Taras Shevchenko street 6, Amman, Jordan. Every day, precisely at this unique address Serhiy Pasko – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – starts his challenging but very interesting work. Opinion managed to talk with Mr. Serhiy about prospects for bilateral relations, the emergence of Ukrainian self-identification in the diaspora, all kinds of medical students, and find out how the Ukrainian ambassador works and lives.
Jordan is the fourth Middle Eastern country where you work. What are the unique features of the work in this country, and whether it differs from your previous experience?
You know, although countries of the Arab world have much in common, each country is special and unique. In Jordan, for example, in comparison with other countries, they place immense importance to family ties. It is a country where tribal system rules, and over the years it hasn’t lost its significance. If you have one friend, know that everybody from his tribe is also your friends, and everyone is counting on your support. It is likely that this tribal trait is a unique feature of work in Jordan, all in all, it is the basis of many relationships here.
What has impressed you the most for all those years of your stay in Jordan?
Jordan charms you with its historical sites, fantastic nature and warm climate – here, they have 335 sunny days a year. Everyone probably has heard of Petra, the baptism site of Jesus that stands on the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, however, there are many more places worth seeing, for their beauty is truly impressive. The red desert Wadi Rum, Ma’in hot springs, or coral reefs of the Red Sea alone are worthy of your attention. Jordan has a great tourist potential, which is not realized in full yet.
What goals did you set for yourself upon your arrival, what have you accomplished, and what remained just a plan?
There were a lot of goals. The task was to intensify the political dialogue between the states, to increase trade turnover, to develop scientific and educational cooperation, to unite Ukrainians who live here, to popularize Ukraine among the local population. Well, we’ve achieved a lot in these areas. On June 22, 2011, the first historic visit of King of Jordan to Ukraine took place. It became an extremely powerful impetus for the development of political relations, its inertia had lasted for several years of very fruitful bilateral dialogue at various levels and spheres. Actually, after this visit, the doors of Jordan has opened for our embassy and the state. It was then that an inter-parliamentary friendship group was created. From time to time, its members are paying each other working visits and still maintain a permanent dialogue. A year after the President of Ukraine paid a visit to Amman, the second meeting of the joint Ukrainian-Jordanian Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation was held, the first regional meeting of heads of foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa under the chairmanship of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and with the participation of his Jordanian colleague took place.
Before the war, we had a very high trade turnover between our states, in 2008 it reached more than 1 billion dollars. After the closure of the Jordanian border with Syria, the volume of trade began to decline rapidly, for a large number of trade routes were going through its territory. The start of Russian aggression in Ukraine has affected the trade as well. Both countries were in difficult political and economic circumstances, so it affected the intensity of bilateral ties.
A lot has been achieved in the cultural and humanitarian direction. We united the Ukrainian community, involved it to almost in every activity of the diplomatic mission, which maintains constant contact with our Ukrainians. In September 2016, the first cultural center – NGO the Ukrainian House in Jordan (Olha Zavydniak-Otum – head of the organisation) was opened. The same year, in December, Cultural Center Vodohrai was opened. With the support of the embassy, our community takes part and wins international contests related to spreading of Ukrainian culture, the heritage of the Great Kobzar (Taras Sevchenko – prominent Ukrainian poet – translator’s note), they actively participate in local festivals, appear on Jordanian and Ukrainian TV programmes, arrange cultural and artistic events. The Embassy contributed to the preparation and publication of several books on the development of bilateral relations. In particular, in 2018, the book of Jordanian historian and writer Omar Armuti “Important Stages of Jordanian-Ukrainian Relations” was published in English, Arabic and Ukrainian languages. We’ve held the third large-scale exhibition of the famous Ukrainian artist Ivan Marchuk. It took place at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman in April 2018. By the way, it was our embassy that facilitated visits and exhibitions of Mr. Marchuk throughout countries of the Middle East and North Africa in 2016.
What difficulties do you face, first of all, as an ambassador, and then as an ordinary Ukrainian, who has been living in Jordan for years?
It’s worth mentioning that Jordan is a hospitable country whose people welcome foreigners, in particular refugees, who now outnumber the indigenous population of the kingdom. Here you feel the difference of traditions, but I don’t think that it should cause any difficulties. Just keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of the population in the kingdom are Muslims. This religion has a set of specific rules that should be followed with respect if you come to this country. Well, also take into account that Jordanians don’t like to rush and do not really keep a track of the time that’s the fact that you should also keep in mind when you make plans.
