When we travel, we have the opportunity to increase our awareness of the world at large. Many of my experiences have hit a chord within me that broadened my worldview and reminded me of the inherent connection we all share regardless of our culture, nationality, religion and gender.
This happened recently when an unexpected phone call whisked me away to Amman, Jordan on a Virgin Unite Connection Trip hosted by Her Majesty Queen Noor benefiting the King Hussein Foundation and Virgin Unite. Like many Americans, the Middle East for me was a place of mystery swathed in images of camels, deserts, women shrouded in burkas and violence. As of late, Jordan has been in the news because of the growing numbers of Syrian refugees flooding the borders to take safety in the refugee camps. Jordan has a history of benevolence towards refugees by providing a safe haven in the middle of a hot bed of violence and intolerance.
Upon arriving in Amman, I was taken by the beauty of this safe haven, with the monochromatic sandstone colors of the desert seamlessly blending with the buildings. The first night our group attended a dinner hosted by Her Majesty Queen Noor, which included many accomplished Jordanians in a variety of professions. Standing in a lovely flowing white kaftan on the patio, Her Majesty Queen Noor appeared as if she had a light surrounding her, embodying grace and beauty. Interestingly, her late husband, His Majesty King Hussein, gave her the name Noor al Hussein, which means Light of Hussein.
While seated at candlelit tables adorned with olive branches, each guest -- American or Jordanian -- shared how they are working to make a positive difference in the lives of people in their communities and/or globally. I was struck by the familiarity of our common desire for peace and justice while sitting in such a far off place.
Upon learning I would be visiting the Middle East and meeting Queen Noor, I began reading her informative and insightful best-selling book, Leap of Faith. Immediately I was fascinated by her personal story, as well as her insider view of Jordan and the Middle East. Queen Noor graciously opened her country to us. The entire trip had a magical spirit flowing throughout showering me with gift after gift: from the amazing people I was traveling with to all the people we met along our journey and the incredible places we visited.During this journey, I had the opportunity to speak with Her Majesty Queen Noor at her palace in Aqaba. After reading her book and meeting with her, the impression I was left with was her profound sense of love for the people of Jordan and her late husband King Hussein. On the surface her story seems the stuff of fairytales -- a beautiful young woman meets and falls in love with a dashing, adventurous and powerful king. But, when I looked beyond the surface I found an inspiring story of a woman who became a force for change and a resounding voice for people who's voice wasn't being heard. She became the queen at the age of 26, and immediately committed herself to helping the people of her new country. She has pioneered initiatives such as:
- The Jerash Festival founded in 1980 to bring together dancers, poets, singers, and musicians to create a cultural facility where there were none before that point.
- The creation of the National Music Conservatory, which celebrates music of Arab classical and western classical cultures, which was born out of the Jeresh Festival.
- Together, Queen Noor and King Hussian launched the Jubilee school in 1993, which we visited, a unique coeducational secondary institution for learning through critical and independent thinking.
- Programs to support and empower impoverished women to become economically productive. She recognized women as an untapped source of talent and potential to generate income for their families.
When we spoke about the Syrian refugees fleeing into Jordan to escape the chaos and killing in their country, she expressed her concern for the children growing up in the camps without a sense of hope and possibility. The influx of refugees is taking its toll on the already impoverished country of Jordan, which Queen Noor refers to as a country that cannot take anything for granted.
We also spoke about the vital role of activism in her life and the critical role of activism in the lives of others. She grew up in the Kennedy era, which she referred to "as a time of personal activism." Her father spent a large portion of his professional life in public service, which had an enormous influence on her. She revealed that when King Hussein proposed to her she didn't feel like a queen, but was honored by the opportunity to be of service to Jordan and beyond as his partner. In her role as queen, she saw herself as a catalyst to inspire hope and possibility and to bring people together to do good and create change, a legacy she continues to this day with a myriad of programs in Jordan and beyond.
Jordan is a peaceful country, which is no small feat and a stark contrast to its neighbors, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. As many will tell you, Jordan is a reflection of the compassionate and openhearted leadership of the late King Hussein and Her Majesty Queen Noor. One woman I spoke with said, "Can you go back to America and tell them we aren't all terrorists?"
In the U.S., we receive a skewed view of the conflicts in the Middle East through the narrow lens of the nightly news. Without thinking, we begin to label an entire region and the people living within it. Certainly, no one can deny the intense violence that plagues the Middle East, but that does not define the whole picture, nor does it define all the people who live in that region of the world. A favorite story comes to mind entitled, "Danger" from Gary Zukav's book, Soul To Soul. It tells the true story of a Tibetan monk whom the Chinese imprisoned for 18 years. Many years later during a conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the monk said there were times he'd been in danger. "What kind of danger?" The Dalai Lama asked, the monk replied he'd been in danger of losing his compassion for the Chinese. When we label others as our enemy, we dehumanize the other and ourselves. Are we in danger of losing our compassion and humanity?
What we do matters. We all have the potential to rise above the status quo and help each other. As my friend Kelly Smith says, "Make good happen." Imagine if we all opened our hearts and refocused our energy to help one another, love our neighbors as we love ourselves and make good happen?
Her Majesty Queen Noor embodies the spirit of generosity, kindness and compassion. An American woman, who married the King of Jordan, did not see differences between the people of her new country and herself. Clearly, she looked through the eyes of love at people in need of care and asked what she could do to be of service. How often do we look through our eyes of love at people that we perceive as different than ourselves?
Her Majesty Queen Noor shared one of her favorite quotes by Robert F. Kennedy with me, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lots of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
What if we all looked at the world through our eyes of love and asked, "How can I be of service and help others?"