A Jordanian NGO takes on social ills in Amman neighborhoods

Harra founder Mohammed Abu Amerah urges residents to work together. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 February 2020

A Jordanian NGO takes on social ills in Amman neighborhoods

  • Harra aims to revive neighborhoods by encouraging residents to work collectively to improve their environment
  • Initiative has made a difference in five neighborhoods, including deprived areas in Amman

CAIRO: A local initiative in Jordan is rejuvenating neighborhoods in the kingdom’s capital, bringing together communities and encouraging residents to work collectively to improve their environment.

The Harra, an NGO which translates into “neighborhood,” has so far renovated five areas in Amman under the guidance of its founder, the social entrepreneur Mohammed Abu Amerah.

When Abu Amerah returned to Jordan after many years away in 2005, he was saddened to find his local community in disarray — epitomized by ugly concrete boxes and overflowing litter — and quickly decided to take action to reinvigorate the local area.

Abu Amerah believes that traditional “harra” life in Jordan has been compromised by Amman’s explosive growth, as it struggles to contain growing numbers of refugees from across the country’s borders.

“A class system has developed, encouraging discrimination and degradation of the community,” he said.

Abu Amerah said he was spurred into action when he heard the news that his neighbor had been shot at in a dispute over a parking space.

“The idea for Harra came to me slowly. I saw that the lack of elegant structures in the community reflected not just the public space, but also created a negative psychological space among inhabitants.”

The Harra founder said that worn-out built environments not only lack “function” but also breed discontent, insecurity and even violence.

Abu Amerah has since created a Harra “identity plan” which he uses as a guide to breathe life and renewed confidence into communities.

The Harra rejuvenation strategy, which is funded by Jordanian aid, is based around physical, environmental, educational and social aspects – which are then mobilized into the community.

It has taken Abu Amerah 12 years to successfully rejuvenate five harras in Amman: Al-Ashrafiyah, Yarmouk, Jabal Jouffah, Al-Nasr and Wihdat refugee camp, which are some of the most deprived areas in the Jordanian capital.

The Harra Initiative brings neighborhood residents together to develop and implement rehabilitation projects that address common problems.

“The rehabilitation projects ultimately lead to improving the living conditions in the neighborhood,” said Abu Amerah.

The main drive in Harra is the community itself and the need to show members of the locality how to use their power to change their own lives and those of their children and their neighborhood.

This starts with the physical rebuilding of the neighborhood, including the renovation of walls and streets, adding address numbers to houses and collecting garbage, which lasts between 12 and 14 months. But the purpose of this phase is also to build social nets in the Jordanian community.

The process of rehabilitation brings with it the creation of neighborhood associations, the establishment of recycling and energy saving projects or creating ways of generating income.

“The methodology rests on a community participatory approach, which unlocks residents’ own innovative thinking and creative energies,” said Abu Amerah. “Harra interventions are designed to foster a sense of accountability and collective ownership.”

The social entrepreneur said the benefits of the Harra programs have been very tangible. “The programs have provided the initial motivation and leadership needed to inspire change within each targeted community.

“They have also promoted recognition and sensitivity towards social, behavioral processes, cultural and economic diversity.”

Abu Amerah said that reclaiming the public space has helped to reduce violence, created a community voice and promoted social cohesion and resilience among communities.

“Creating the sense of collective ownership among residents was the biggest challenge of all,” Abu Amerah said.

“We have successfully created the voice of harra to address and influence the issues that shape our reality and future in all aspects.”

• The Middle East Exchange is one of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Global Initiatives that was launched to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai in the field of humanitarian and global development, to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. The initiative offers the press a series of articles on issues affecting Arab societies.