As for the difficulties of ambassador’s work, they are largely connected with the traces of Ukrainian Soviet past. In the minds of locals, it depicted our country as a part of this sinister entity, and, subsequently, its successor – Russia. Of course, this has happened due to many Jordanians who studied at that time in Ukraine and other republics of the USSR. It was them who brought such image back home. Much effort was needed to change this stereotyped image and to become in the minds of local people an independent sovereign nation, to show our true difference. This work is still ongoing because it’s not easy to erase everything that was rooted for dozens of years. Especially given the significant influence of Russia in the Middle East due to its active role in regional conflicts and the powerful propaganda and agitation on Arabic-speaking Russian resources such as RT and Sputnik.
Moving to the political and economic sphere, what is the current status of Ukraine-Jordan relations? What prospects do we have and what would you like to change?
In view of the difficult regional situation around Jordan, the war in Ukraine, the large number of internal problems, in particular, humanitarian issues, in Jordan because of the Syrian refugees, in Ukraine because of internally displaced people, the bilateral relations between our countries now are not at the peak of their development, they need some new impetus. Political accents of both countries’ leadership are now directed towards a search of support in addressing acute problems. So, we meet mostly at the level of international organizations and activities at a worldwide level. It should be noted that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was the first Arab state to support Ukraine and to vote in the UN in support of territorial integrity and sovereignty of our state in 2014.
Our task now is to stimulate the restoration of bilateral political dialogue, to ensure that high-level visits will realize the great potential of our cooperation. Now it’s the turn of the King of Jordan to pay a visit to Ukraine.
By the way, on June 9, 20th anniversary of King Abdullah’s II enthronement was celebrated. He is a very experienced ruler who has considerable authority in the international arena and especially in the Middle East. We sincerely congratulate His Majesty and all the people of the kingdom on this outstanding date. We hope that the visit of the king will bring bilateral relations between our countries to a new level and will strengthen the positions of Ukraine and Jordan.
We are working to enhance trade and economic cooperation, which, after a significant decline at the beginning of the war, began to increase gradually. Substantial diversification of Ukrainian-Jordanian trade became a significant achievement for both parties. As early as 7 years ago, almost 94% of all exports from Ukraine to Jordan were steel and grain. Now they make up about 64%. Today, trade in food supplies, livestock, goods of light and heavy industries began to develop actively. The number of Ukrainian companies that export domestic goods to the kingdom is growing.
Ukraine has long been an “educational Mecca” for students from many Arab states, including Jordan, how would you characterize this phenomenon and Ukrainian-Jordanian cooperation in the educational sphere in general?
Every year, the number of Jordanian students that go to Ukraine for studies, is increasing. After the start of Russian aggression in Ukraine, there was a significant decline in numbers – from 869 visas in 2013 to 432 in 2014. However, we’ve managed to return the growth trend, so in 2018 the embassy issued 521 student visas. In 2015, a book, devoted to the 60th anniversary of the professional association of doctors in Jordan, noted that Ukraine ranked second after Egypt in the number of Jordanian graduates from foreign medical universities. We are proud that such an ample number (more than 3,000) of Jordanian doctors have been educated in Ukraine, and the same number is studying now. The overwhelming majority of them are diligent students who successfully pass all the exams and external independent evaluation KROK. By the way, before the introduction of such a progressive knowledge assessment system adopted by most of the world’s advanced countries, local officials complained about the lack of training of students who studied in Ukrainian universities. Now the same officials complain that the requirements are too high and there’s no such test in the kingdom.
In general, the desire to complain constantly is another trait of many Jordanians. Though I won’t deny that it’s also inherent to some of our compatriots. It is obvious that there is a problem in the diligence of the students themselves. Quite often they find other, not always positive activities instead of learning – unfortunately, we have fights, drunk driving, road accidents, and pecuniary damage. Subsequently, such students can’t receive a visa in order to retry passing an exam one more time, they can’t fulfill the wishes of their parents who have invested in their studies. At home, they usually don’t confess in their adventures and violations. Instead, they try to put pressure on local officials with the help of all the relatives. In their turn, officials push the embassy to give a visa, but complicated records of some students do not make it very easy. Frankly speaking, I do not envy the patients of a doctor who doesn’t know basic knowledge in medicine and can’t pass exams a few times in a raw. You know, it is a danger to the health and life of those whom such doctor treats. Fortunately, such bad students are in minority – it’s around three dozen people out of more than 700 students per year. I hope that parents of these and future students will be wiser and make more efforts to educate their children, so they will study hard.
