Jordan’s orphans are keeping it in the family

SOS Children’s Villages International offers an alternative to institutional orphanages. Basing operations in individual houses with a resident ‘mother’, many youngsters are now flourishing.

Umm Asmahan is one of the mothers caring for six orphaned children inside her home in Irbid, Jordan. Rym Ghazal / The National
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SOS Children’s Villages International offers an alternative to institutional orphanages. Basing operations in individual houses with a resident ‘mother’, many youngsters are now flourishing.

Leila, a 16-year-old orphan living in Jordan’s Amman Village, earned her nickname – Al Ataa (the overtaken) – through her efforts.

Last year, after just one month of training, Leila took second place in her first national young bikers competition held by the Jordanian Cycling Federation in Amman last year. In March, she won.

“I want to be the best and I want to travel the world breaking records wherever I go,” says Leila, who trains between moving cars and traffic. “I feel free when I am on my bike. Like I am flying away.”

Leila, whose name has been changed along with the other orphans in this story to protect their privacy, may not have parents, but she does belong to a very special family.

Like hundreds of other orphans, mostly from Jordan, she lives at Amman Village, which is part of SOS Children’s Villages International, a non-governmental social development organisation that provides care, education and health services to children who have lost, or who are at risk of losing, parental care. The NGO runs more than 2,400 programmes that cater to 2.2 million children and young adults in 134 countries and territories, where its programmes include family-based alternative care, schools, health centres, family strengthening programmes, and other community-based work.

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Three out of 25 villages in the Middle East are in Jordan, with others in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

“SOS Children’s Villages is an alternative to the institutional type of orphanage, where children get to be loved and cared for, like in a real family,” says Muna Hamdan, the national director of SOS Children’s Villages for Jordan. This family-based approach to alternative childcare is based on four simple principles: a child needs a loving mother or parent; their brothers and sisters; a safe home and a supportive community.

“Each child is cared for by a mother, who goes through special training and is usually single and childless herself, and she cares for the child and others in one home, in a compound of other families’ homes with mothers and children,” says Ms Hamdan. “It is a cozy and special community filled with activities, schooling and support, where the children get a mother’s love, and she gets to beloved by many children in return.”

SOS Children’s Village was founded by Hermann Gmeiner in Tyrol, Austria, in 1949. Mr Gmeiner saw how children orphaned as a result of the Second World War suffered, and wanted to help them live out a normal childhood. The first Middle Eastern SOS Children’s Village opened in 1968, in Palestine, following the conflict there. The first Gulf Area Office opened in the International Humanitarian City, Dubai on November of 2014.

“As a region always in conflict, the orphans often get forgotten in the background as the world responses to the immediate emergency,” says Ms Hamdan. “The children remain orphans, be there a war or no war, and so they always need support.”

Each of the villages has between eight and 12 family houses with about six to eight children in each family.

Once they become teenagers, they move to a Youth House – in Jordan, there are eight – where they are gradually introduced to adult independent life through internships and workshops. Boys move out when they reach 14, with the new plan to house the girls until age of 18 for extra protection.

“We do our best to provide them with love, knowledge and the tools necessary to lead a normal healthy life,” says Ms Hamdan. “But often the biggest obstacles are from the communities themselves, where they are still prejudiced against orphans because of their unknown parentage, and don’t give them chances.”

It’s clear that Leila and her counterparts are flourishing after being raised in the SOS model.

For Noura, it was the story of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi (1828-1858) who inspired her to became her own “queen of the sword”. She channelled the Indian queen, a symbol of resistance to British rule in India, who was loved and respected for her sword fight and symbol of the resistance to British rule in India, to win the youth national fencing competition, held last February by the Jordan Fencing Federation.

“I like the control and focus that goes into fencing,” she says. “I feel royal and powerful and I want to become the best Arab fencer in the world.”

Timid Ahmed took up boxing as a means of releasing tension. But soon he found himself winning prizes and recognition, inspiring his goal of becoming a professional boxer.

“I want to become the next Muhammad Ali,” he says. “He started from nothing, just like me. I just need faith in myself, in Allah and my dream of becoming a champ will come true.”

Then there is Zaki, who chose a completely different path, hoping to become the biggest and “most famous” hair stylist in the region, and has the blond streaks he made along his hair himself as evidence of this flare for the fashionable.

“I like to make things beautiful. I like to see people smile after I am done with their hair,” he says, who spends most of his time cutting and styling the hair of all his “family”.

He says: “They are my best customers,” he says. “They reward me with hugs and laughter.”

Despite all the odds, there are beautiful success stories from the villages where the orphans end up finding good jobs and building a name for themselves. But given the cultural and social stigma, they shy away from admitting they grew up as orphans.

“All these orphans and vulnerable children need, is someone to believe in them, and open doors for them,” says Ms Hamdan. “They are hardworking and good kids, they just deserve a chance.”

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