What is a community?
Describe the community you live in or have lived in?
What responsibilities, if any, do you have towards your community?
These were some of the questions we proposed to our students in their dialogue sessions, which were called “focus group discussions.”
Both the girls and boys were divided into focus groups. In the first few days, we noticed that many students were self-segregating into groups they felt comfortable in. Among the girls, the Syrian and Jordanian girls would sit apart from each other and have little casual conversation besides the contact they made in their required activities. The boys would also congregate amongst themselves based on their prior knowledge of each other before the program. The students who had other relatives participating in the program would sit with their relatives while those without any relatives would sit alone, showing hesitancy to converse with others.
To help the students break out of these comfort shells and to work towards our goal of helping the students see beyond their differences, such as the obvious ones between Syrian refugees and Jordanian natives, we decided to create dialogue focus groups. The students were divided into small groups of about four or five based on their age, maturity, and nationality. We made sure to have proportional numbers of Syrians and Jordanians in each group so that the students would get to know each other beyond their nationalities. Amongst the girls, this division worked out well for there was a proportional number of Jordanian and Syrian girls. Though among the boys, because there were more Jordanian than Syrians and vast differences in age, we decided to divide the boys based on their maturity. This division enabled for mature and intense discussion among the different focus groups.
In correspondence with the themes of each week, we would propose different discussion questions for the focus groups. For example, for the “Where we come from” theme during the first week, we proposed several questions about community in an effort to help the students understand each others’ respective origins and what it means to now live together in their community in Zarqa.
The desire for change in their community was quite evident in the responses of the students’ answers to questions about community. While the younger students gave innocent responses by describing their community as “peaceful” and “beautiful,” the older students shared more harsh descriptions of their community. Because of the stark contrast between their perceptions of community, we held additional focus discussion for the older boys and girls outside of class time. It was in these discussions that the students really opened up about their concerns and worries about their community.
Below are the main issues that were highlighted by the students. The students discussed these issues based on how these issues challenged them in accordance with their gender or nationality.
Issues of Concern:
This was one of the first and most confronted problems raised by the girls. The girls talked about their experience with harassment on the streets, not feeling safe to step outside of their house on their own, and how this lack of safety hindered their pursuit of educational and vocational opportunities.
The Syrian girls had become even more obvious targets of harassment. A Syrian teen described an incident in which a man on the street grabbed her arm, offering her two Jordanian Dinars. A mother of another Syrian girl mentioned how she was frequently called names and cursed at on the streets.
The educational concerns for the girls and boys were based on their access to education. Many of the girls, especially the older ones, were not attending school on a regular basis. Because of the harassment on the streets, their families felt it would be safer for them to not attend school. In addition, access to school was more difficult for the Syrian girls with instability and lack of money. The Syrian girls and boys who were attending school were placed in lower levels to make up for the school that they had missed because of the conflicts. For the boys, especially those who have been enrolled in the Jordanian public education system for years, their worry was about the degradation of the education system. The boys highlighted different problems in the Zarqa schools, such as ineffective teachers, violence, drugs, no discipline, lack of financial resources, and more. The boys mentioned that this degradation of the schools was reflected in the deterioration of their community, as drugs and violence were obvious problems in their neighborhoods.
The students discussed environmental concerns in reference to the physical surroundings of their neighborhood. The students highlighted the need for better sanitary conditions, as the streets are littered with garbage, dirt, and other pollutants. There is also an apparent presence of and use of drugs. These physical characteristics contributed to the students not feeling safe in their environment.
Lack of Resources
The lack of recreational resources and facilities in the neighborhood, such as football fields, contributed to the students, particularly the boys, turning towards the streets and harmful habits and activities. The girls expressed need for more educational and vocational centers where they could get training in useful skills, get access to internet, books, and start community building initiatives.
5. Lack of Motivation and Belief in Possibility of Change
The issues above show that the students have legitimate concerns with their community. With the dissolution they feel and because of the lack of real, good role models in their community, many of the students were at first hesitant about their potential to bring change. At the same time, the students felt that if no one else took leadership and attempted to change the status quo, the community would be stuck in its ways. Hence, the desire to make a difference was evident among our students. We just had to motivate them and push them more.
