I sat down in a bright yellow chair next to a table of four girls working on their beaded necklaces and decorative straps for glasses, all smiling and talking amongst themselves.
One girl, 19-year-old Samar, immediately exclaimed in English that she’s been to the United States and Italy, when I mentioned I was visiting from Canada.
We both shared a laugh, as she meticulously went back to sorting her coloured beads.
Today, JHR trainer, Mohammed, and I were invited to visit the Jasmine Society for Children with Down syndrome.
It’s a learning centre in Amman, Jordan, that’s trying to change the way people look at and treat kids with an extra chromosome.
In Jordan, many of them face hardships from the moment they’re brought into this world, but the foundation is trying to curb their struggle and develop their abilities into adulthood, through education and a variety of catered activities.
“Teach me, and I will learn,” is the message they try to get across, and the work I witnessed at the centre exemplifies that to a t.
Awatef Abu Alroub started the foundation in 2011, in honour of her own daughter with Down syndrome, Jasmine.
It functions just like a school and a charity in one – parents drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up again in the afternoon, or they ride home in the company van.
The families of the children attending the school provide much of the furniture and supplies – a set of chairs from one family, a desk from another.
“It’s a mix between learning and playing with them, to make sure that they’re learning. I love them all. Children with Down syndrome are very, very kind, and they can learn like [anyone],” said Riham Tarifi, a special education teacher at the centre.
Classes run all week from Sunday through Thursday, with each day sectioned off for a different developmental activity.
Sundays are for reading and writing – many of the kids are already great at both.
Today, Wednesday, was supposed to be athletics, but the sports facilities were being used.
So instead, it turned into arts and crafts day, an important activity to develop motor skills.
Tomorrow, Thursday, is a favourite. It’s focused on housekeeping and life skills, such as cooking simple meals of macaroni, or baking cookies, etc.
Back at the arts and crafts tables, the students proudly showed off their exceptional projects.
Yazan, who’s 36, is an expert with origami. He proudly pointed to his work with his inked finger, having participated in the election yesterday.
He’s a leader in the class, excelling in all areas that he tries, even planning to help teach his fellow classmates how to make paper cranes and other things, just like him.
He does, however, wish he had more opportunities when it comes to education.
“I would like to study in the university like others,” he said in Arabic.
He wants his friends to have the opportunity to grow as well.
“I’d like to change something in my life, like bring computers to our organization and let my brothers and sisters learn,” he said with a smile.
The Jasmine Society is focused on early intervention and preparation for kids with Down syndrome to enter into the mainstream schooling system, should they wish.
But it’s not always possible.
“We have a problem…[these children] are more than others can imagine, full of love, full of positive energy, [but] there is no awareness toward their rights,” said Linda Jaber, a special education teacher who’s been working at the Jasmine Society for 2 years.
There are a number of barriers in place, preventing access to education for this group of overlooked children.
Many public schools don’t have the right tools or funding for special needs programs, and private schools are often financially out of reach.
For example, the normal fee for a private school ranges in the 1050 Jordanian Dinars (JOD) mark per season, so 2100 JOD for the school year.
Mention that your child has Down syndrome, and that number more than doubles to 3000 JOD per season, or 6000 JOD for the year, because of the need to provide a specialized teacher.
If a child with Down syndrome is accepted into the private school program, they’re interviewed and evaluated to see if they’re a good fit, and some are outright rejected.
While laws are theoretically in place to help foster this right to education, the implementation of them is another story that needs working on.
That’s where the Jasmine Society comes in, by trying to provide a classic educational system to give everyone a fair chance to learn.
In the meantime, though, the classmates at the centre are happy to be learning together, and to be a part of something special.
“I like being here with my friends. I love them all, I’m making accessories, hand-made,” says Hiba, a 32-year-old in the adult class.
“I am so happy with my friends,” said Hala, an energetic 13-year-old in the program.
“I love music. I love singing Fayroz,” says Sahar, speaking about a famous Lebanese singer.
Suddenly, Sahar breaks into song, with people joining in from start to finish.
Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, she’ll have the chance at a singing career of her own.
With the help of the Jasmine Society, she won’t miss a beat.