Jordan’s Principal Hero

An educator refuses to submit to the crisis in Syria

Maha Al Ashqar faces a dilemma each day she shows up at school.

As the principal of the Khawla Bint Tha'alaba Primary Girls’ School on the outskirts of Amman, Maha wants to educate her students as best she can.

In theory, this means turning away new students to prevent overcrowding and allow her teachers to best educate those already enrolled. However, Maha knows that her school is not facing normal circumstances.

The war in Syria — just next door — has created an unprecedented humanitarian situation throughout the region.

In over five years of conflict, more than half of Syria’s pre-war population has fled their homes due to the violence. A generation of Syrian children has lost access to education and the ability to experience a normal childhood.

Principals like Ms. Maha feel the crisis every day.

Jordan, population 6.5 million, is host to more than 650,000 officially registered Syrian refugees — most of whom live in the country’s cities and towns.

Today, over 143,000 refugee students crowd already overburdened classrooms like Maha’s, and the Jordanian Government is committed to enrolling 50,000 more next school year.

One out of five

Maha’s small school — a narrow building nestled in a quiet Amman neighborhood — educates 356 students. One out of five of them is Syrian.

“The main problem that we faced,” says Maha, “is that the Jordanian students already filled the school’s capacity.”

Space is not the only challenge when it comes to refugee students.

Teachers, struggling to achieve basic levels of proficiency in their classes, also assume the burden of accommodating children who have suffered unthinkable trauma and need special care.

“We had some Syrian students with unstable psychological situations,” says Maha. “One came from an area that had been bombed, so she was fearful. Another student lost her father.”

Desperation and persistence

Increasingly, as the conflict dragged on, distraught Syrian parents would show up after being turned away at other schools.

One mother, Lina, recalls her visit to Khawla Bint Tha'alaba months after the school year had started. The school’s secretary told Lina that the school was full and that her daughter Fatima wouldn’t be able to enroll.

Undeterred, Lina asked to see the principal.

“I don’t have space,” Maha recalls telling the mother.

Lina pleaded and the principal, unable to deny a desperate mother in tears, did what she had done many times before.

She agreed to accept Fatima, but under one condition.

Just bring a chair

“I told her that I will register your daughter if you bring a chair for her—even if it is a plastic chair!” Maha recalls.

It was a bargain that she struck over and over again with Syrian parents.

Maha said she empathized with the pleading mothers. “They did nothing wrong to lose the chance of educating their daughters.”

Lina was overjoyed. And today the classrooms of Khawla Bint Tha'alaba are spotted with small, mismatched chairs in pink, purple and blue plastic.

Today Khawla Bint Tha'alaba is a melting pot of cultures, languages and experiences.

Teachers’ helpers

And mothers like Lina play an active role in the school’s success, serving as classroom aides so that educators can focus on students who need the most help.

The thread holding it all together is Maha Al Ashqar.

“I really love my school and I also love my students,” says the beloved principal.

“And I think love is granting as much as you can, by helping and supporting them to take away their hurt.”

About this story

Syria’s civil war has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. More than 4 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries—over 650,000 of them are registered in Jordan.

USAID helps Jordan host Syrian refugees by providing crucial humanitarian aid, boosting crucial infrastructure, updating medical facilities, and providing loan guarantees to the Jordanian Government. The Agency also supports Jordan’s efforts to ensure all students receive a quality education by training teachers and building and renovating schools.

In 2014, Maha Al Ashqar’s school was one of 41 to begin a USAID-supported pilot project, implemented by RTI International, to help over 300 teachers learn remedial teaching techniques in reading and math. After a year with teachers providing remedial support, over three quarters of students improved their reading skills by one or more grade levels.

Over the next five years, USAID will build, expand or renovate an additional 275 schools in Jordan and will have trained over 14,000 teachers.

Photos by Thomas Cristofoletti and video by Dave Cooper for USAID