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Lawrence woman at Peace in the Corps
Speake graduate serves as volunteer in Middle East

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

Speake native Jennifer Ament lives alone in a village 6,500 miles from her family and friends, surrounded by people who don’t speak her language.

And she’s happy about it.

Ament, who graduated from Speake High School in 2000, joined the Peace Corps in 2005 after earning her psychology degree from Huntington College in Montgomery. She wanted to be taken away from her comfort zone, and that’s exactly what she got.

The Peace Corps matched her skills with a need for a youth development volunteer in Shoubak, Jordan, a village about the same size as Speake in the southwestern region of the country.

She moved in 2005 to the Middle East, where she stayed with a local family for three months, learning the basics of Arabic and how to assimilate into the area’s culture.

“I really got a feel for the community while living with the family,” said Ament. “I was treated like one of their daughters.”

A lifestyle change

She quickly learned that if she was going to fit in, she had to change her lifestyle.

“This means I dress conservatively, I don’t talk to men my age, and generally try to act in a manner appropriate to women my age here,” she said. “People here know that American social attitudes are different than theirs, but because I live and work here it’s important for me to show respect for the local way of life. This in turn gives me access to aspects of the community I would not enjoy as a tourist.”

Though she hasn’t mastered Arabic, she knows enough to get around town and “gossip with (her) co-workers” at the women’s center where she works, she said.

“It’s a very difficult language. I can communicate enough to do anything, but I sound like a Yoda or an evil baby if someone were to directly translate what I’m saying,” she said, laughing.

The women’s center is comparable to a YWCA in the United States. Women in Jordan don’t generally go to each other’s houses and rarely make trips alone, so the women’s center provides a place for them to socialize.

Ament works just like the other employees. She helps cater events, teaches English and organizes field trips, but her goals extend beyond her primary purpose for being there.

“I care about the daily work I do at the center, but more importantly, I hope to promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the people in my village and help to promote a better understanding of the people of the Middle East on the part of Americans,” she said.

Misconceptions

Ament said one of the worst misconceptions about Middle Easterners is that they are “fundamentalist or backward.”

“The people in my town are open-minded, hospitable, and they have a sense of humor,” she said.

Though Ament has become a member of the community, she does stand out at times, she said. Unlike other women her age in Jordan, she lives alone, travels, goes on the Internet and hasn’t even thought about marriage or children yet, she said.

Ament said the women are not resentful of her freedom.

“Even though women here are interested in the cultural differences between us, I don’t think that they want to be like me. They think it is strange and maybe sad that I live by myself and don’t get to see my family,” she said.

“They are curious about how it is to live independently, but in reality, this sort of lifestyle doesn’t fit in with their priorities, expectations and goals. ... Family is highly valued.”

Ament has been able to make friends with many of the women by recognizing their similarities and respecting their differences, she said.

She has been invited to many weddings, engagement parties and other social events, and participates in the religious holidays.

She said her experience has relieved her of the burden of a “life plan.”

“It’s completely changed my idea of what I can get out of life. These people have a completely different way of doing things and seeing life, and it makes you realize you can really do whatever you want,” she said. “The barriers you put up when you’re in your own life and routine disappear. You realize it doesn’t have to make sense.

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