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Home Our Volunteers Stories A Stream in the Desert

A Stream in the Desert

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We are all religious people, whether Catholics, Muslims, or Buddhists. Mercy guides all of us in the pursuit of life's wisdom.
--Abu Tomas [Moslem]

Life weighs heavily on my shoulders. Happily, my sadness and anxiety dissipate as soon as I listen to the Master's speeches.
During a distribution of daily necessities, I was surrounded by children chanting "Abeer! Abeer!" Their smiles made my day.
--Abeer Aglan M. Madanat [Catholic]

The rolling sand dunes in the vast desert of the Middle East have long been the setting for many epic stories and films about the Arab world. A classic example is Arabian Nights. Generations of readers have spent countless happy hours traversing that part of the world through these stories. Readers enjoy vicarious excitement as their imagination rides side-by-side with Ali Baba, Aladdin, and the Genie. Who hasn't dreamed of taking a ride on a magical flying carpet that carries one to fairyland and beyond?

However, reality on the ground for those that live in the desert is quite a different story. The harsh and trying environment is a constant challenge for desert dwellers. They would gladly trade all the literary beauty and fantasy of the desert for some food to make their daily lives a bit easier.

The Tzu Chi Jordan branch was founded in Amman, Jordan, in 1997. Since the beginning, volunteers have worked tirelessly to help disadvantaged desert residents. After a decade of cultivation, new seeds have sprouted in Jordan.

At the end of 2007, two native Jordanian volunteers, Abeer Aglan M. Madanat and Abu Tomas, traveled halfway around the world to the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, eastern Taiwan, to be certified as a Tzu Chi commissioner and a Tzu Cheng Faith Corps member respectively. They were the first Jordanians ever to earn these distinctions. Tzu Chi's efforts in Jordan have reached a new landmark.

Abeer says that poverty, drought and famine in Jordan lead people to despair. Long-term solicitous care from Tzu Chi volunteers brings love to those who are suffering.

"We help the poor understand that we care about them and their situation," Abu explains, drawing from his years of experience as a Tzu Chi volunteer. He speaks in English with a distinct Middle Eastern accent.

"Small but fully functional" accurately describes the Tzu Chi Jordan branch. There are only six commissioners and Tzu Cheng Faith Corps members, including the recently commissioned Abeer and Abu. These six, along with four regular volunteers, form the core of the Tzu Chi Jordan branch. About 30 benefactors also donate regularly to the branch, but they are otherwise not as involved in Tzu Chi work as the core group. Although it's fairly small compared to other branches, the Jordan branch makes steady strides in carrying out the Tzu Chi missions for those living in the barren desert.

Crisscrossing the sand dunes
Jordan is home to many world-famous scenic sites. The Jordan River, the sacred site where Jesus Christ was baptized, attracts tourists and pilgrims by the thousands from around the world. Another example is the Dead Sea, which borders western Jordan. The Dead Sea is not an actual sea, but a very salty lake; in fact, it is the deepest hypersaline lake and the second saltiest body of water in the world. With a salinity of 30 percent, it is about 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. Amazingly, because of the high salinity, a person can lie still on the water without any flotation aids and read a book or enjoy the sun.

Unlike many other countries in the region, Jordan has no oil of its own. Its resources are limited to phosphates and agricultural products. In 2006, the country had a per capita gross national income of only US$2,500 per year. The economy depends largely on services, tourism and foreign aid.

When tourists visit Jordon, they often see only the famous sites advertised in their brochures. What they don't often see are the many Bedouin tribesmen struggling to eke out a living in the desert. Their stark living conditions form a sad contrast with those of the affluent tourists, who may only occasionally notice the tribesmen for a photo opportunity. The Bedouin people face constant challenges to their very survival. They must cope with excruciating heat in the summer, severe cold in winter, and live always without running water or electricity.

In addition to the poor, Jordan also has an ample supply of refugees who have fled from neighboring countries experiencing political instability or natural disasters.

Abu Tomas has followed the example of Chen Qiu-hua (陳秋華), head of the Tzu Chi Jordan branch, in taking care of some of the poor and the refugees. Chen and Abu have worked together for seven years. Chen is deeply touched by Abu's unquestioning willingness to go with him to do Tzu Chi work.

