SIO music instructor Owais Omari with student in Amman
I am sitting on a classroom floor at the primary school in Yaffa – a hillside village 20 miles from Amman – listening to thirty children play with various percussion instruments at nearly deafening decibels. Without too much trouble, my colleague Sami softens the group’s excitement and the students find a steady yet powerful unified beat. He begins a call-and-response exercise meant to teach English letter names and sounds, layering fun rhythms with nonsense syllables and short English words. The children shout eagerly in reply, their focus interrupted only by their laughter.
I am awash in a sense of relief. The class is the first session in a new program that has been months in the making. But the experience is also a surreal one. I did not plan to teach English while in Jordan, nor did I intend to design and implement a language program for several hundred children.
“We have classes of 9 year old children that cannot read, that do not know how to add.”
The focus of my work changed late last winter after I met Ruth Petzold, the Regional English Language Officer at the American Embassy in Amman. Ruth wanted to create a new program for Syrian children in Jordan that would promote both language acquisition and student wellbeing. Our conversation quickly turned to the topic of collaboration as we discussed potential opportunities for using music programming to support her aims and the educational needs of displaced youth more broadly.
Issues regarding access to education for Syrian refugees represent a crisis within a crisis. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), two-thirds of school-aged Syrians – or 2.8 million children and teens are without educational resources.
Signs of hope exist in Jordan, where Syrian children are legally permitted to enroll in public school. At the start of 2014, some 90,000 Syrians were registered in Jordanian schools. Class sizes have doubled in many districts and some schools now offer afternoon or evening sessions following the regular school day. As a result, however, the Jordanian public school system risks buckling under the pressure associated with the influx of foreign pupils.
Worse yet, an additional 93,000 Syrian children remain out of school in Jordan. For some, issues with child labor and competing family interests mean children are working rather than studying. Others have fallen so far behind that they are deemed unfit to attend school. Most, however, are simply unable to find a school not yet at capacity.
SIO digital volunteer flier from March
A Small Part to Play
After months of grant writing and project development, my conversations with Ruth led to the creation of Sound It Out!, an arts-based English as a Second Language (ESL) program for displaced and disadvantaged children in Jordan. Now in its third week, SIO offers ESL-focused music and theatre classes to 450 children ages 6 to 13.
Sound It Out! focuses on improving vocabulary acquisition and facility with basic conversational phrases through music and theatre activities also meant to promote creativity and play. The program will culminate with a performance of an original children’s theatre piece based on songs and stories created by students and teachers throughout the program.
The project was designed to support preexisting, non-government ESL programs at aid organizations that serve urban Syrian, Iraqi and North African refugee populations and their disadvantaged Jordanian host communities. To this end, SIO offers supplemental classes four full days a week in collaboration with educational NGOs like Middle East Children’s Institute (MECI) and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). Further, in an effort to truly ground the program in its locality, all SIO teachers are musicians, theatre practitioners and youth educators from Jordan and Syria.
The program plays a very small part in creating and allocating much-needed educational resources for displaced youth and their burdened host communities in Jordan. To learn more about the organizations we work with, and others like them, please visit the links below.