When sophomores Jolene Estruth and Emille Martelli began teaching English to Syrian refugee children this past summer at a school in Jordan, most of the children, ages 5 – 7, knew three words in English: hi, bathroom, and teacher.
Throughout the next three weeks, both Estruth and Martelli connected with the students, sharing whatever English lessons they could and forming strong bonds with the children. They taught the children the alphabet, about colors, foods, different careers and vocations, as well as emotions.
By the end of their stay, the children could say sentences beginning with, “My name is” and, “I am sad, happy, etc.”
On the last day of the program, one 6-year-old child, Mohammed, held on to Estruth, and with eyes full of tears, refused to let go.
“For him to show that much gratitude and affection to me just changed my heart,” Estruth said.
Estruth and Martelli learned about the opportunity to travel to Jordan as English teachers at Hillsdale’s College Baptist Church last year, when a representative from the English Language Institute/China came to share about the organization’s opportunities around the world.
ELIC exists to bring teachers to Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa in both short-term and long-term programs, according to the website of the 37-year-old organization.
“We believe that in the countries where we work, there is a specific need for well-trained, professional English teachers,” said Kailey Loper, a candidate advisor for ELIC, in an email. “These English teachers pursue excellence in the classroom as a central part of their calling. On a platform of educational credibility and classroom quality, we can establish a lasting structure where deep relationships can be built.”
ELIC’s programming expanded from Asia into the Middle East during the Syrian refugee crisis that was increasing due to Syria’s civil war and ISIS. Programming in Jordan began in 2015.
“As we met leaders and families throughout these war-torn regions, we recognized that there were students not being educated because they had to flee their homes,” Loper said. “Many organizations have contributed their services in the form of medicine, food, housing, and clothing. Our expertise is in education and we knew we needed to use our experience and knowledge to contribute to the rebuilding of lives in that part of the world.”
Martelli said that she “closed the door” at first when she heard the organization wanted English teachers.
Estruth already had plans to spend her next summer in Washington, D.C., but said: “that all changed when ELIC came into the picture.”
The two both prayed about the opportunity, applied for the program, and then began fundraising for their trip.
Before their arrival in Jordan, one primary concern for the both of them was their safety in the Middle East. They received extensive training, Estruth said.
At the end of June, Estruth and Martelli began their trip to Jordan, completing training in Chicago first before flying to the Middle East.
Upon arriving in Jordan, Estruth said they were greeted with kindness.
“The local Jordanians are so welcoming,” she said. “They live such a lifestyle of hospitality.”
Despite their warm welcome to the town of Mufraq, Jordan, tensions between other groups of people already there were not invisible.
“Most tensions are between the local Jordanians and the Syrian refugees that just arrived,” Estruth said. “It’s always hard being a refugee.”
The trip also dissolved some of the stereotypical assumptions about Muslims that Estruth had seen in the United States.
“Being there and living with these people, you realize how untrue and unfair those assumptions are,” Estruth said.
On the first day of school, the school’s principal, a big, tall man named Agab, lined the children up according to height and divided them into different classes — the smallest children going into the youngest grades and the tallest children going into the older grades. Both Estruth and Martelli were teaching some of the school’s youngest grades.
Estruth said sometimes the children would come to school in the morning, extremely thirsty because they hadn’t had anything to drink since the day before. Going to school provided the Syrian refugee children with water and at least one meal. Other times, children wouldn’t show up for a few days, and then would come back out of nowhere with bruises all over their bodies, Estruth said. Going to school provided the children with some stability and comfort.
“Agab was the scariest looking guy, ever,” Martelli said. “But when a child was upset, we would bring them to his office and he would pick them up and bring them candy and toys. He was making them feel better and comforting them. He would ask them, ‘Are you good? I’m glad you’re here. We love you at this school. Go back to class and learn a lot.’”
In addition to teaching, the two were able to make a few home visits, to visit the families of the children they were teaching in school.
Martelli recalled a day where she was able to go into the home of a Muslim refugee family.
“When we got to the door, the mother and father had huge grins on their faces, they were so happy to see us,” she said.
The father shared the family’s story of how they fled from Syria to Jordan, how he had to give up ownership of his own company and break off ties with a medical professional who had specialized in his daughter’s tumor.
“He ended the story by sharing his desire for his children to grow up to be respectful adults, and one day have financial security again, and to find peace in their culture after all the trauma they have faced,” Martelli said.
Martelli’s experience in Jordan encouraged her to get involved with International Student Ministry on campus.
“Internationals are fascinating,” she said. “They bring fresh perspective on life. They open up our lives to a new way of living, to God.”