Once, Chen asked Abu if he would be willing to go to Iran to join other Tzu Chi volunteers from Turkey and Taiwan and distribute rice to earthquake victims. Abu accepted the invitation without a moment's hesitation. They hopped a ride aboard a regularly scheduled Royal Jordanian cargo plane bound for Iran. This helped save on travel expenses, but it was none too comfortable. For four and a half hours, they were crammed in the cargo bay. It was freezing and extremely loud. After a most trying flight, they finally arrived in Iran and joined the rest of the Tzu Chi distribution delegation. When all was said and done, the discomfort was worth it. The group accomplished exactly what they had set out to do for the quake victims.

"Abu is such a devoted friend," said Chen of his friend and colleague. Little could Abu imagine when he first started with Tzu Chi that he would one day be so deeply and joyfully involved.

Chen first arrived in Jordan in 1974. Prior to his arrival there, he had a seventh-degree black belt in Taekwondo and was a combat instructor for Taiwan's military elite, the marines. In 1974, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense sent him to Jordan to serve as the head martial arts coach for the Royal Guards. Chen's modesty, sincerity, honor and integrity won the respect of His Majesty Hussein Ibn Talal and His Highness Crown Prince El Hassan Bin Talal, who both requested his services as their personal trainer.

Chen next served as the head coach for the Jordanian Taekwondo national team. His team took home Jordan's first Olympic medal, a bronze, from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. The country went wild over the honor, and the team went on to win more medals in other international competitions.

Abu remembers hearing about Chen as a teenager: "I heard much about Chen Qiu-hua when I was just 13. Later, I sent my son to study Taekwondo in his dojo. My son told me that Teacher Chen was doing charity work." Abu's pride for his son Tamer is clearly evident in his voice. Not long ago, Tamer attended the 11th Pan Arab Games in Egypt and returned to Jordan with a gold medal.

While Tamer studied Taekwondo at Chen's dojo, Abu followed Chen about to see how he performed his charity work. At first, he assumed that Tzu Chi was just another charity organization. But his view changed completely in 2002 at a refugee camp in Jericho, in the northern Gaza Strip.

At the distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed 23 wheelchairs they had purchased for people with diminished mobility. One elderly man cried as he received his wheelchair. "I have crawled on the ground for five years. I have five children, but none of them ever bought me a wheelchair. I never expected foreigners would be the ones to help me out in the end." The old man's tears shocked Abu, who suddenly realized the significance of Tzu Chi's charity work. He made a promise to Chen then and there: "Beginning today, I am a Tzu Chi volunteer!"

Beckoning in darkness
Chen and Abu are quite comfortable hefting sacks of rice and gallons of cooking oil in the desert heat, but providing gentle words and gestures to comfort the sick is probably better done by women like Abeer Aglan M. Madanat.

Last August, Tzu Chi held a distribution at a tent city in Al Mafraq in northern Jordan. Because jobs are scarce, residents in the tent city work whatever odd jobs they can find. It's not uncommon to find an entire family living on an income of about US$50 a month. The tent city is far from sanitary, and adequate medical care is lacking.

As the Tzu Chi volunteers were packing up at the end of the day, they were approached by Um Awada, an elderly refugee. She walked up to them and pleaded, "I can't see. Please help." Being a pharmacist, Abeer took it upon herself to accompany Um to obtain some proper medical help.

The doctor examined the old woman and found that her right eye was almost completely blind. Her left eye, while not as bad off as her right, was afflicted with a cataract. He recommended surgery.

Before the operation, Abeer followed the doctor's instructions to prepare Um for the surgery. She took the woman into the bathroom and scrubbed her as a precaution against infection. Abeer bathed her with the same care as she would bathe a buddha. In Buddhism, everyone is a future buddha and therefore deserves the utmost respect.

As was customary in her community, Um didn't often bathe. Though Abeer knew that the sand and the wind made desert residents dusty, the dark, muddy water running off Um's body surprised her. She took care to clean the old woman well.

The operation went well. When the doctor removed the dressings and checked Um's condition, he declared the surgery a success.

