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Teacher’s trip to help refugees

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Bringing calm to the classroom: Maha Turner and daughter Hasna in Amman, Jordan (Photograph supplied)

The nursery was filled with junk, unnecessary plastic toys that served no purpose. Forty children, all between the ages of 3 and 6, had the rule of the roost.

They were having the time of their lives, running around and screaming; their teachers struggled to control them.

Maha Turner, a Montessori-trained teacher at Somersfield Academy, had made the long trek from Bermuda to Amman, Jordan, as a volunteer. She didn’t know whether to run or hide.

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it is going to be tough, but let’s give it a try’,” the 52-year-old recalled. “The teachers were really trying but they didn’t have the tools to deal with the youngest students. Some of the little ones had seen horrible things before leaving Syria. With older children you can sit down and talk about their trauma, but not so much with younger children. I thought Montessori could be a kind of therapy for them.”

She spent a day transforming the classroom, throwing out things that weren’t needed. She then found ten women who wanted to be trained as Montessori educators, and set to work.

“The Montessori classroom is a very organised environment,” she said. “Everything has a purpose, but in a traditional nursery school there are a lot of plastic toys and things that serve no purpose. The teachers were there, however, they didn’t know how to engage the children through meaningful activities.

“I worked with the women in the afternoons and then in the morning they worked with me in the classroom with the children. It was brilliant.” Mrs Turner, who is originally from Cairo, Egypt, spent a month working in a school. She had spent years watching as news stations documented the plight of the approximately 600,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan to escape civil war, and felt compelled to help.

She’d initially planned to work with a charity in the Arab kingdom. When that plan fell through she struck out on her own.

“I decided I wouldn’t give toys or food, I’d give education,” said Mrs Turner, who speaks Arabic. “I’m a teacher and I believe if you give education, no one can take that away.”

She made the trip on July 14, armed with “cash, and a bag full of Montessori materials”.

“I teach three to six-year-olds at Somersfield Academy,” she said. “I try to educate my students about the world. When they heard about the Syrian refugees they wanted to help. They raised $200 by shining shoes at school.

“Somersfield also donated materials they didn’t need. In Jordan we stayed in a hotel. When the hotel owner heard what we were doing she let us stay for free. When I showed some of the guests photos of our work they donated supplies and cash to the cause. We also received materials from a Montessori school in Amman.”

She also asked God for guidance. It came from an unlikely source. She contacted her banker in Bermuda about a credit card matter. By coincidence, he had family in Jordan.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you visit my father? Here’s his number’,” Mrs Turner said. “I called the father, and he said, ‘I have Syrian widows living next to me. They are desperate for help. Come to me.’”

She met him the next day.

“Within 24 hours everything was in place,” she said. “He lived next to a series of apartment buildings that were home to Syrian widows. There was a nursery in one of the buildings that took care of 40 children.

“It was a divine plan.”

Once the nursery was sorted out, she invited her 15-year-old daughter to join her.

Hasna had never travelled so far by herself, but eagerly took up the challenge.

“I had to take three flights to get from Bermuda to Jordan,” the Somersfield student said. “It was quite the adventure but I was able to gain independence from it.”

Mrs Turner showed the teachers how to use Montessori materials and encourage the children to become more independent.

“The kids became very calm,” said Mrs Turner. “Adults came in and said ‘What did you do to them?’ The materials were bringing peace and quiet. I think the children were very bored before. A child who is busy and occupied with his hands is a happy child. We transformed lives within a week.

“I placed a peace table in their classroom and I guided them through the process of resolving conflicts using their words. They also learnt about talking softly, walking carefully in the classroom and using a respectful touch with each other. The children took everything they learnt in the classroom to their home environment. They were upset when they heard members of their family shouting or having arguments and they offered to take them to their classroom to sit at the peace table and resolve the issue.”

Mrs Turner got reports that the children got up at 5am and begged their parents to go to school.

Months later, she hasn’t forgotten the cause. She’s committed to helping the teachers she worked with in Amman to become Montessori-trained. She spends three hours a week working with them online.

“It takes 18 months to be a certified Montessori teacher,” she said. “I became a trainer a few years ago through an online training centre in the United States.

“I have never given certification before, but I am working with the centre now to certify these teachers.”

It was an “eye-opening experience” for Hasna, who hopes to become a human rights lawyer.

“Coming from Bermuda I was isolated from reality,” she said. “Getting such a quality education at Somersfield, it was inspiring to know that I can help people.

“Before my trip to Jordan I’d watch the news and think, ‘That’s sad, but there’s nothing I can do.’ Now when I see things on the news I think, ‘I’m going to tell my mom to see if we can do something’.

“It feels good that I tried to help. As the younger generation and future leaders we have to be familiar with the problems in the world.”

Helping hand: Hasna Turner in Jordan (Photograph supplied)
Class act: a little boy working on his Arabic writing (Photograph supplied)
Eager to learn: a little girl working with Montessori materials (Photograph supplied)