GV student explores ‘The Dirty City’

Courtesy Photo / John Vander Velde

Courtesy photo

Courtesy Photo / John Vander Velde

Leah Mitchell

Grand Valley State University freshman John Vander Velde took eight months between graduating from Fowlerville High School in 2011 to visit the city of Zarqua, in Jordan.

Zarqua, commonly known as ‘the dirty city’ is a place that no one chooses to live, according to the city’s own residents. Usually, if the question ‘why do you live here?’ is ever raised, the answer is pretty simple: poverty.

“It’s honestly just really dirty and always crammed,” Vander Velde said. “Most people, if they get enough money, they move to Amman, Jordan.”

So why would a fresh high school graduate choose to move across the globe to a place like this?

Aaron Byrum, Vander Velde’s close childhood friend, hosted an exchange student named Bill who was from Jordan about 10 years prior to their graduation.
As graduation drew closer, so did the date for Bill’s return to Jordan, ending his visit to the U.S. He spoke of a dream he had to start a school for kids in Zarqua and told of how the city was desperately in need of leaders.

The exchange student asked both Byrum and Vander Velde to run an after-school program at this school where they would be paid for their efforts. Moving so far was a big decision, and Byrum and Vander Velde had a lot to consider.

“We prayed for six months about whether or not to go,” Vander Velde said. “Finally, we decided that we were definitely going, so we left around Aug.

The moment the two young men stepped foot in Jordan, a series of unexpected events began to arise. The two friends were shocked when they found out that living arrangements had not been settled for them, so they had no place to live. Making ends meet, the two stayed in the former exchange student’s living room for a month, until they found a place of their own to stay.

Though homeless, they concentrate on the fact that there is work to do. In fact, a lot more work than expected.

“It turned out that there was no after-school program ever actually initiated, so the parents were becoming very upset,” Vander Velde said. “Bill ended up getting kicked out of the very school that he started, sold his house for, even. The school that was supposed to have no religion began to be one where a Muslim prayer was recited in the beginning of the day. The Christian kids were very confused, and the parents even more.”

In addition to the school’s confusing intentions, false allegations also began to arise from parents of the children attending this brand new school.

Before they knew it, both Byrum and Vander Velde found themselves in a complicated situation and making nearly no money.

“We were planning on the school providing for our food and travels, but we ended up just getting a salary per month, barely enough to get by day to day,” Vander Velde said. “We were not getting the money that we were promised, and money was getting mixed up all over the place, possibly unintentionally, but we don’t know.”

One by one, other volunteers made their way back home until eventually, eight months from the start of their journey, Byrum and Vander Velde did the same.

“Someone asked Mother Theresa, ‘Why was your life successful?’ And she said, ‘At a certain point, when God told me to do something, I never said no,’” Vander Velde said. “That’s how I want my life to be as well.”

As Vander Velde carries on with his life here in the U.S., he vividly remembers his experiences and the lack of community that he had during those eight months in Jordan. Because of this, he approaches GVSU with a different outlook in a way that he can rely on his friends to be encouraging both spiritually, mentally and physically, all while completing his education.
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