the city, but this time, I was there for a different reason. Nestled behind the famous site, is one of Amman’s oldest neighborhoods and among its most intriguing. Given the area’s history, it’s no wonder that this is where Amman’s modern urban settlers, Circassians, Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians among others, chose to make their beautiful stone homes, some of which still standing today. I can only imagine what life was like in Jabal Al-Qala’a in the first half of the 20th Century. Fancy cars and donkey-drawn vegetable carriages leisurely moving along while children flew kites and people in their varying headdresses, each according to their culture and heritage, went about their business, reminding me of why my friend and renowned urban heritage expert Dr. Rami Daher calls Amman “the city of many hats”.

Overlooked by the Citadel from above, its main street overlooking the Roman Theater, and only a downward stairway away from the “Balad”, Amman’s thriving downtown; Jabal Al-Qalaa has long enjoyed fabulous open views and easy access, contributing to its residents’ entrepreneurial, progressive and welcoming nature. Even today, and despite the fact that the neighborhood has gone through several setbacks, with people moving out, government policies negatively affecting people’s livelihoods and time taking its toll on its homes and streets, Jabal Al-Qala’a is still a place of beauty and hospitality.

I was attracted to Jabal A-Qala’a’s diversity, the fact it is a truly urban community formed by choice, not by happenstance; the way it still resembles the Amman of my childhood, with children playing safely in the streets and close-knit neighbors sharing joys and sorrows, but also because of the threat, sometimes subtle, sometimes manifest, that hangs over the neighborhood and could lead to its eventual demise. The threat comes from tourism plans, from “development” projects, from neglect and from the insularity that keeps most “Ammanis” from taking much of an interest in the place.

It was easy to meet and get to know the people of Jabal Al-Qala’a, to make friends with the kids and to apply the lessons I had learnt from the experiences of others and from my own in other communities. Instead of asking “what are your issues and problems?” and “what can we do for you?” as is the trend in development work, I kept asking “what’s great about your community?” and “what can you teach others?”

This led to the very first activity that Hamzet Wasel organized in Jabal Al-Qala’a where kids from the community taught a group of adults and children from elsewhere in Amman to make and fly kites. That and subsequent similar experiences have proven to be incredible for building trust, changing stereotypes and helping to alter the view that people from marginalized communities are “beneficiaries”, rather equal partners and “benefactors” in their own right. They also allows members of the community to share their abundant love and pride in their community with others.

These initial experiences have paved the way for continued work in Jabal Al-Qala’a where Hamzet Wasel is now developing a community-led effort, in partnership with volunteer businesspeople, heritage architects and activists from all over Amman, to revitalize the area and benefit from increased tourism and a regained interest by the people of city in the area. This is alongside efforts to bring the attention of government entities to the service-related needs that exist in the area, which they have already begun to respond to.

Along the way, there has been resistance from several sources. Those with vested interest in changing the face of the neighborhood, government entities not wanting anyone to rock the boat with regards to their plans for the area, others wondering what made us take interest in this particular neighborhood. Strangely enough, however, there has been little suspicion of our motives from within the community. There also has been no shortage of people wanting to become involved and give their time. I believe that the former is owing, in part, to the make-up of this particular community, but that both these facts are an indication that the people of Amman are eager to come together and reach beyond the radius of their comfort zones to meet, connect and work together for their city.

There is an awakening in Amman as to the importance of our roles as citizens and as people who love and appreciate our city, and I’m excited as to what new and wonderful forms this awakening will take. For my part, I’m very much enjoying the Jabal Al-Qalaa experience, while also looking forward to my next adventure in a new community.


4 comments on “Fellows Speak Out: Raghda Boutros’s New Initiative

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