MILTON-FREEWATER — Ruby Mitchell recently returned from more than two years on a Peace Corps assignment in Jordan.
“I knew I wanted to go overseas,” she said. “My dad had done the Peace Corps in the 1960s. A few others encouraged me to do it. It’s all volunteer but all your expenses are covered — your plane ticket, health care, rent — everything, unless you go on a big shopping spree.”
Joining the Peace Corps intrigued Mitchell because it fit well with her educational background. The Milton-Freewater native and Mac-Hi graduate went to Warner Pacific College in Portland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in cross-cultural ministries in 2009. She’s currently deciding on a graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in social work.
“I had studied abroad in Egypt and I had begun to learn Arabic,” she said.
Her interest in the Middle East led her to the Peace Corps, and she ended up in Jordan, living in the governate of Jerash, about an hour north of the capital, Amman.
The Peace Corps’ focus in Jordan is twofold. Although Jordan’s overall economy is better off than many other countries in the region, Mitchell said the rural areas need a lot of development to keep up with the rest of the country.
And significantly, Peace Corps doesn’t put its volunteers in an extremely volatile area, said Mitchell. If they are going to have a presence in the region, Jordan is the most stable option among its neighbors, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.
“They are very welcoming to Americans; they recognize the difference between an American citizen and the American government,” Mitchell said.
Jordan’s religious and social structure is 90 percent Muslim — predominantly Sunni Muslim — and 10 percent Christian, she said. She estimates that some urban areas are half Muslim and half Christian. The nation also has a large and growing population of refugees because of instability in surrounding countries.
Mitchell’s Peace Corps assignment was in “youth development” for ages 12-28. However, she ended up working with everyone from preschoolers to the middle-aged, in English and Arabic, including helping people with resumes and how to interview for work.
She said the Jordanian educational system is mostly memorization, with very little creative or critical thinking. So she started a yoga class and participated in art clubs, Brain Clubs and other activities to encourage problem-solving and decision-making.
“Things they don’t get to do in school,” she said. “I’d tie it in with things done in school.”
The Peace Corps volunteers and the community worked on a major project renovating the community grounds, adding a garden, with a vineyard and herbs. They planted four types of grapes; grape leaves are common in Middle Eastern cooking.
As a Western woman, Mitchell was very careful to wear loose clothing, especially in the first six months she was there. She dressed to cover herself — arms covered to the wrists, legs to the ankles, and a high neckline, with no collar bones showing.
“It’s all about reputation,” she said.
People in her small town said she could wear what she wanted: “We know you’re not Muslim,” they told her. But she dressed conservatively because she wanted to be respectful.
Much of Jordanian culture is about honor and shame, she said.
“Women carry a lot of honor,” she said. “There is a heightened awareness of gender and gender roles. What one member of the family does can dishonor the family.”
She met and become friends with many women there. Because of these friendships, she was invited into homes as a guest, and saw that their behavior inside the home is very different from outward appearances.
“They would have their veils off and be dancing,” she said. “I developed some great friendships with some neat families. The male volunteers never got to see the women’s friendships in this way.”
Jordanians can access TV stations from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
“We watched a lot of cooking shows,” Mitchell said.
“They really like soap operas,” she said. “They buy a TV and a satellite box and they don’t have to pay for television like we do.”
People in Jordan also watch American movies with Arabic subtitles. This gives them a perception of Americans, but it’s based on what they see on TV, not on actual personal interaction.
“The idea of the Peace Corps, is to put actual Americans in these other countries,” she said. “This will expose other populations to real Americans, not just the images they see on TV.”
The only problem she had was with some of the young men who might say something offensive to her because they saw it on American TV and thought it was acceptable.
Mitchell said the thing that meant the most to her about the experience, the most wonderful memory is “the welcoming.”
“They’d ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say ‘come into my house.’ I was very at home at my site. I was a foreigner but I was their foreigner. The family down the road — I became one of their daughters. I mourn the loss of the very fluid and open sense of community. They stay together, like family, different but beautiful, very beautiful.”
Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.