The Call of Home on Jordan’s Diaspora
When Iman Obeidallah visited Jordan as a teenager, she never once imagined that she would call this country home. Several years later, Obeidallah was adding the finishing touches to her Amman flat that she shared with her husband, Saleh Nabulsi.
Obeidallah left the United States and moved to Jordan in 2008. She was seeking a better future for herself in a surprising place—her father’s homeland.
Obeidallah’s father, Salaheddin, was one of 27,000 Jordanians that moved to the United States in the 1970s. In the years to follow, Jordanian immigration to America averaged to around 2,500 people a year.
But while many second generation Arab-Americans have grown comfortable with the life that their parents have created for them in the US, some have moved “back home” to find the missing pieces: a simpler life, religion, and the Arabic language.
According to the latest census by Jordan’s Department of Statistics, nearly 3000 Americans who do not have Jordanian citizenship live in Jordan, and nearly all of them are in Amman.
Obeidallah decision to move to Jordan came easily. On the night Nabulsi proposed the idea, she happily agreed. The family and friends she was soon to leave behind all told her she would return. But Obeidallah paid no attention.
“My husband said we could live very comfortably there if we made good money,” Obeidallah said. “I thought this would be a good experience for me. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
So Obeidallah left the bustling American state of New Jersey, her home of 26 years, with her new Jordanian husband. Nabulsi already had a job waiting for him in Amman. Looking forward to living in the country they both remembered so fondly from their childhoods, the couple was met with a multitude of obstacles upon arriving. They soon became disenchanted with their fantasy of living a dream life in Jordan.
Nabulsi, a civil engineer from California, was hired by a firm while living in America. Upon his first day of work, he learned that the company assumed they had an open position for him, and they no longer needed him when he arrived in Jordan.
“He only left his job in America to move to Jordan,” Obeidallah recalled. “Did they think it was easy for him to do that?”
Obeidallah’s luck wasn’t much better as she struggled to find a decent paying job. With a background in teaching, she was offered a job at a preschool paying her a salary of 300 JD a month. She refused to accept the position because of the low wage.
“Jordan is so expensive, and they pay nothing. I don’t know how people make it work, but they just do,” Obeidallah said, acknowledging that many Jordanians are paid around the same salary she was offered. These salaries, Obeidallah argued, can’t accommodate daily expenses such as food, mortgage, and private education.
Left unemployed and feeling defeated, the couple considered their options. Nabulsi took the engineering company to court, and was rewarded compensation for his move. After a few months passed, Obeidallah and Nabulsi returned to America.
“I don’t know why we thought we were going to live so comfortably,” Obeidallah said in a phone interview from her California home. She was unpacking moving boxes in the home she recently purchased with her husband. “You have to spend all of this money on items that we take for granted. If you want to live the way you lived in America, you have to make more money and spend more money.”
Alaa Mencke agrees. A relatively seasoned traveler, the American born convert to Islam has grown accustomed to the country. She moved in 2009 with her husband and three children. When asked how they make a decent living in Jordan, she laughed and replied, “We don’t work here.” Mencke and her husband own their own business—she works from home as an editor for various companies, and he is an author.
“The problem here is that salaries are really low,” she said. “The cost of living goes up, but the salaries don’t. And if they do, it’s not enough.”
Mencke, Obeidallah and some of the 200,000 Americans that visit Jordan every year argue that Jordan is becoming staggeringly expensive. According to the International Institution for Management Development, Jordan’s cost of living is in fact higher than the United States.
Mencke tries to overlook the struggles of living in Jordan. She’s lived here on and off for several years. After ten years in America, she settled back in Jordan, and this time she hopes it is permanent.
“I really hope I don’t have to go back,” she said. “Of course it’s easier living in the States, it is what I am familiar with. But we can’t always be satisfied with what’s comfortable for us, sometimes we have to go outside of our comfort zone to find what is better for us.”
Mencke’s defines a better life as learning Arabic and openly practicing her religion. A devout Muslim with a Masters Degree in Education, Mencke appreciates the advantages of her children learning Arabic as a first language and the abundant Quran and religion classes.
“My children weren’t as proficient in Arabic as we wanted them to be,” Mencke recalled of her years in America. “Their Arabic is much better now. They didn’t know the colloquial, or ameeya Arabic, but they have picked it up as well as their grammar.”
Obeidallah also acknowledged that living in Jordan would help improve her Arabic.
“My Arabic is very broken,” Obeidallah said. The daughter of a Jordanian born father and an Anglo-American mother, she generally understands Arabic but is not comfortable carrying a conversation. “I want my son to learn Arabic. With one Arabic speaking parent, that is almost impossible in America.”
Mencke is raising her children in a similar type of household. Her husband speaks to their children only in Arabic, and Mencke’s proficiency is continuing to progress.
“Shame on their parents,” Mencke said, speaking of those who do not teach their children Arabic. “At some point, people should think about leaving America and making serious steps to do that. Having another generation grow up in the states makes two generations missing out on what it’s like to grow up in a society where everyone is just like you.”
Maya Berry, the Executive Director at Dr. James Zogby’s Arab American Institute, said they have yet to see statistics of Arab-Americans returning to the Middle East, but the connection between the immigrant community and their country of origin is especially strong.
“The children of first-generation Arab Americans are saying, ‘Well when [our parents] left, they left partly because of what’s been happening [in the Middle East]. And now that the area is beginning to transform, I want to go back.”
Obeidallah also hopes to return to Jordan.
“Because my child is getting older, and I can keep busy there, I think I would return. I have a family now,” Obeidallah said. “I told my husband if he was to get a job, I would go.”