“Yalla shebab!” cheered the collection of 14 or so boys as I and a fellow American student danced around the room. Traditional Arabic and Near Eastern dance is often comprised of people linking pinkies to form a line which snakes around a room according to an established pattern of step, step, hop. The other American and I were falling all over ourselves, but the shouts of encouragement, “yalla shebab” or “let’s go youth”, from the students and their teachers quenched any moments of potential embarrassment.
The students we were dancing with were Iraqi refugees who have fled to Amman, the capital of Jordan, in wake of the war in Iraq. I have been in Jordan for the last month as part of a State Department Scholarship to study Arabic for the summer and came to meet these boys and their teachers through the Jesuit Center in Amman. The Jesuits have a strong presence in Amman, catering not only to the English speaking Catholic community, but also for the growing presence of Chaldean Iraqi’s. The Chaldean Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite that maintains full communion with the Pope of Rome. The Chaldeans, along with various other Christian communities, including Latin Catholics, Syriacs, and the Eastern Orthodoxies, made-up approximately 3% of the population, around 1.4 million before the war began in 2003. The numbers are imprecise, but it has been estimated that only around 50,000 remain in Iraq today.
Amman, along with Damascus, has become a central hub of migration for Iraqi’s fleeing the violence of their native land. UNCHR, the U.N refugee agency has estimated that there are approximately 2 million Iraqis currently living illegally in Jordan and Syria. Among the ever growing list of problems that Iraqi’s face is the deficit of education. “About 500,000 of them are of school age and most currently have limited or no access to education.” Here in Amman Fr. Alfred Hicks, superior of the Jesuit house, has become personally invested in finding solutions to the Iraqi education deficit.
On July 28th I attended the last day of a summer school that Fr. Hicks has provided for a small group of boys, ages seven to seventeen, at the Jesuit Center in central Amman. When I asked why there were no girls involved in the program, he explained that there had been a good deal of interest among the Iraqi families to send their girls to the summer program, but after age 12 boys and girl must have separate classes to maintain decorum, and the Jesuit Center simply did not have the resources. I was invited to partake in an array of festivities including dancing, games, pizza and cake, followed by a small “graduation” ceremony, where diplomas of completion were handed out, awards for attendance, along with many heartfelt thank you’s. The boys were energetic and engaging, full of smiles, jokes and showing off some moves that would challenge even the most seasoned American dancers. But despite the gayety, there was a clear chord of underlying discontent. When talking one-on-one these boys, many of whom had excellent English, it wasn’t long until stories of the war in Iraq would come up. Death threats were a particularly common theme.