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Jordanian school funded by Canadian woman a lifeline for Syrian refugees

Students in class at the Azraq school in Jordan.

With the help of 79-year-old Martine Stilwell, Syrian children who went years without formal education are getting a chance to catch up at a school in the Jordanian desert

In a brightly painted prefab caravan on a desolate stretch of the Jordanian desert, 32-year-old teacher Ghadaa Tinieh is working miracles.

Amongst her class of 15 Syrian refugee children in this far-flung outpost, three had never been to school before. More than half could barely read or write, and nearly all were struggling under the weight of trauma, poverty and exile.

Yet here, they are thriving. In the words of 12-year-old Mohammad, in school for the first time in his life: "My teacher started with me at zero, and I'm a 10 now."

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The class is part of a school designed to teach basic skills and offer enrichment to kids who have gone years without formal education or are struggling to stay afloat in Jordanian schools. Unlike most education projects, it specifically targets children whom aid agencies warn are at risk of becoming a lost generation of unskilled adults. It fills a critical gap in programs for refugees, and has an unlikely benefactor: 79-year-old Canadian Martine Stilwell.

In addition to providing a library and instruction to Syrian students, the school also houses family counselling and aid centres, along with a school bus to tote families back to their homes.

"It's a very concerning thing to think that all these children would end up illiterate or semi-literate and in a poverty trap," Ms. Stilwell told The Globe and Mail.

After stints in Ecuador and Indonesia as the trailing spouse of a hydro engineer, the West Vancouver retired psychiatrist and mother of three had witnessed how conflict and destitution often hit children hardest. She had been reading about Syrian refugee children without access to school and was haunted by thoughts of what their future might hold.

"How can they rebuild Syria later? And it leaves people more vulnerable to extremism and so on. I was lucky enough to have a quality education, and I was concerned," she said.

A student in Suleiman Khaled’s math class completes a problem on the whiteboard.

In March, 2014, Ms. Stilwell received a sizable inheritance and decided to help these children. She set her sights on Jordan: A poor country shouldering the costs of close to a million Syrian refugees, it offered enough political stability to ensure any project she funded might last.

While nearly all Jordanian students attend primary school, just six in 10 Syrian refugee children in 2014 were taking part in formal education. Classes were swelling and some over-subscribed schools were turning Syrian students away. The education system offered no re-entry for children who had been out of school for three or more years; schools just weren't equipped to deal with catching these kids up. Children whose parents hadn't brought the right paperwork from Syria or hadn't completed often-onerous administrative procedures in Jordan were also locked out of classes. This left a growing group of young Syrians illiterate and innumerate.

A few schools ran double shifts, with Jordanian students attending in the morning and Syrian students in the afternoon. But according to a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch, this left both groups with fewer hours of instruction than children in single-shift schools. The rights watchdog also noted that in many schools, "Facilities like libraries were closed during afternoon shift classes, which only Syrian students attend."

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Ms. Stilwell approached several NGOs with an offer to fund an education project but got no response. After a second round of e-mails again yielded no interest, she heard of a smaller charity called Helping Refugees in Jordan. She joined Facebook to connect with the group – "I still can't figure out how to close that account" – and received an enthusiastic response from founder Catherine Ashcroft within hours.

Thirteen-year-old Ibtisam, left, and 11-year-old Rahaf have attended the Azraq school for two years.

Students fill in notebooks during a morning session at the Azraq school.

"Martine didn't want the money to be lost somewhere in the ether of large agencies," recalled Ms. Ashcroft. "She wanted to be involved but was totally open to learning about how and when, rather than going in with a preconceived idea. She was keen for it to be a learning process for herself, too. So she got it right."

In May, 2014, Ms. Stilwell boarded a plane for Amman – her first time in the Middle East. She met up with Ms. Ashcroft and the two asked school administrators in Azraq, a poor village where four in 10 are refugees, how they could help. The response: "Help us cope with all these students." By the time she flew home at the end of the month, Ms. Stilwell had paid for two portable classrooms and funded a skills-training program for teens.

