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Jordan: when education is more than just learning

Grace Benton, a Jesuit Refugee Service volunteer, enjoys the limelight with her younger students and their mother at a social gathering at the school which offers more than a chance to learn, but also a safe-haven where community spirit can be cultivated. (JRS)
Friday, October 26, 2012

(Amman) October 26, 2012 — For eight months Grace Benton volunteered with Jesuit Refugee Service in Jordan as part of a team trying to offer refugees and their children the support they need to build a future. As she learned, the results were about more than learning curricular subjects, they were about building community and making refugees safer.

It all began when she gave a nonchalant response to an unexpected question.

Grace's experience. "Hey, we need someone to teach the kid's class. Can one of you do it?" Without thinking, I nodded.

Not having any inkling of what to expect, I slung my bag over my shoulder and shuffled over to where a cluster of Sudanese and Somali children, aged five to 15, were huddled chatting nervously amongst themselves. When I put my bag down in front of the class, 10 pairs of eyes turned apprehensively toward me and the chatter stopped. Little did I know that this would prove to be one of the most challenging, and rewarding, experiences during my year in Jordan.

From small beginnings. My road to the children's class began while living in Jordan as a Fulbright Scholar and volunteering with Jesuit Refugee Service as part of my extracurricular activities. JRS began assisting a Sudanese refugee community living in Amman. The community leaders immediately expressed a desire to learn English. JRS organized a group of volunteers to teach English a few nights a week in the house of some of the refugees. Soon another house requested lessons, and then another.

Demand became so great that it was decided to shift from classes in refugee homes to a centralized location where all the students could attend the night classes at the same time. The demographic of the informal education project also expanded to include Somalis, Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis. Although JRS manages an informal education project during the day, many Sudanese and Somalis work as manual laborers and are only able to attend at night.

With the commencement of the classes at the Jesuit center in Jabal Hussein, a lot more women began to attend classes. They brought their children with them, and so began the children's class. 

Challenges of teaching. Many of the challenges of teaching at Jabal Hussein — maintaining discipline and enthusiasm, although no different than teaching children elsewhere in the world – eluded me for some time. What little experience I had was limited to relatively well-behaved high school students and adults; teaching children proved more complex. 

Fortunately my father, a veteran middle school teacher, imparted his wisdom one day over Skype:

"You've got to trick them into learning, put together activities disguised as games that will secretly leak some knowledge into their brains." 

My co-teachers and I took his advice to heart. By incorporating music, dance and art into our lessons we were able to expend energy and teach English at the same time.

Other challenges were more contextual. During my second week of teaching, a fight broke out between a Somali boy and a Sudanese boy, each around 12 years old. After pulling them apart, I discovered that some racial comments had been made to prompt the brawl.

From a focus group with some Sudanese mothers, I later learned that racist remarks from the host population and other nationalities are a daily reality for some refugees. In a city awash with refugee populations, they are viewed as intruders trying to take work from Jordanians.

As time went on, the children began to open up about these issues. Many of them suffer from daily instances of name-calling, ostracizing, and other forms of discrimination. Almost all of them live in poor and rough neighborhoods, and others face abuse at home. 

And yet, despite these exhausting and demoralizing challenges, many of the children attend classes regularly. Some come with their parents or older siblings, but a significant number come alone, indicating a remarkable level of motivation for such young children.

Education is a stabilizing factor. The JRS English teaching program provides a crucial opportunity to students to supplement their limited English education, while also offering a safe-haven from the painful teasing that permeates their daily school experience. 

It is an opportunity to mix with children of different nationalities who have had similar experiences to them and to engage in positive activities as a community. Programs like these are all-too-often underestimated and underfunded, yet their capacity to rebuild communities and instill newfound hope is huge.

by Grace Benton
Grace was a JRS volunteer from October 2011 until June 2012

The night class program has since been relocated to the Greek Catholic School in Ashrafiyeh, with classes twice a week. Enrollment is currently at 200 students. Classes on offer are kindergarten, children's classes, literacy and varying levels of English proficiency for the older teenagers and adults. The program is staffed entirely by volunteers like Grace. Learn more about JRS in the Middle East.

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