Sitting at her desk in one of her three offices in Amman, Rana Dajani says she wears many hats – or rather, many scarves. "I am a mother, a teacher, a scientist, a social entrepreneur and a feminist. But instead of hats I wear scarves," says Dajani, who sees hers as a metaphor for her many different roles.
A mother of four, Dajani gave birth to her youngest daughter a day after the interview that granted her a Fulbright scholarship to do a PhD in the United States. The molecular biologist was named one the most influential women scientists in the Islamic world and ranked among the 100 most powerful Arab women.
Also a social entrepreneur, Dajani is the founder of an award-winning initiative based in Amman that aims to spread the love of reading. Through this, her team want to ensure every neighbourhood in Jordan has a library.
"Reading did a lot to make me a change-maker and to think outside the box," says Dajani, who has always been a book-lover and avid reader. But when she returned to Jordan in 2005, after getting her doctorate in molecular cell biology at the University of Iowa, she noticed that children weren't reading for fun.
"The problem was not a lack of books. Jordanians are literate, they read for school and for religion, but it's a different kind of reading," she explains. Despite the high literacy rates in the country, she felt that not enough was being done to develop a love of reading.
Being scientifically minded, she tried to understand why reading for pleasure was not a habit and found that it was because many parents didn't read to their children. "When parents read to their kids, there is an association between security and happiness and reading. Children grow up loving to read," she says.
To foster reading outside of academic and religious contexts, Dajani started organising "reading aloud circles" for children in her neighbourhood of Amman. Wearing a funny hat and using puppets, her goal was to show young people that books could be fun. She held these sessions over the course of three years, and with the help of her family, tried to create a generation of children who love literature.
Her personal project turned into an organisation in 2009, when she won the Synergos Award for Arab social innovators. The prize helped her finance a programme to train others to read aloud and to encourage volunteers to build libraries throughout Jordan. Instead of just providing access to books, her scheme, We Love Reading, focuses on building literary capacity and motivating children.
It has won several awards over the past decade and has expanded to more than 50 countries and trained more than 7,000 adults to teach children. More than half of those adults have gone on to establish their own libraries.
Parents have informed Dajani that since the reading sessions, their children have been doing better at school and asking for books instead of toys. But as a scientist, Dajani wanted to actually prove the benefits of reading. She invited researchers to study the effects her programme has on children, and established research partnerships with Yale, Cambridge and other universities.
"Our goal is to prove the impact of reading scientifically," says Lina Qtaishat, research officer at We Love Reading in Amman. She says research conducted so far has associated reading with increased empathy and generosity, as well as enhanced critical analysis and more knowledge about social and environmental issues.
“Kids who read aren’t just widening their imagination. They are also discovering their inner potential to become the heroes they read about,” says Dajani. “They are getting the courage to make a difference in their communities.”
But the initiative is not just having a positive impact on children. By training volunteers to start libraries and reading aloud programmes in their neighbourhoods, We Love Reading is also empowering adults to bring about social change.
Abeer Thiab, a public school librarian in Amman, hosts reading aloud sessions for children at least twice a week. But she also reads to children outside her working hours. "In the summer I organise reading circles for children at my local mosque," she tells The National. "And during my winter break I read at a local community centre."
Three years ago, Thiab attended a two-day training course held by We Love Reading to teach volunteers how to read in an engaging way. She says the training encouraged her to do more for her community and changed the way she interacted with children in her library. "My grandmother used to tell me stories when I was a child," says Thiab. She feels she is now paying it forward by reading to other people's grandchildren and encouraging women in her neighbourhood to participate in reading circles.
When volunteers finish the training, they are offered books to help them start their own libraries, giving them the tools and confidence to start their own projects and to become leaders and change-makers in their communities. Most of the programme's "reading ambassadors" are women.
"We saw the potential of the movement in Za'atari, the biggest refugee camp in Jordan," says Ghofran Abu Deyyeh, who started as a volunteer reader in Irbid in 2013 and went on to join We Love Reading as a researcher and project assistant. "A Syrian woman named Asma became our ambassador there. She was a housewife and hadn't finished high school, but after taking our training she felt she could do more and have an impact on her community.
Asma started organising her own reading sessions. They were so successful that she was inspired to write and publish her own stories. She became a spokesperson and a leader in her refugee camp. “This is about much more than just reading aloud to children,” explains Abu Deyyeh. “It’s about empowering people. It tells them they don’t have to wait for someone to come and help them. They can help themselves.”
We Love Reading has been particularly successful among vulnerable communities. Reading is proving to be a valuable tool to help refugee children build resilience and cope with hardship. For children with disabilities, it’s also a way of gaining confidence and promoting inclusion.
But Dajani underlines that the programme is for everyone. “It’s for women to feel empowered, for refugees to build hope and resilience, but it can also be for retired people to find a new purpose in life or for youth to serve their communities.”