Story and photos by Kate Lieb
AMMAN, Jordan – Nina Angeles, 20, is standing at the front of a classroom in The Queen Rania Family and Child Center, trying to mime the difference between the words “very” and “too,” and how to use them separately in a sentence.
Angeles, a student from Northeastern University in Jordan on a six-month co-op job, is teaching English in a large, clean classroom arranged in a U-shape to accommodate the 11 women who are there because they need to know English to live a better life.
“Miriam says, ‘I can do it, I’m sure.’ She is” – pause – “confident,” Angeles speaks out loud, trying to prompt them to fill in the blank.
She waits until the class has finished writing down the prompt in their notebooks before asking for an answer. In unison, the women yelled “very” and beamed when Angeles informed them it was the correct answer.
The QRFCC, located in Jabal Al Nasser in the eastern section of Amman, is one part of the Jordan River Foundation, a non-governmental organization. According to Merwa Mahmoud, the community center’s coordinator, it serves to “empower women, family and young girls.”
Samar Abdallah Al-Shami, 24, is a student in the class who recently finished her master’s degree in information and library management at Al-Balqa Applied University in Salt. She said she’s in the class because “I love English. It’s a plus to my resume.”
She represents one of the many in this country who face the challenge of finding a job in a tough economic climate, which is especially true for women. The unemployment rate for men here is 10 percent while it is 25 percent for women. Some of that disparity, experts said, is because of cultural norms that suggest women shouldn’t be working in the first place.
“If an employer is hiring and interviews men and women, he is more likely to hire a male over a female, even if she has a good educational background,” Angeles said. She added that many women, such as Al-Shami, take English classes outside of their universities to better their standing in the job market.
Zeinab Kailani, an English professor at the University of Jordan, said that the expectation among the elite here is that anyone who is educated should speak English. And because of the rising unemployment rates, she believes demand for English classes such as the ones offered at QRFCC is increasing.
“English is a prerequisite for a job in Jordan. Everyone asks for an excellent level,” she said. “Interest in English as a second language has increased because of the economy and because of the social status associated with it.”
Angeles, an international affairs and human services double major, began a recent class at 9:30 a.m. in a large, mint green room just inside the entrance of the Queen Rania Center. All eleven of the women in the class wore hijabs. They clutched notebooks and pens as they waited for Angeles to begin.
Her students have a wide range of ability. Some can speak English conversationally. Some can’t even use basic greetings. That requires her to switch between teaching in English and Arabic, a language she picked up during her studies at Northeastern and living here in Amman.
Standing in front of an easel with large white paper, Angeles began her lecture on adjectives. She was trying to explain the meaning of “rather,” “very,” “extremely,” and “too,” but she noticed, among many of the 11, a perplexed look.
“Extremely is to a very high degree,” she said, and then offered an example: “Lisa says ‘I’m never wrong.’ She is extremely confident.”
Now everyone looked confused. Finally, Eman Mostafa, 39, tried to help her clarify.
“Do you mean manner?” she asked. It turns out they couldn’t understand what she meant by “high degree.”
“Yes, that’s a better way to put it,” Angeles replied. She explained the correction in Arabic for those who couldn’t understand, and then moved on.
The lesson might seem as though it is focusing on the subtleties of the language, but that’s the kind of instruction students trying to master English need to have, said Maram Jamed, 22, who just finished her studies in accounting at Al-Balqa Applied University.
“English is important for technology, like for the Internet I need to know English because it’s on websites,” said Jamed, who is taking this class because she in the process of looking for a job. “Life is hard,” she added, “and no one can live by himself.”