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Students from Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Jordan discuss their essay topic with a volunteer teacher at the JRS school in Ashrafiyeh. (Zerene Haddad/Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Amman) October 31, 2012 – Situated in a quiet neighborhood on top of a hill, it would be easy to confuse Ashrafiyeh as just another school in east Amman. But few of the students share a common language, or religious and cultural traditions. Most have been forced to flee conflict and survive on the margins of society. They need to be supported and kept engaged. This is the approach taken by teachers in the Jesuit Refugee Service school in Jordan.

"We don't want teachers who just lecture and leave. I tell my teachers: 'first we have to really get to know and respect the students; then teach them.' Accompaniment comes first," said Falah Matti, an Iraqi refugee and the Director of the school.

The school is based at a Greek Catholic school, which operates as a public school during the mornings. Since 2009, JRS has held afternoon courses there. Four days a week, yellow buses drive refugees and local students from all across the city to the school.

Lessons take place in the afternoon and evening. The afternoon classes are usually frequented by Iraqis, Syrians and Jordanians. While the evening classes are taken by Somalis and Sudanese, most of whom work in the informal labour market, doing jobs others refuse to do.

The staff comprise 30 volunteer teachers. They teach English language, conversation and computer skills. As many of the teachers are refugees, they are prohibited from undertaking paid employment, a big change for a person like Abu Hassan who was a headmaster before he fled Iraq.

Coping with change. In the last three years the number of students has increased from 35 Iraqi refugees to 600 students, mostly women, from a wide variety of countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Somalia and Sudan. In three years more than 3,000 students have successfully completed courses and graduated from the school.

The rapid expansion of the school is a clear sign not just of the demand for education, but of success. Many schools offer vocational training courses, but they are expensive and without any quality guarantees.

"We have a good reputation…The number of students has increased without any advertisement. We respect certain rules, choose our teachers carefully and offer a friendly environment", said Mr Matti, known to his friends and students as Abu (or the father of) Hassan, a title conferred on him as a sign of respect.

Under Abu Hassan, the school celebrates success and listens to the views of the students.

Those who complete the courses successfully receive a certificate at a graduation party. In addition, all students are asked to give their suggestions and opinion on the quality of the lessons.

"We ask them to fill in a questionnaire at the end of each year. The results are presented to everyone, so they realize that their opinion is valuable for us and we respect it. It boosts their self-confidence," explains Abu Hassan.

Integration. A cursory glance at this heterogeneous group of students together — chatting, making friends, learning new skills — demonstrates the value of this approach.

When the bell rings and students gather in the school yard to play soccer, enjoy an Arabic coffee or simply chat, the friendly atmosphere is evident. In the evening, the classrooms are packed with students, young and old. The younger ones are taken care of in the childcare room downstairs while mothers attend lessons.

"We teach the students that we belong to one human family. Politics and religion are a red line. We don't avoid these topics but whenever students talk about them, it has to be with an attitude of mutual respect. You can express your personal opinion but whoever starts a fight, be it verbal or physical, has to leave," explained Abu Hassan.

Uncertainty. Despite the success, the drop-out rate from the courses is extremely high, 35 percent. The uncertainty of the lives of refugees makes delivery services extremely complex.

Resettlement to a third country, such as Australia, Canada or the U.S., is the main cause of drop-outs. Abu Hassan knows this only too well; today his family is spread across the globe, with daughters in Australia and Greece, and a son in Germany. All the while he and his wife are still in Jordan, awaiting resettlement.

Others drop out because they find a job or enroll in UN-sponsored activities, such as vocational training, for which they receive an allowance for attendance.

"Many students have been resettled. Some stay in touch, they call or email," says Abu Hassan.

Ashrafiyeh restores a sense of normality to the lives of refugees; although some students remain in classes for only a brief period, the social and educational benefits will continue for some time to come.

by Angelika Mendes, JRS International Fundraising Coordinator

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