Fatima Hatamleh models the traditional belly dancer veil in front of a Jordanian flag.

Fort dances for the Middle East

Issues in the Middle East may seem not only far away but insurmountable from Fort St. James.

Issues in the Middle East may seem not only far away but insurmountable from Fort St. James.

But for one Fort St. James resident and her family, the issues hit close to home and she is hoping to help make at least some small difference for those fleeing conflict.

Fatima Hatamleh is from Jordan, smack in the middle of the ongoing crises in the Middle East, and she will be giving the proceeds of belly-dancing classes she is teaching to help Syrian refugees.

Born to an American mother and Jordanian father, Hatamleh considers Jordan her home, even though she spent many years going back and forth between the United States and Jordan while her father pursued his education in sports psychology in the U.S..

But the family settled in Jordan for good in 1994 where her father became a professor at a university.

They lived in Irbid, and Hatamleh’s family still lives there, a town only 40 minutes from the border with Syria, a country experiencing a civil war crisis which has led to an estimated 1.1 million refugees fleeing the country with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“Our town specifically, took a huge hit because of the refugees,” said Hatamleh.

She left Jordan in 2007, moving to Canada with her husband to pursue opportunities here, but the couple returns twice a year to visit family.

During their latest visit, she went to the salon where she had been getting her hair cut since she was a girl, and the couple who owned the salon had been offering to help refugees from Syria by offering free haircuts and helping to care for some of the refugee children during the day.

The couple also read the newspaper from Jordan to keep up with what is going on, however Hatamleh said she stopped reading the news from home after the last story she read reported snipers targeting young children.

One young child was shot at his home, but people were not being allowed to leave their homes as the Syrian government was attempting to stop the protests and rioting.

Because the child’s parents were not allowed to leave they had to stay in their home with the child’s remains, unable to bury the child for over a week.

“It just got a little too much for me,” said Hatamleh. “I feel extremely powerless.”

She said other news stories reported the killing of parents in front of young children in order to instil fear in them.

“You would think in this day and age stuff like that wouldn’t be happening,” she said.

But she also remembers when Syria was a prosperous country, where Jordanians would go to shop for the best fabric, perfume or foods.

Her uncle promised to take her shopping in Syria when she was a youngster, if she kept up her grades, and she went there to purchase the fabric for her wedding dress.

“I have really good memories of Syria,” she said.

Nowadays, she said the border is essentially one-way, with Syrians fleeing to find safety in Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

“For us it’s just mind-blowing.”

There are hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria in Jordan who have come through the official route and are then processed and sent to refugee camps, the largest being Zaatari, which had an estimated population of 144,000 refugees in July of 2013.

But many refugees are entering neighbouring countries illegally, and numbers for those not following the legal channels to end up in refugee camps are unknown.

Hatamleh said she gets updates on the situation from her friend Nida Yassin who is an internal relations officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan.

The problem of the massive influx of refugees also means problems for Jordan, as many jobs are given to desperate refugees for low wages, creating tension with many Jordanians as a result.

But Hatamleh said many in the Middle East worry the Syrian crisis creates a distraction from what they see as the important ongoing concerns around Israel and Palestine.

Her hope is any small donation she can make from the belly dancing classes she is doing through the College of New Caledonia can help some of the refugees from Syria in Jordan deal with the current crisis situation.

She also hopes to help foster understanding of Middle Eastern and Jordanian culture.