by Omar Sajjad
Global Health student Omar Sajjad (’18) shared with us the following reflection on his field experience in Jordan with UC San Diego Global Seminars:
“This summer, I was fortunate to spend five weeks in Jordan through UCSD’s Public Health in Amman program. Jordan is a major destination for refugees from throughout the Middle East, having accommodated millions over the past few decades. Recently, it has brought in over 1.5 million Syrians fleeing the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees live in the capital city of Amman, where many face cramped conditions and are unable to find regular employment. The children are especially affected; each day they struggle to cope with their abrupt displacement, their limited access to education, and their new life as refugees. In essence, many have lost the opportunity to enjoy a carefree childhood.
After learning about the situation in late 2014, I consulted several of my Syrian friends, including one who had previously lived in Jordan. He told me about Al Amal, a primary school for Syrian refugees in Amman which he had previously attended. Since many refugees arrive in Jordan having missed years of school, students at Al Amal must work very hard to catch up to the same academic level as their Jordanian peers.
Upon talking to my friend and getting connected with the school principal, I decided to establish a Lego classroom at Al Amal with their approval. This classroom would serve as a means of fostering the children’s creativity and relaxing after long schooldays. I determined the details with the principal over multiple phone calls and organized a campus-wide Lego drive before leaving for Amman. The faculty and students of UCSD responded enthusiastically. When the time came, we headed off to Jordan with boxes containing over 6,000 Lego pieces.
I arrived at the refugee school to find that it was being operated out of a modest house in a lower income residential area. As my classmates and I were shown around the school, we saw that it consisted of three rooms containing over 100 students. Along with a couple of my fellow students, I walked into one of the classrooms, where the children cheerfully greeted us in unison: “Assalaamu Alaikum!” (“Peace be onto you” in Arabic). And just like that, the ice was broken; we opened and began distributing the Legos. That afternoon, several children eagerly ran up to me to show off their creations. They built houses, police stations, hospitals, and schools, as if building the Syria they wished to return to.
The first somber moment of the school visit came when a teacher pointed me towards a jubilant boy of about seven, explaining that his father had died in the war. It was a heartbreaking reminder of what many of these children have been through. The students at this school have worries beyond their years – the loss of loved ones, helping their families pay the bills, pulling long days to further their education – but just to look at them, they seemed carefree as kids their age should be.
Later, the principal told us the story of how she had established the school. Every day, she would see Jordanian students go to school with their new backpacks and school supplies. Conversely, the Syrian children in her majority-refugee neighborhood did not have a school to attend. They were limited in their education by where they lived, their refugee status, and their financial situation. The principal said she could not bear to see the children face these issues, so in September 2012 she established her own school. With no family members nearby, she runs the school herself and pays the other two teachers out of her own pocket. The principal spoke to me for an hour about her hopes for the students, her favorite memories as a principal, and her numerous daily responsibilities. She is one of the most strong-willed and inspiring people I have ever met.
Al Amal School – or “The School of Hope” in Arabic – is rightly named for what it provides to these kids. Although many have lost family members in the war, the students brimmed with pure unadulterated joy as they played with their friends. I was also touched by their boundless generosity. In one instance, I made a subsequent visit to Al Amal to drop off the remaining toys and books I had brought. Immediately as I entered, a young boy wearing a faded shirt and ripped jeans placed a cold can of Pepsi and a bowl of freshly picked nectarines before me. I already knew from previous interactions that Syrians are some of the most resilient yet generous people. The boy’s simple gesture, however, really drove this point home.
Visiting the school was easily one of the most sobering experiences of my life. I kept thinking back to the tragic circumstances that had made these kids tough and mature beyond their years. Yet in the end, the kids who came to see us went home laughing and waving to us.
The visit’s impact on me only deepened my desire to stay involved with the school. After the teachers requested one, I arranged for a color photocopier to be delivered to Al Amal. Furthermore, I remain in touch with the principal. She recently told me that her humble school has over 150 students now. In her last correspondence she wrote, “My large school has grown even larger, but it’s alright. I can manage”.
After seeing the fruits of her labor, I have no doubt that she will.”