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AMMAN, Jordan — Armed with love and a belief in the power of an education, one woman has given destitute Syrian girls a reason to hope.
After civil war sent hundreds of thousands of Syrians refugees flooding across the border into Jordan, elementary school principal Maha Salim Al-Ashqar found room in her overcrowded school for dozens of refugee children.
In 2013, Syrian mothers began begging the principal of Khawla Bint Tha'alba Elementary School for Girls to let their daughters study with her. She agreed on one condition.
“I asked their parents to just bring a chair, even of plastic — then I will accept your children,” said Al-Ashqar. "I will not make my students sit on the floor so we need a chair — simply.”
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Since then, she has found room for 65 refugee girls — one-fifth of the school's population. She has made sure they not only get an education but find a place of safety and a sense of belonging in their new home. The school offers a handful of refugees, who otherwise might get no schooling or attend low-quality schools, the chance at an equal footing with their Jordanian peers.
The school and its principal have garnered attention at home and abroad.
It is used as an example in Jordan, which has an ambitious plan to integrate 50,000 refugee children into government schools next year. And in March, Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, met Al-Ashqar during a visit to Jordan.
Al-Ashqar and her teachers' work is crucial, according to Allyson Wainer, education and youth office director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Amman.
"When they clapped for me I had such a beautiful feeling"
“It is all about timing and she accepted them when they needed it the most,” she said. “To not miss additional school is critical for the child’s life at this point.”
“And not only is it the schooling. It’s their being part of a regular normal life in a welcome and accepting environment,” she added.
Normality and acceptance are just what Hanaa Fasih desperately needs. The family of nine fled Raqqah after ISIS extremists overran the city and now live in a one-room apartment. Her mother works as a seamstress to support her children and blind husband.
At first Hanaa was too scared to leave her home — never mind go to school.
“I was afraid to leave my mother,” the 7-year-old said.
But the teachers at Khawla Bint Tha'alba, which runs from first to fourth grades, turned her life around. Now she walks home alone to finish homework and teach her younger brothers to read and count. Hanaa even demands her siblings call her “Miss Marcel” like her favorite teacher.
On a recent morning, hundreds of girls formed lined up in the playground and belted out the Jordanian national anthem as the kingdom’s flag was hoisted above them. Then they all headed single-file to class.
At recess, they gathered again to clap for their principal as she crowned classmates Hanaa and Milad Al Ahmed with tiaras in honor of their achievements.
“When they clapped for me I had such a beautiful feeling,” said Milad Al Ahmed, another 7-year-old whose family also fled ISIS and is top of her class.
At first her mother, Sanaa Al Ahmed, had pleaded with principal Al-Ashqar to teach her little girl how to write her name and nothing more.
Now her mother dares to nurture big hopes for the future.
“Maybe she will be a doctor,” Al Ahmed said.