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English in al Baqa'a

What I'm up to

OK...I'm kinda tickled about this, cause it actually came together.

Last week, after two months of planning, my friends and I opened an English Learning Center in al Baqa’a, Jordan’s largest Palestinian Refugee Camp. If it had been up to me, we would have spent another two months on the planning. I concede that it probably should have been only one month more (I tend to over-plan). On the other hand, we had Haya pushing to open class two days after I brought the idea up. We sorta cancel each other out...or complement each other or whatever.

The impetus for the camp was a result of my tendency to volunteer for things combined with the insane level of hospitality I receive whenever I visit my friends in al Baqa’a.

My first visit to Baqa’a looked like this:
I was hanging out with my friend Haya. In fact, I was staying with her family in the Ras Alein part of Amman. One morning, I'm still sleeping and Haya comes in loudly, “Quick, get up, get up! My uncle is coming to get us in 15 minutes!” She runs off to get ready. One might presume that I knew we had plans to go somewhere with her uncle. Of course not. Of course, she didn’t know either. After five minutes, when still I’m barely vertical, she comes back, “Hurry up! They’re waiting downstairs!”


Now Haya’s mom is also rushing me, ‘Yalla! Goom goom!” Haya says they’re getting angry. So, now apparently I’m pissing off some group of people that I’ve never met. AND they’re the family of my gracious hosts. Finally, her brother is rushing us too. Without brushing my hair or teeth, I grab my bag which contains neither, and we are out the door. Downstairs, there’s a van waiting for us, filled with men, women, and children. We pile in, balance on the ledge that the front seats are bolted to, and head out. I’m facing backwards while we move which I hate in the best of circumstances. But on top of it, we’re screaming through the congested city streets of Amman. The only way I can prevent myself from launching fully into the lap of one of Haya’s aunts is to grip the seamless ceiling of the van with my fingertips. And I’m SO ticked off. As much as I feel I should be cordial to everyone, I can’t. I just can’t. Every time Haya catches my eye, I send daggers. To be fair, she’s been at the mercy of this dynamic since she was born.

It turns out we are going to al Baqa’a, a refugee camp about 10 minutes north of Amman (this is after the 20 minutes it takes to drive THROUGH Amman). As we pull into camp, the road narrows. Actually, the roads there are more like alleys. The van has about two feet of space on either side as we creep through, slowing to allow groups of kids and men to get out of the way. The buildings are long and low grey cinderblock and each contains several residences. Some are one story, some two. Many people here have animals on the roof; chickens, pigeons, goats. There’s absolutely no space for gardens or yards. There’s no dirt, other than in the alleys.

Haya’s uncle, who I call ‘TimsaH’ (this is Arabic for crocodile…I’ll probably elaborate later), parks the van in a maneuvering feat that absolutely trumps any parallel parking I’ve seen in San Francisco. We pile out onto the tile landing outside of the family’s courtyard. After we remove shoes in the courtyard, we enter the house and about double the population inside. Included within are Haya’s aunt and cousin, as well as visiting family members, some from next door. The actual residents here are Haya’s aunt and uncle, their four girls, Haya’s grandmother, another aunt, and a cousin from Palestine who came to visit five years ago but Israel prevented from returning home to his family (he’s from the West Bank).

We’re there all afternoon. No one speaks any English. Some are kind and try to speak to me in very simple Arabic I can understand. Others are oblivious and keep talking even when I say ‘ma bafam, ma bafam’ a million times. Haya is not helping. She’s off in the other room doing something else. I’m still unbrushed and unfed and cranky. To be clear, everyone is smiling and saying ‘aHlan wa saHlan, aHlan wa saHlan’, ‘welcome, welcome’. They are so kind and I am sort of a show-and-tell. It is rare to see a westerner in a camp. But my panties are still in a twist.

Haya’s aunt makes dinner. She single handedly keeps the house for the whole clan. The men aren’t expected to do any work in the home, their four daughters are too small still to help much, and her mother and sister-in-law are simply unable. Dinner service looks like this: plastic is laid on the floor, bowls of chopped cucumber and tomatoes come out as well as bowls of plain yogurt. THEN, a giant tray generally with some rice dish. On this visit, it's capsa (SO good! Spiced rice with toasted almonds, raisins, and fried chicken) comes out with several spoons. Everyone seats themselves on the floor and digs in.


Now it turns out we’re spending the night. I’m still unbrushed, but now fed. I have no change of clothes or pajamas. To be fair, I’ve actually been over needing a new change of clothes each day since spending the 2 ½ months in the desert. Haya’s aunt brings out tea. As the girls fall asleep, mattresses are pulled out to put them on.

