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A visit to a school in Jordan

Fatima has just turned 14 years old. She is small for her age, still waiting for the adolescent growth spurt which will propel her towards adulthood. Her hijab is bright blue and her new teeshirt, emblazoned with the logos of both the El Hassan Youth Award and The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award is snowy white, fresh out of the plastic bag it was in five minutes ago. Her trainers and jeans are both a little grubby. She has a smile that brings light into a room that us already brightly lit by the morning sun outside.

I am in Amman, visiting a government school that has adopted the Award to provide a framework for extra curricular activities. Fatima is one of a dozen or so young women who have been selected to tell me about her activities. She has only just started the Award and she has not yet begun to prepare for the Adventurous Journey, which normally provides young people with the anecdotes they need to make polite conversation. But Fatima is unphased. She has important news to impart. And despite the fact that we are running behind schedule and have a former Prime Minister to meet in twenty minutes time on the other side of the city, my hosts cannot cut her short. For the moment, (and possibly for a long time afterwards) Fatima is much more important than anyone else.

“Welcome to Jordan,” she says, “I am very pleased to meet you. We have been waiting all morning to tell you about the Award.” She has already learned how to admonish with charm.

“The Award is something very special to me,” she continues. “I am doing things that I would never have dreamed of doing.”

“Tell me what sort of things,” I reply. “Tell me a little about what you have been doing.”

And so she does.

“We have been given the chance to serve our community. And it has been amazing.” She speaks perfect English, if a little haltingly, with a strong American twang. The Disney Channel is very popular in Jordan. “I have been visiting old people in an old people’s home. Do you know,” she confides, “that families send their old people to live in these homes and then never come and visit them? These old people are very lonely. They want to see their grandchildren, but they never get the chance. So my friends and I have become their grandchildren instead. We read books together, we drink tea, we tell stories to each other. Do you know, they really appreciate us coming to visit? And they are so interesting. To begin with I was a little scared. And the smell in the home was a bit strange. But now I cannot wait to go and visit.”

Her teacher nods. “It is true. She is visiting almost every day. Much more than she has to do for the Award. And not just Fatima. Her friends too.” The other girls nod in agreement. And smile.

“That’s wonderful,” I say. “It sounds like you’re getting a great deal out of the volunteering part of your Bronze Award. And so are the people you are visiting. Do you think you have learned anything from the experience?”

Fourteen year old Fatima pauses to think and then answers emphatically. “Oh yes,” she says. “I have learned that old people are interesting. They should not be locked away and forgotten. They are important people. We need them.”

She leans forward.

“And I have made a promise to my parents,” she confides. “I am never going to take them for granted. And I am never, never, going to send them to a home and forget to visit them. And I’m going to make sure others know that we shouldn’t do this either.”

Briefly, her eyes blaze with the knowledge of injustice and a commitment to doing something to change the world. And I know that I have met another of Jordan’s future leaders and another example of the power of the Award.

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