Amman, Jordan — The Jabal Al-Natheef district alone is home to at least 50,000, possibly as many as 75,000 people. Within its borders is the unofficial, under-developed, and badly-contructed Mohammed Amin refugee camp, which makes the neighborhood a mixed region of Muslims, Christians, Jordanians and Palestinians. The living conditions are cramped, the buildings are falling apart, the unemployment is 50% higher than the national average, and key services are minimal if not nonexistent. Without a police station, a health center, a post office, or even public parks, the region still yields to a number of social problems: high birth rates, single-mother families, drug-related violence and a high rate of school delinquency. Although Jordan as a whole maintains an international reputation for 93% literacy rate amid its highly educated population, access to higher education in Jabal Al-Natheef is low and is often granted to boys.
“They often go to school in three-hour shifts. Any opportunities that come up are given to boys,” remarked Palestinian-Canadian Yara Sifri. “They usually come from big families so there’s not much attention, especially for the girls. It’s rare for girls to go to university.”
It’s also rare for Jordanian women to pursue a career in science. According to a 2010 UNESCO Institute for Statistics report on women and science, only 21% of Jordan’s researchers are female, compared to the overall average of 34% in Europe.
“Jabal Al-Natheef is a conservative community and with adolescent girls, parents tend to be over-protective and are afraid to allow girls outside unless accompanied by a family member,” said Samar Dudin, regional program director for the Arab Foundation for Sustainable Development (Ruwwad). “So these girls often miss out on the services such as a library and creative workshops that we offer.”
Which is why Sifri, a 17-year-old Massachusetts high school student, raised 22,000 Jordanian dinars (approximately $30,000 USD) to create SciGirls, a two-week camp that selects “44 girls who had the highest science grades in the schools” of Jabal Al-Natheef. The girls, aged 12-15, are bussed daily to the Jubilee Center for Excellence in Education to study electronics, robotics and math through chess. Between classes, the girls lean mural painting and soccer. “Students who continue to achieve high grades in science topics and who can attend the camp and stay with the robotics team for three consecutive years will get the chance to compete for a full scholarship at the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut,” Sifri said to the Jordan Times.
“I believe in empowerment, to make them realize someone cares about them,” Sifri said. “Once they are given the chance they will work hard to prove to everyone what they are capable of.”
Creating opportunities to empower disadvantaged girls is one thing; mobilizing acceptance for it in a conservative and undereducated community is another. “Ruwwad already had a relationship with the people living in the area so they went to see each family and asked them to allow their girls to take part in the program,” Sifri explained. “We had to gain their trust for the program.”
“It was important for us to seek out these girls and engage with their parents to remove obstacles so they could benefit from Yara’s initiative,” Dudin added.
Through engaging with the parents, apprehension eventually turned into acceptance. “The entire neighborhood has grown interested in how the team is doing and have started to trust the girls-in-science idea,” Sifri said.
“I’ve not done much science at school, so this is all new. It’s challenging and that’s what makes it fun,” said 14-year-old Haneen Abu Dbour, who hopes to one day become a psychiatrist. “It’s a chance to be responsible and to make new friends. I love playing soccer, which I’ve never done before.”
“Attending this camp gave us the opportunity to learn new things and made us determined to do well in school,” one participant told the Jordan Times.
This summer is SciGirl’s first year in action. Sifri plans to make it an annual program.
“I was deeply touched when Yara said she wanted to do this specifically for girls, and felt in my heart that it would be a tremendous opportunity for them. They are excited to feel so valued and engaged. The relationship she has built up with the girls is beneficial for everyone,” said Dudin. “We are committed to following up with these girls and developing their science education.”
Photo courtesy of YGLvoices via Flickr