But it was during a second visit to Jordan six months later that the project to help Syrian children would truly take off.

In October, 2014, Ms. Stilwell met 10-year-old Mariam, who hadn't been to school since Grade 1 in Syria. Her mother had tried and failed to get her into Jordanian schools for three years running. Overweight and losing her hair, Mariam was clearly depressed, Ms. Stilwell recalled. The encounter put everything into focus.

"I looked at Catherine and I said, 'I know we're trying to do something for teenagers, but here comes a whole generation who can't even be skill trained because they can't read and write. Maybe we should set up a small classroom for these kids,'" she said.

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With further support from The Syria Fund, a U.S.-based NGO, a plan took shape to create an education centre that could help support and complement the teaching in formal schools.

Within months, what Ms. Stilwell calls the "keep-up, catch-up school" was up and running in Azraq. A second inheritance further expanded facilities and paid for a school bus to bring in kids from rural areas.

The school consists of five portable classrooms positioned around a small playground. There's a computer lab and one of the portables has had a second storey added that functions as a library, where English classics such as Goodnight Moon and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish sit alongside Arabic board books and readers.

Nine-year-old Ahmad, who arrived at the school a week ago, plays on the swing set after class is let out for the afternoon.

It's a fleck of colour on an otherwise bleak, poverty-choked frontier.

The chain-link fences that surround the school are riddled with garbage, old United Nations tarps and plastic blown in by a gritty desert wind.

Next door there's a burnt-out car with flat tires and, beyond that, a wasteland of houses in varying states of dilapidation. The school's nearest landmark is the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base, which serves as a major launch point for the war against the Islamic State, and the sky booms with the sound of warplanes.

Classes are for children aged six through 14 and they run from 8:30 a.m. to noon. Students then head to the nearby government school, where they attend afternoon classes. Teachers at both schools strategize together on the best ways to help students.

Many of the Azraq school's students are traumatized and plagued by a sense of hopelessness and loss, said 24-year-old school administrator Israa Shishani.

Azraq native Israa Shishani, the school’s administrator and English teacher, has been with the
institution for the last two years.

"You feel they don't care in the beginning, so you have to get their attention before you can teach them anything," she told The Globe.

"They feel they have lost everything, so why do they have to continue?"

In the classroom for children with the highest level of need, Ms. Tinieh, the teacher, described the difference in her students since beginning school.

"Tarek is one of our biggest successes. He's 12 and was very weak in basic skills but with our help, after a year in regular school, he has found his footing," she said.

Hearing his teacher's words, the shy boy from Homs glows.

Tareq, a student taking part in the centre’s special course for children who’ve missed large periods of school back in Syria, poses inside his classroom. Students take courses at the Azraq school through the morning before attending afternoon sessions at Jordanian government schools.

For many parents, the school has been a lifeline.

"I feel comfortable with my kids here, more than with the government school. Teachers here take more care, especially with my daughter," said Amani Al-Hash, a mother of two from Damascus whose son and daughter have attended for three years. She cited English and reading as two areas where her children had improved the most.

Across Jordan, the situation for Syrian students has improved since the Azraq school opened.

Children who have been out of school for more than three years can now re-enter the education system, as can children without formal documentation.

But there are still a host of practical challenges. Jordan is a poor country with crippling unemployment levels and its education system, despite support from humanitarian organizations and countries such as Canada, is chronically underfunded.

Ms. Stilwell, who visits the school a couple of times a year and keeps in close touch via Skype, is realistic about the effect of her and her partners' efforts.

"It's an infinitesimal drop in the bucket," she said.

At the end of the school day, as the last stragglers head off hand-in-hand with moms and dads, that drop in the bucket has a sound. Above the wind, the warplanes and the highway traffic, there it is: the lilts and peals of children's song and laughter, trailing away in all directions.

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