How the issues were addressed through ‘Voices of the Future’:
In our existence and presence:
The fact that the program ‘Voices of the Future’ existed as a summer program for the youth in the neighborhood and that so many of the youth participated in the program holds a lot of the answers in to how the issues listed by the students can be addressed. One of the major complaints that all students expressed was about the lack of attention that is given to youth development in their community, which is apparent in the fact that there are no youth recreational or educational facilities in close proximity of the neighborhood. The only center offering any kind of services is the ARDD-Legal Aid’s Zarqa office. The office is located right at the front of the neighborhood, next to a bustling commercial street, yet a lot of our students did not know that the ARDD center existed when we first went around the neighborhood to recruit for students. During the duration of our program, the ARDD office and the entrance area was bustling with students and community members. A group of youth who previously managed an electronics shop right in front of the office with no knowledge about ARDD’s services not only participated in our program but have also developed a connection with ARDD as they continue to take advantage of the organization’s services. What the students’ continual interest in ARDD shows is their commitment to continue pursing services and training that was offered in Voices of the Future and like services from ARDD and other organizations that can cater towards the youth. Hence, the need to create more programs for the youth in the neighborhood is quite obvious as there are no other options, besides what ARDD, an organization the youth have come to trust through Voices of the Future, can offer.
If the program had not existed, the girls and boys would have no other options but home or the street. For the girls, the program offered them a safe place outside of their home to explore their passions and interests in education and the arts. The program was physically and spiritually a safe space where they could converse with each other and share their experiences and concerns, as many of the girls were not allowed to go outside often because of the harassment on the streets. In fact, one of the girls who was not allowed to attend school because of her father’s fear for her safety on the streets allowed her to attend our program because of how close the ARDD office was to her house. Again, it shows how much potential a facility that caters to the youth in the neighborhood can have as the youth are desperate for something better to do. For the boys who would have spent most of their summer on the streets without access to recreational activities, the program offered them a place to learn English, explore art, meet and work with other neighborhood youth on positive community development programs. There has been a clear transformation in the neighborhood through the existence of the Voices of the Future and the need for more youth centered program and facilities in the neighborhood is clear, as expressed by our students’ concerns and passions.
Dialogue to Action:
The intensity with which the students spoke about their understanding of the community and its issues made it evident that they wanted to bring a real change into the matters that affected them. Within the dialogue focus groups, the students, both the Jordanians and Syrians, were eager to discuss ways in which they could address their disillusionment within the community. To help them move beyond the dialogue groups towards action, we first needed to expand the dialogue that we were having about community needs by inviting other members of the community, such as the students’ relatives, elders, neighbors, and other people in the area. To expand this dialogue, we introduced the idea of citizen journalism to the students. The students were instructed to interview their family and community members on community needs and how they could possibly address community problems. For the students who interviewed community members, they got a sense of what it feels to be at a place where they can convey the voices of their society and possibly respond to the voices with positive work. Following the interviews with community members, the students would return with more ideas in ways we could pursue community development. The most impressive result of expanding the dialogue network was the fact that the students were beginning to move beyond their disillusionment with society to a place where they were actually in conversation with community elders discussing ways to improve not only their but the whole community’s well being. Below is an example of such transformation taking place. Our student Rashid gathered all of the older boys in his group and wrote what he called a “manifesto” describing the community needs and how they could be addressed. For the project team, the manifesto was an impressive ordeal as we had not expected or required something like this and because the manifesto had been written so well in English, with no help from us.
As the students discussed ways to address community problems among themselves and with other community members, it also became clear that the students were hesitant to actually pursue service initiatives and projects. For example, most of the students agreed that something needed to be done about the physical layout of their neighborhood immediately. Students stressed that streets needed to be cleaned for sanitary reasons so that kids could find a safer and cleaner place to play. They even went to suggest doing different environmental projects but when it came to actually planning the projects, the students would express great disbelief in the potential of the project. Many argued that no matter what we did to improve the neighborhood conditions, after our work, the streets would be filled with litter again. Rashed would often refer to the community with the word “vicious,” arguing that the community was stuck in a vicious cycle in which everyone felt that nothing could be changed for the better. There was also a great sense of insecurity among the students. The Jordanian youth had grown up in the shadows of their community, rarely asked about their concerns and dreams. The Syrian youth were struggling with their own identity issues as recent arrivals to the community and often felt like outsiders. While the dialogue groups helped the Jordanians and Syrians realize that they shared the same living spaces and hence were part of the same community, they both also needed to believe in their potential to make an impact in their community.
