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Sophomore Jolene Estruth and Emille Martelli taught English to Syrian refugees. Jolene Estruth | Courtesy

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.”