 

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With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

Updated 36 min 59 sec ago

With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

  • In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult
  • The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees

BAGHDAD: Under the sign “Take out only” and a tall bottle of antiseptic by his side, Mazin Hashim, 54, rearranged the coals heating a water pipe outside his famed cafe in Baghdad.
He put up the placard to satisfy recent government restrictions on movement and gatherings that are aimed at slowing the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Once inside, however, thick white plumes of fragrant smoke choked the air as over a dozen young men whiled away the hours in defiance of the directives.
As the pandemic continues to spread, governments across the Middle East are clamping down on the region’s cherished traditions: No more massive weddings and celebrations. Restrictions on sales of qat, a mild plant narcotic chewed in groups in Yemen. No more evenings spent mostly by men in traditional coffee shops across the region. And most importantly, no more smoking of the beloved shisha, or water pipe, in public places.
In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult.
In Iraq, clarion calls sound twice a day to remind people to adhere to the ban on public gatherings. But that has little impact at Hashim’s shisha parlor, second home to 29-year-old Mustafa Ahmed who comes every day to meet friends and seek solace from the monotony of domestic life.
Not even at the height of Iraq’s sectarian wars was he made to spend seven straight days at home. He and his friends smoked shisha at Hashim’s instead.
“It’s normal for us to come here during times of crisis,” said Ahmed. “The only difference this time is we are hiding from the police.”
Safety tips being traded by many in Iraq often fly in the face of global appeals by experts to avoid physical contact and keep a safe distance from others.
Iraq’s revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, whose opinion is sought by many, said it was necessary to avoid shaking hands, hugging and kissing except when the “necessary precautions” were taken, including sterilization, masks and gloves.
But Hashim said his acquaintances routinely ignore even such warnings. In Iraq, the custom is to plant one kiss on each cheek. That is why he keeps the bottle of antiseptic nearby.
“Whenever someone greets me I quickly wipe my hands and face with it,” he said.
Down the street from Hashim, Tony Paulis, 60, said he tried to promote social distancing with a poster outside his barbershop door. It has an “X” over an image of two men leaning in for a greeting, and a warning message: “Please limit yourselves to handshakes and do not kiss given the current difficult situation.”
The attempt was futile. “Iraqis aren’t scared of coronavirus, but they should be,” he said.
At least 40 people have died in Iraq from the coronavirus, which causes mild or moderate symptoms in the majority of people but can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.
Checking out with a kilo (two pounds) of oranges from the local grocer in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, Najm Abdullah Saad, 70, said the curfew was wreaking havoc on his marital life.
“Going out to smoke shisha every night was my escape,” he said.
Shisha-smoking isn’t the only public pastime affected.
In Yemen, which has already endured five years of civil war, the chewing of qat is a daily activity that brings groups together to exchange gossip and debate.
Authorities in Yemen’s southern city of Aden have banned qat markets to prevent the spread of the virus. However vendors have found ways to keep selling it, either with help from armed factions controlling the city, or in the outskirts.
In the north, which is controlled by the Houthi militia, authorities said they plan to move crowded qat markets to open areas and ban gatherings of more than eight people.
The measures might be hard to implement as the country has busy markets in almost every city and town. At around noon every day some 90% of Yemeni men converge on local markets to buy qat, according to Houthi health ministry spokesman Youssef Al-Hadhri. He said markets will remain open since they become crowded only a couple of hours a day.
“It’s not dangerous,” he insisted, despite growing fears that an outbreak could prove devastating to the Arab world’s poorest country.
The Lebanese port city of Sidon, south of the capital Beirut, is mostly deserted. It once bustled with people flocking to its traditional coffee shops where elderly men gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards and backgammon. Those closed after the Lebanese government ordered a lockdown last week.
Qassem Bdeir, a fisherman, sat with a group of friends near a hidden segment of the port, discussing the situation, each seated a meter away from the other.
“We used to meet at the coffee shop after a day’s work to talk and play cards. Now there’s no work, and we steal these few moments to talk and commiserate sitting away from each other before we go home to lock ourselves up,” he said.
The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees.
In Beirut, Bassam Makki, the 42-year-old owner of a jewelry shop had been in the final stages of planning his wedding when the pandemic started. He and his fiance took out a loan and planned a celebration for 130 people at a four-star hotel in Beirut. The party, which had been scheduled for April 10, has been canceled.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” he said, trying to offer a smile.
Others pressed ahead with weddings.
Rawan Mohammed found an open tract of agricultural land outside the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk for his wedding after the Kurdistan Regional Government closed wedding halls as part of preventive measures.
“We told everyone at the beginning, they can come by to tell us congratulations and take pictures, but without handshaking or hugging,” he said.

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