Please tell me how it happened that Taras Shevchenko Street appeared on the map of Amman?
In 2013, we had started a dialogue with the local authorities in order to commemorate the memory of the prominent Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko. It resulted in the historic decision, in March 2014, the street – where the Ukrainian diplomatic institution stands – was renamed to the Taras Shevchenko street. Now it is the only such street in the entire Arab world, and our embassy is the only diplomatic institution located on the street, named after its national hero. On the street next to the embassy there is a marble memorial plaque with a portrait of Taras Shevchenko. Another memorial plaque made of marble and metal is located next to the Park of Ukrainian-Jordanian Friendship, which was opened on March 9, 2015, to commemorate the 201st anniversary of the birth of Kobzar, so it’s also called the Taras Shevchenko Park. During the years of the park’s existence, the embassy together with the diaspora has planted almost 800 Ukrainian trees brought from the National Botanic Garden named after Hrushko as well as from the other places. The last planting took place in March of this year just before Shevchenko days. Thus, a corner of Ukrainian culture and nature was created in Amman and it really helped to unite the Ukrainian community in the kingdom.
What do Jordanians and Ukrainians have in common and what distinguishes us?
On the one hand, our peoples are distant both geographically and culturally, but if you look closely, there are many similar features – like Ukrainians, Jordanians are open, sensitive, hospitable, friendly, always ready to help. At any time they will open doors of their houses if someone is in trouble. Of course, there are some distinctive features, for the most part, they relate to traditions and religion. Note that in the kingdom, about 5% of Christians live peacefully and happily. Separately I would like to note that family ties are much closer in Jordan. Family members are more united, they don’t have such independence, as we have in Ukraine. Even adult people coordinate their decisions on family councils. Greater personal independence is inherent to Ukrainians.
Approximately five thousand Ukrainians are currently living in Jordan. Who are these people, how do they live? And what is your role in the life of the Ukrainian diaspora?
The vast majority of Ukrainians in Jordan are nearly two thousand Ukrainian women married to Jordanians, and their children. Many of them created their families in Soviet times and moved a long time ago. When I’ve started my job here, the reality was that a lot of our compatriots were not identifying themselves as Ukrainians. They declared themselves members of so-called Russian-speaking or Slavic community. They were visiting the Russian cultural center in Amman and did not identify the difference between themselves and other citizens of the former USSR. With the support of our embassy, step by step, Ukrainian self-identification, the future core for the creation of the Ukrainian cultural center as an attraction point for all nationally conscious Ukrainians, has emerged. Of course, Russian aggression was an important impetus for the creation of the Ukrainian community. Many of our compatriots felt the hostile attitude of Russians towards them, so this made them form a new social circle, ways of cultural development and leisure. Since the beginning of the war state funding of communities abroad has increased. For example, for the funds allocated by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the first collection of poems by Viktoria Brychkova-Abu Kadum – our talented poet, who lives in Jordan, was published. The community is granted funding for carrying out cultural and artistic events, the most prominent of which was the festival “I Love Shevchenko “, which was dedicated to the 205th anniversary of Kobzar.
And in the end, please give a few tips for those who are going to visit Jordan. What you should you 100% do and what’s better to refrain from?
Jordan is perfect for all sorts of tourism – Christian pilgrims can visit the Jordan River and the baptism site, Mount Nebo. History lovers will find the ruins of Roman cities, amphitheaters, the citadel, the legacy of Petra. Fans of outdoor activities can arrange camping in the Wadi Rum desert, hike among the rocks, or try diving in the Red Sea, have some rest at the calming Dead Sea or hot springs. All of it is worthy of your attention. Don’t hesitate to try traditional Jordanian cuisine and take care. Do not violate the law, respect local traditions, and you will have only positive memories from your vacations.
Interview by Anton Yermakov
Photos provided by Serhiy Pasko