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Three King’s students create an award-winning outreach program

It was a cold January day. Some 25 young women and men between the ages of 15 and 21, most of them strangers meeting for the first time, milled around the small classroom in Madaba. The crowd broke off into smaller groups, sitting around laptops hooked up to the internet. It wasn’t immediately clear who the teachers were and who the students were. A couple of teenagers moved from table to table, listening, asking and replying to questions with more questions, leading the groups to turn to the laptop for answers. The conversations taking place were as varied as the people in the room, with topics such as education, poverty, technology, women’s rights and astronomy.

This was the start of the latest training course run by Fikra 3al Mashi, the award-winning community outreach program established by three King’s Academy students: Rami Rustom ’16, Sari Samakie ’17 and William Close ’16. The aim of the program, now in its second year of operation, is to introduce Fikra’s students to critical thinking skills. The catch is, most if not all the students are young refugees — Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian — seeking refuge in Jordan’s urban areas, with limited access to formal education. Jordanian youth participate too, because, as Samakie puts it, “all students deserve an education.”

The idea for Fikra 3al Mashi — which is Arabic for ‘ideas on the go’ — came about while Fikra’s founders were researching the education needs of local refugees for a class assignment. They discovered that those residing in refugee camps were fairly well served in terms of traditional education, but noticed that the education of urban refugees was suffering.

“I found that refugee students need an education tailored to their specific needs, because they are very mobile,” said Rustom, who spent many weekends of his junior year visiting and helping out at Hussein Refugee Camp.

Rustom and Samakie decided to help students develop skills to learn by themselves. Rustom came across a Ted Talk by Sugata Mitra. Mitra’s research — that by creating self-organized learning environments, groups of children, no matter what their situation, with access to the internet, can learn almost anything by themselves — inspired Rustom and Samakie to try and implement it in Jordan.

“We wanted to create something sustainable, affordable and engaging for both the students and the volunteers teaching them,” said Samakie. “Something that would have an impact on the students’ lives.”

While Rustom and Samakie prepared themselves to lead the training sessions, Close — currently a student at Duke University — registered Fikra 3al Mashi as an NGO charity in the United States. To secure funding for the project, the trio set up an online fundraising campaign in summer 2015 on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. In under a month, they raised $US 10,000 — half of that donated by Karam Foundation — to support the operational costs of the cause, including internet usage and the purchase of laptops.

In June 2015, Samakie, Rustom and Close organized a pilot program in Madaba, the town nearest to King’s Academy, where displaced Iraqi children were being hosted on the grounds of a local church. The week-long workshop taught the teenage boys basic English, computer skills and internet research skills. Two more pilot courses were held during what Samakie calls their “experimental stage”: a course for traumatized preteen refugee boys and a three-month long course for 40 Syrian, Palestinian and Jordanian girls at a local UNRWA school.

Fikra’s current courses — three are scheduled for 2017 — are modelled after the three-month course, which they consider the most successful. What the founders discovered was that as the course progressed the students felt increasingly empowered.

“The girls were researching problems within their communities, offering solutions and presenting their issues in English,” Samakie remembers. “We’re talking about girls who barely speak English. They were learning it through their research and using online translation programs.”

According to Samakie, who is currently running Fikra with Sara Awad ’17, their purpose as trainers is simply to provide guidance to the students. Modelling their method after how they were taught at King’s, they keep asking the students questions until they come up with their own answers.   

“It was frustrating for the students because they had never been treated that way at school before,” he said. “It was challenging for us too; last year we were two boys teaching 40 girls!”

In October 2016, the global Round Square organization awarded Rustom, Samakie and Close the prestigious Kurt Hahn award. Named after the founder of Round Square, the prize is awarded to students from one of the 162 Round Square schools worldwide “in recognition of an exceptional act of service to others.”

“Many times we had to choose Fikra over school work, because Fikra is the bigger idea, the dream,” said Samakie. “So it’s nice that our work was recognized.”

“We were so fortunate to be in an environment where service was cherished,” said Close. “This award should be a reminder to us, King’s, and the greater King’s community to continue to work in the service of others and not ourselves.”

Now, three years after the idea for Fikra 3al Mashi was conceived, and as the last founding member prepares to graduate from King’s, the trio are as committed as ever to ensuring that their “baby” remains sustainable, relevant and impactful and continues to evolve to reflect the future of education.

“Critical thinking, collaboration, research, thinking outside the box and looking at multiple perspectives are the skills needed in today’s world,” explained Samakie. “If we can provide refugees with these skills, they will be able to change their perspective of the situation they are living in.”

They are already planning Fikra 3al Mashi’s next steps. “We want to have someone full time on the ground,” said Rustom, now a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The first place we are going to look is among King’s alumni for someone who is interested in taking it on and helping it grow. King’s students will continue to volunteer, but we need King’s alumni to manage it.”

“As we graduate from school, the idea of sustainability and keeping things going and maintaining impact becomes increasingly important,” added Rustom, who is coordinating with MIT to regularly send volunteer teachers to work with Fikra (see sidebar). “I am trying to find the right partnerships to sustain the program and keep people interested and passionate about it.”

To ensure continuity of the program for its students, the founders are working on setting up a center that offers both a computer café and a communal space for students to come to after they complete the course.

“To keep it sustainable, we want Fikra to have a social enterprise aspect,” explained Samakie. “I would like to open at least one center this year and expand the program into areas that need it most, such as Amman, Zarqa and Mafraq. That’s the plan for now. That would be beyond what I could hope for.”

What’s next for the founders of Fikra? 

Sari Samakie ’17 

This year, Sari Samakie graduates from King’s. He is going to Georgetown University after which he wants to build a career in humanitarian work. Eventually he plans to move back to Syria and establish a boarding school like King’s. 

“Fikra 3al Mashi is a life-time commitment. This year I have been researching how to measure the program’s effectiveness and how to make it sustainable and grow in any area of the world affected by a lack of education. This summer I will also be teaching at King’s Summer Enrichment Program (SEP), applying Fikra’s educational ideas to the students.”

Rami Rustom ’16 

Rami Rustom is currently enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), double majoring in architecture and computer science, although he says that might change in the next four years! 

“I’m interested in the future of cities and smart cities. Last year I spent a lot of time working on a design for a refugee housing unit that is modular and could replace tents and permanent settlements so you don’t have a situation where a tented refugee camp turns into a permanent slum.”

William Close ’16

William Close is attending Duke University and plans to double major in Arabic and Political Science.

“I stay involved with Fikra by handling any problems that come up with financials and continue to make sure that we remain a 501(c)3. Fikra and being in Jordan has shaped my life and turned me into the person I am today. Helping others and being immersed in a culture that is so rich and welcoming is something that I can never repay or forget.

Currently I am using the Arabic I learned at King’s to tutor Syrian refugees in the area around Durham in English through a student-run organization at Duke called Injaz.”