An Executive and a Student Walk into a Subway Car: Creating a Self-Sustaining Jordan Through Unlikely Teamwork

An Executive and a Student Walk into a Subway Car: Creating a Self-Sustaining Jordan Through Unlikely Teamwork

According to Ashoka Fellow Raghda Butros, there are two types of poverty in Jordan. The first is obvious: financial poverty in low-income neighborhoods. But Butros sees the second—the cultural poverty of more-affluent Ammanis—as an equally serious impediment to social change.

While these Ammanis can easily meet their needs, many are losing sight of their country’s rich traditions and heritage and leading increasingly more isolated lives. Butros is tackling both of these kinds of poverty through “Urban Discovery Challenges,” which create unlikely teams to open opportunities for changing deep-set social structures.

Through her organization, Hamzet Wasel, Butros creates competitions for diverse teams of Ammanis and tourists of all ages to work together. People of all ages, occupations, genders, and backgrounds spend a day together, following clues to win.

After a round of team-building activities, the contestants are released on their own for 12 hours, during which they swap jobs, meet people, cook their own food in restaurants, and rely solely on public transportation. The competitions create the opportunity for new forms of leadership—a wealthy executive from west Amman may have to rely on a young student to navigate public transportation, for example.

By compelling participants to break out of their traditional roles and networks, and the challenges have led to unlikely friendships, business partnerships, and even wedding engagements. (Check out a video about Urban Discovery Challenge here.)

Hamzet Wasel is named after an element of the Arabic language that links two words together. The element is fading from use, but the organization is reviving it in spirit by forging connections, preserving human heritage, and developing new thinking processes to address societal change.

The experiment is the latest in Butros’s 17-year-long career in social change. The first Ashoka Fellow in Jordan, elected in 2008, Butros has long seen the shortcomings of traditional approaches to community development. Providing external funding and volunteers, for example, usually result in short-term projects which, when they end and withdraw resources, leave communities no better off than they were before. 

Butros set out to establish new processes for social development — ones that operate on mutually beneficial partnerships, and allow relationship-building opportunities. She co-founded Ruwwad, a community empowerment organization, as a first step to growing development projects organically and sustainably from within the communities. Since leaving Ruwwad to found Hamzet Wasel, she’s continued to work with the people to use their unique skillsets to drive their own progress and run their own programs.

Hamzet Wasel’s activities are wide-ranging, including tourism, community organizing, advocacy, and consulting. The organization conducts some for-profit activities, with revenues reinvested in the organization to help fund free programs for the general public. All of Hamzet Wasel’s efforts break down cultural and socioeconomic barriers, helping organizations and companies improve community engagement, and facilitating development projects for and by the people.

Hamzet Wasel also runs challenges for children, bringing together diverse groups of public and private school students who collaborate and document their day, learning the “human history” of their neighborhoods, and dissolving their own prejudices.

Moving forward, the organization is working to become fully financially sustainable, and to replicate its model more widely. Based on the promising results of her initiatives, Raghda is expanding the Urban Discovery Challenge to Cairo and Tunis, and has begun discussions with interested groups in Europe as well.

But the ultimate goal is to drive Jordan to become a self-sustaining country that doesn’t rely on foreign aid. Butros plans to launch a series of city walking tours led by neighborhood residents that help both Ammanis and tourists discover off-the-beaten-track people and places, and ultimately hopes to create a locally-sourced guidebook with the same objective. In this vein, and in partnership with two other Jordanian women who are equally passionate about Amman, Butros launched a website in July,, for locals to share stories and information about their city with fellow Ammanis and visitors.

Advice for Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs

A strong role model for aspiring social entrepreneurs, we asked Butros to share some advice on how to innovate, engage with a community, and take a truly world-changing idea to its full potential.

She shared this advice:

○    Don’t let funding be an obstacle or top priority. If you’re passionate about an idea, start implementing it and you’ll find the support for it.

○    Pursue your wildest ideas, above all. If it seems out of reach because you lack technical skills or background in the area, be bolder and push harder to find the people you need to make it happen.

○    Establish a network of people as crazy as you are. It’s critical to be able to engage with other social entrepreneurs, as the lifestyle can be isolating and you need to know there are people out there going through similar trials.

○    Manage your work-life balance. Never stop working on yourself, paying attention to what it is you feel and think, and what inspires and motivates you.