In essence, what the students needed was motivation. They needed someone to tell them that really “nothing is impossible.” Motivation is exactly what Dr. Sana’ Abdo provided the students. Dr. Abdo is a motivational speaker with a diversity of accomplishments in climbing Mount Everest, astronomy, and education. She is well known for her book “My Way to Everest.” Dr. Abdo became the first Jordanian woman to climb Mount Everest despite the many physical challenges she faced. Her ability to persevere beyond her challenges and succeed in a diversity of areas attracted the students as they needed to realize that they too could pursue and dream beyond their daily struggles in life. Dr. Abdo stressed the importance of education to the girls, that they should pursue education despite the severity of their circumstances. It was incredible how captivated even the younger boys and girls, ages 5 -10, were. Throughout Dr. Abdo’s talk, the younger and older ones sat alongside listening intently to Dr. Abdo. Towards the end of Dr. Abdo’s workshop, we gave Dr. Abdo’s book as a prize to one girl and one boy as a way to acknowledge hard work among the students. Among the girls, the book was given to Imani Qasim who is a gifted writer and an example for the other girls. Another book was given to Rashed, an amazing role model for the other boys in the way he helped others and put in so much effort into his work. Both Imani and Rashed will be able to read and share Dr. Abdo’s book with the other students. Dr. Abdo had a lasting effect on the students as many confided to us at the end of the program that “Dr. Sana change me.”
Leadership through Service:
Once the students were ready to move on and lead a service project for the community, we began the next phase of community development and leadership. The students agreed that there had to be a physical change in the neighborhood which would then in turn prompt and inspire the community to address further problems. Therefore, it became imperative to address the environmental concerns. An ARDD employee connected us with a new and innovative environmental NGO, called HU Greener, that was founded by Hashmite University students in Zarqa. The organization was notable for their “Green Wall” project in which recycled bottles filled with plants are assembled on a wall, creating a sustainable green wall. We decided to work with HU Greener for two reason. One, we wanted our students to meet exceptional role models which the founders of HU Greener were as they had attended a university in Zarqa and were now doing amazing work for the society. We wanted our students to meet role models who had some sort of connection with their own community or city of Zaraqa. Second, the Green Wall allowed for an opportunity to transform the ARDD office into a more attractive facility for the youth in the neighborhood. Having the students build a green wall by the ARDD office granted them a sense of belonging to the ARDD center. Not only had the students attended Voices of the Future, they had also contributed in transforming the office into a space that they felt attracted to and comfortable in.
The execution of the Green Wall went smoothly. Both boys and girls divided the tasks and worked together to assemble and build the wall. A sense of community was quite evident during the building of the wall as Jordanian and Syrian, boys and girls, older and younger ones, contributed their effort. For the Syrian students, building the wall assured to them that they too were part of this community, especially since they were giving back to the community. As the wall was being built, other community members and elders would stop by to admire the wall and ask questions about the program and ARDD. For these community members, the fact that the wall was actually built and sustained was surprising for many did not believe in the potential of the students to contribute something useful to the community. Initially, when we were walking around the neighborhood with our students to find the right wall for the project, a man approached us questioning why we were even working with the neighborhood youth who he described as “failures.” The Green Wall dispelled this idea of the youth as failures. After the completion of the wall, the students took care of the wall each day, some waking up at 4 AM to water the plants. The same students who did not believe in themselves nor had other community members who believed in them built and sustained a Green Wall that has transformed the neighborhood. The Gallery below shows the process of building the Green Wall.
More than just Voices of the Future:
Through the program, our students have become more than just voices of the future. They have demonstrated that they are more than just voices expressing concern about their community. The students are also leaders capable of giving back and transforming their community into a safer and content space for all. To be sure, there is a lot of work left to do and issues that still require more attention. For example, the issue of harassment requires much more work beyond dialogue groups, something we and the students are aware of. In consideration of this, we hope to work on creating some sort of safe space for the youth where they can continue to address issues like harassment and taking advantage of educational and recreational resources.