Afterwards, Chen Qiu-hua and other volunteers drove Um back to her home in Al Mafraq, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. Unfortunately, they got lost in the desert along the way. When they finally reached her tent city in the wee hours of the morning, they found that Um's family had braved the desert chill to come out and greet them. Chen left the car's headlight on so Um and her family could see their way back to their tent. Watching them walk back to the tent, he remarked, "From the way they walk together, I can see the harmony and love in a Bedouin family." He was very touched as he uttered these words.

Unfortunately, the successful surgery wasn't the end of Um's ordeal. Once home, complications in her recovery arose. Abeer recalls Um's condition: "When we went back to see her, we found her eyes contaminated with sand. Her left eye was infected." However, Abeer had come prepared. She gently cleaned Um's eyes and applied an anti-bacterial ointment.

Perhaps escorting and caring for a patient with cataracts doesn't sound too significant. But when one considers the time and energy required, the effort takes on new meaning. Tzu Chi volunteers traveled ten times between Amman and Al Mafraq, logging more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). During that period, Abeer accompanied Um through a battery of tests, examinations, the surgery and the follow-up care. Her persistent care for a person in need over an extended period of time shows what a caring, patient volunteer she is. "Feeling Um's trust and her reliance on us, on top of seeing her sight restored, makes everything we did worthwhile," Abeer said. In that short statement, she succinctly summed up the joy of giving people a helping hand.

True to their faith
Abeer's husband passed away a few years ago. Ever since then, she has shouldered the heavy load of rearing two daughters and running a pharmacy alone. Sometimes she finds the load particularly hard to bear. But when she listens to Master Cheng Yen's talks, her sadness and depression quickly subside.

A devout Catholic, Abeer depends on the Bible for guidance in everything she does. "As with Tzu Chi, I believe love is at the core of the Catholic belief," Abeer said. Her life is now more fulfilled and satisfying with the joy she derives from giving.

When Master Cheng Yen certified Abeer as a Tzu Chi commissioner, she gave her the dharma name Tzu Ai, meaning "merciful love." The Master told her, "Now you are wearing two hats. You must remain faithful to the Catholic Church and perform your Tzu Chi duties to help the world."

Likewise, Tzu Chi activities have helped Abu Tomas strengthen his own Islamic beliefs. "I look at the company I keep now will tell you plenty about the kind of transformation that I have undergone," he says. Loving excitement, he used to spend his holidays hunting, and every once in a while he even drank alcohol. But when he joined Tzu Chi, he hung up his shotguns and decided to abstain from drinking. Now, he channels his energy into seeking out the needy and giving them what help he can. "We are all religious people, whether Catholics, Muslims, or Buddhists," he observed. "Mercy guides all of us in the pursuit of life's wisdom."

Love, though a common virtue among religions, is easier talked about than practiced in the war-torn Middle East, where wars and infighting have led to poverty and suffering. "The turmoil in the world is made by humans; it is not the fault of religions," Abu lamented as he summed up his take on the source of man's suffering.

Chen Qiu-hua believes that there is plenty of room for Tzu Chi to help out in the Middle East. However, he sorely needs the participation of native Jordanians to be able to further spread Tzu Chi's Great Love throughout the country, and there are just too few volunteers in the Jordan branch.

"The Master says that love resides in everyone and that no act of caring is too trivial, even if it's just giving a glass of water," Chen said. "The most important thing is not just to give material aid to the needy, but to awaken the love in people's hearts." Indeed, when the love in everyone's hearts is awakened, an eternal cycle of goodness will be created, and its effect and impact will go a long, long way.

The day Abeer and Abu were certified, she as a Tzu Chi commissioner and he as a Tzu Cheng Faith Corps member, was indeed a most happy occasion for the Jordan branch. Their induction as full-fledged Tzu Chi leaders marked an important milestone in the foundation's efforts to let its philosophy and activities put down roots in Jordan. Best wishes to all in bringing Tzu Chi's wholesome ideals and assistance to the unfortunate people suffering in the desert.

Tzu Chi Quarterly Spring 2008
By Ye Zi-hao
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photographs courtesy of the Tzu Chi Jordan Branch