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Five years ago, Iraqi Christians began flowing into Jordan to get ahead of ISIS as it swept into northern Iraq. The families had faced an ultimatum from ISIS: convert or die.
They did neither. Instead they headed to Jordan, where they found themselves in a peculiar bind. They were not technically refugees, so they were not eligible for United Nations resources. They were not allowed to get jobs, and there were few spots for their children in schools that were already overflowing.
The Good Shepherd Center in Amman, with its parent organization the Good Shepherd Church, recognized the need. They set to work converting an abandoned building into a school for Iraqi Christian children.
They started small, with 25 children ages three to 12 until they were sure they could meet the needs of displaced children and families, said Principal Dawlat Hijazeen.
The challenges were daunting.The children spoke Assyrian and the teachers spoke Arabic.The children would not talk with the teachers because they were distrustful and scared.
The children showed signs of traumatic experience. They ducked under desks at the sound of airplanes. Some even regressed to wetting their pants.
The few Iraqi children who were admitted to Jordanian schools described being bullied with words like “infidel” and “dirty” by Jordanian children who had never interacted with Iraqi children before.
“I came from a sectarian country and I thought in Jordan we would be safe and free from that,” a father at Good Shepherd said. “It was an outrage that my kids were scared to go outside and wondering why people hated them. They started to wonder if they were bad people.”
Then the family found Dawlat at the school. Trained in approaches to resolve childhood trauma, Dawlat and her staff begin by creating a safe space for the children to describe what had happened to them.
They use art therapy extensively so children have a creative outlet and the chance to be children again. The art also becomes a way to show children’s progress during their time at Good Shepherd.
When they arrived they drew pictures of violence in black, brown and red. After approximately four months at the school, they draw pictures of safety and happiness in Jordan.
Since those first 25 students in 2015, the Good Shepherd Center has gone on to serve a total of 250 children. The school currently enrolls 117 students to meet all their educational needs for as long as they are in Jordan. This includes a room for children with cognitive impairments.
Dawlat went so far as to find medical specialists who could help young Christiano, who would not speak and was disruptive in class. The specialists diagnosed the boy’s speech and hearing problems and outfitted him with hearing aids. He now participates in the classroom for children who need special support. The support from the Good Shepherd Center has also restored hope in Christiano’s overwhelmed parents, Dawlat said.
Another example is Sandy. He was turned away at two schools because there was no room for Iraqi children. He finally got into a school but left it when he found the Good Shepherd Center through his friends. “When I visited here to see my friends, I loved it so much I begged my mom and dad to let me come here instead.”