Digression: In Jordan, with the exception of the parents, family members typically don’t have a dedicated personal space. And everyone lives at home until they’re married. Laundry is done by Mom, folded and put away in one large cabinet, divided in to girls’ and boys’ clothes. Beds are portable mattresses that get stacked on top of the cabinet each morning and pulled out each night. Wherever there’s space, one can lay a mattress for sleeping. Because of this, people do tend to have a ‘the more the merrier’ outlook on guests. There were, at one point, ten of us sleeping in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. One of Haya’s brothers typically sleeps in the narrow pathway in the middle of the living room between the front door and the kitchen. Also, they can sleep through ANYTHING. This also means that they don’t realize that I can’t. Consequently, the TV may be left on all night. If I’ve managed to eek out a space in a room with the light off, someone may – nay, WILL – come in, turn on the ever present fluorescent light, step over me – multiple times, and have a full volume conversation (which is about two times louder than our average full volume conversation) at 3am.

OK....and we're back:

Following this first visit to al Baqa’a, I’ve been out several times. The food is always excellent, and there are always warm greetings, invitations for coffee and for spending the night. On one visit, TimsaH earned his nickname after calling his wife ‘baqara’ (cow) and his sister ‘baqaratain’ (two cows). I settled on TimsaH because it was one of the vocabulary words (among many) from my Arabic class that I found difficult to use in regular conversation.

Before the opening of the center last week, the last time we visited camp was a month ago. Six of us went to check out the building they offered to let us use for the English center. We had gone to the souk to buy food to prepare at the house because Haya’s aunt was extremely pregnant - due with their first son THAT DAY. We got rice, had a couple of chickens killed (while Haya teared up – she likes animals more than people), and bought some veggies. When we arrived at the house, Haya’s aunt was already cooking for us, stirring the chicken with one hand and holding up her enormous belly with the other. She wouldn’t allow us to assist so we went to check out the building, which is typically used for weddings and funerals, but has a downstairs room we can use. It’s painted minty green, which was a pleasant surprise because many homes and buildings there remain the unpainted grey concrete (we’re hoping to get a couple of heaters and a carpet or two because it’s chilly in there this time of year).

The building:

The minty room:

After checking out the building, we went back for lunch, this time magluba (Arabic for ‘upside down’). By the time we finished eating, Haya’s aunt was sitting in the corner breathing through the pain. They took her to the hospital after we left. She actually wasn’t that keen to go and had used us as an excuse to delay the trip.

When someone here has their first male child, the parents are renamed ‘father of…’ and ‘mother of…’, or, in this case ‘abu SaleH’ and ‘um SaleH’. Although, I only gave TimsaH a one day reprieve from 'crocodile.

On the first day of class, we arrived early to set up the room and the children were already there waiting for us, each with a new notebook and pencil. We hadn’t expected them to provide their own supplies or be on time. There are a lot of challenges for the kids living in the camp so we were surprised at their preparedness. These kids also attend UNRWA school so this is an additional commitment. In class, they sat quietly, followed the lessons, raised their hands, and actively participated. Meanwhile, Haya kept getting pulled out into the hallway as more and more kids turned up to get on a waiting list. One little boy, six or seven years old, waited on his own for an hour-and-a-half in the hallway to ensure he got in.

Haya, Natalie, and Caro:

Miss Nat:

Miss Bianca & Miss Haya:

Our approach is ‘edu-tainment’; activities, songs and games in English. In order to address diversity in skill level (due both to age and English exposure) as well as a potential for attendance issues, we’ve decided upon a modular system (similar to something my grammar school used). This means that, following an introductory period that lays out some fundamental conversation skills, lessons are taught as modules. Up to three modules might be covered on a single day – for example color, prepositions, and adjectives. If a student already knows colors, he can take the color test and, if he passes, not attend that particular module. If another student misses a topic, they can go next time it is covered. If someone doesn’t get it the first time, they can attend multiple times. Each student has a progress card with 12 modules. Once the card is complete, they are thorough with level one, they can move up to more advanced topics (or increase their vocabulary in existing topics). So, their progress doesn’t have a time limit. As long as they stay in the program, they can take as long as they need to complete the card. We’re hoping to expand to Level 2. There is certainly enough interest amongst the kids and their parents. We just need to overcome resource issues.

Um, yep, that's about it. Also still lookin' for more work of the payin' kind.

Posted by jenofear 17:58

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That's pretty neat. I'm still looking for work of the paying kind, myself.

by DaveSmith

Wow, Jen; this is exactly the kind of work (paid or otherwise) I'm interested in doing. Feel free to email: valerie.diana@gmail.com.

by DianaVal

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