Banaat Connect: Launching a one-of-a-kind Language Exchange program.

By: Lilly Crown

(Originally posted on Hopes for Women in Education Blog, 8/26/2016)


I’m Lilly, the Program Coordinator for the Banaat Connect Project with Hopes for Women in Education.

Two months ago, I started working in the Gaza Refugee Camp just outside of Jerash, Jordan. I moved to Amman for the summer to help launch Banaat Connect — Hopes’s online Arabic-English language exchange matching women in the Camp learning English with American and Canadian women learning Arabic.

Commuting from Downtown Amman to the Camp was a workday in itself. First was the 30-minute taxi ride to a bus station in northern Amman, then waiting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour until the bus to Jerash was filled with people. The subsequent AC-less 40-minute ride was like being in a can of sardines that was left out in the sun. Next I took a second bus ride from Jerash to the Camp itself, walking from the bus stop there to the Hopes Women’s Center, where I was greeted by Amna, the Center’s Supervisor.

Together, Amna and I arranged the necessary details for the project, such as recruiting participants and preparing conversation guides. During this time, we also gained a better understanding of each other, what our respective family lives are like, what we enjoyed about school and work, and so on. These conversations gave me a sense of the underlying social norms that govern the lives of many women in the camp.

I should pause here to tell you about one of the other hats I wear — I’m conducting a research study on Jordanian women’s social and professional equality. This said, I feel well-versed in the norms that ‘Jordanian-Jordanian’ women must navigate given that I have spoken with individuals at various levels of society, with non-governmental organizations in education, media, and civil-society building as well as larger policy-making or grant-awarding organizations like the UNDP, USAID, and Jordanian National Commission for Women. I have learned that one of the largest factors that restricts women’s access is the social norm that men are ‘supposed’ to be the breadwinners for the familial unit. This expectation pressures women to solely care for the family and not to occupy themselves with other opportunities, such as work or higher education.

Through my conversations with Amna, I found that the social expectations and norms function differently within the Camp. She and many other women have attended local universities, many with the help of the Hopes for Women in Education Scholarship, and then continued on to be their families’ main providers. Though our time together was largely filled with checking items off of our to-do-lists for the Banaat Connect Program, I am grateful for these other conversations we enjoyed, as they have shown me the nuanced role the Gaza Camp women play within the larger landscape of Jordanian gender equality relations.

About one month after I moved to Amman and started working at the Camp, our preparations were complete and we launched the pilot of the Banaat Connect Program.

The first official day that we had meetings scheduled for the language partners, women were coming into the Hopes Center to ask Amna and me questions about the project. As she explained the concepts and ideas behind Banaat Connect, I heard pride in her every word, which in turn validated my own work, too. It made those long bus rides feel less grueling and more significant.

Today, I can’t help but smile when I hear the women talk about their new friendships with their partners. Some have told me that stopping the call at an hour is painful, that they could easily talk for hours on end instead. Some have shared with me similarities that they have found in their mutual strengths, such as a love for staying active and expressing oneself athletically.

I am confident that the benefits of this program extend beyond a simple language-exchange: by mutually expressing oneself and being accepted by their partner, they are breaking down the mentally-constructed barriers between people who seem so different from a distance. They are enabling a friendship that is based on mutual appreciation for each other, for how else could you work so hard to learn each other’s mother-tongues without coming first from a place of respect? I know, too, that this form of connecting and communicating will be employed across other areas of each woman’s life, helping build a more hopeful global society for us all.

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