December 2, 2011

774 Days

Hi everyone!  This is Kate.

I'm finishing up here in Jordan and will be returning home on Monday after 774 challenging, exciting, happy, sad, Arabic-filled, lonely, fulfilling days in the Peace Corps.  It's so hard to describe what this experience has meant to me--I know it's changed my life.  And I know it wouldn't have happened were it not for my mom and Hannah.

After Hannah was born, as I was growing up, I knew I wanted to do something related to children with disabilities, especially Down syndrome.  My junior year of college, I thought I might become a speech therapist, and visited graduate schools in that field.  I also considered becoming a lawyer specializing in adoption--specifically of children with disabilities from other countries (a la Reece's Rainbow).  That was also the year my mom suggested the Peace Corps.  I knew from the moment I started the application that I would be accepted.  I was invited to become a special education teacher in Jordan, a small country in the Middle East.

Me soon after arriving in Jordan
In the beginning, I lived in a small Bedouin village for training.  We had intensive Arabic classes every day, coupled with technical (special education) trainings.  We also had a practicum in the special education center in my host village.

After two months, I moved to my permanent site, in another small village.  These people were farmers, not Bedouin, and my village was filled with greenery instead of desert.

The view from my house!
Above all, the thing I love and will miss most from my Peace Corps service are the people.  My neighbors, my friends, and especially my students.  I learned Jordanian sign language to communicate with my neighbors and students.

Qosai, A'atif, and Battoul, students at my center

My friend Natalie, Islam (a student), and myself at Jerash, a Roman archeological site

Ali and Fatima, students, on a picnic in a nearby village
My special education center consisted of 20-30 students from the ages of 5 to 21.  My students were deaf and blind, and had Down syndrome, learning disabilities, autism, paraplegia, dwarfism, ADHD, congenital defects, psychological and behavior problems, and muscular dystrophy.  My experience teaching at the center gave me experience with all types of disabilities, but the most important thing it taught me was that society is one of the largest factors in how much a person with a disability can achieve.

For instance, my student Mohammad Jamal is in a wheelchair.  The story his mother told us was that she fell down while pregnant, harming baby Mohammad in utero, and that's why he is paralyzed.  He is cognitively normal, but attends a special education center because the students at a typical school would be too cruel to him.
Mohammad Jamal
This type of pseudo-explanation is common in Jordan.  Families don't want people knowing about their children with disabilities, or if people must know, they invent something that happened to the child, rather than accepting it as genetics or God's will.  This is so that their other children can eventually get married--no one wants to marry a woman with "bad blood," despite the fact that most people in Jordan marry their cousins, just as their ancestors have for centuries.  The whole culture supports the segregation of people with disabilities, not even attempting to "mainstream" them as we do in America.  Add to that fact that the two jobs available to people who fail the end-of-high-school exams are the military or becoming a special education teacher, and you get a recipe for failure.

Children with disabilities in Jordan do not excel because they are not given the tools to do so.  They are not accepted into society.  They are not given proper teachers or care.  Many are not allowed out of the house.  They are marginalized in every way.  We often see stories in the media about the oppression of women in Islamic societies; this is nothing compared to what people with disabilities face.  The Jordanian government is, on paper, extremely progressive when it comes to people with disabilities.  The problem is, there's no trickle-down effect.  Decisions made at the top level by the Higher Council for the Affairs of People with Disabilities are rarely, or if they are, slowly, effected on the ground level, especially in villages.

I have a student with Down syndrome who is around five years old.  For the first week he attended our center, no one bothered to find out his name.  We called him welad, which means boy.  His name turned out to be Isma'il (Ishmael), and he's one of my favorite kids.

See what I mean?  Nothing is expected of people with disabilities in Jordan here--not even names.  Living here for over two years has given me such an appreciation for America--how we give our children pride, expectations, and hope.  I have always known my sister is exceptional.  I never knew before how much our culture and our family has encouraged that. 

Living in Jordan, I've gained ten pounds, learned Arabic, played 4,434 games of solitaire on my computer, and read over 200 books.  I've also formed countless relationships with the people around me, and I hope that my influence has helped open their minds a little.  I've tried to explain that people with disabilities can succeed, can speak, read, write, work, and marry.  I know Hannah is capable of all those things and more.  I wish the Jordanian culture and people were more accepting of people who are "different," and I know that in time someone will prove them wrong.

I set out to write this blog post as an overview of my Peace Corps service.  Instead I seem to have gone on a rant about Jordanian culture.  I don't mean to offend anyone or disparage anything--I'm all about cultural relativism.  However, I think this topic is extremely important, and I hope that this will inspire people in America (and Jordan, if they read this) to encourage their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, and friends with disabilities to achieve everything they are able to--which is certainly more than we expect of them.

Me, my girl, and my best friend Greer in January


Sheena said...

Seriously beautiful post. Your writing is phenomenal! I cannot believe this is happening there... that PEOPLE do not matter enough to be honored with a name that is their own and to be called by that name. Your presence there (and HERE) is a blessing!!!! You are an amazing person. Your whole family is, actually. I'm adopting them as my own. Thought you should know! :)

Stephanie said...

Awesome post! I hope you feel you were able to make a difference to the kids you met while in Jordan, and I'm quite certain that your attitude and love for those students had an impact on the people you worked with and spent time with. It can be tough to feel like there's a huge ocean of change to be made and you're swimming upstream, but with your passion there's no doubt you'll go on to continue to make lots of waves.

I know your family is so looking forward to your homecoming! Can't wait to read your mom's blog about THAT (and there'd better be one!)

Sabrina Steyling said...

What a wonderful opportunity you have had in this experience! Thank you for sharing it with all of us. It's difficult to understand how people can't see the potential of people with disabilities like we do here, but you have played just one small part in hopefully changing their minds! God bless you for taking on this challenge, and may God continue to bless you and your family during this holiday season and into the coming year.

P.S. Isma'il is so cute! What a little heartbreaker. I can see why he became your favorite. ^_^

Becky said...

What a beautiful, thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing your experience. How fortunate we re to live where we do nd be able to give our daughter with Down syndrome the life she is entitled to and deserves...

alaskamama said...

Wow Kate, I am totally dumfounded and inspired at your insight, sensitivity and obvious understanding of not only human nature - but, and perhaps most importantly - the plight of the "special needs" population. Your mum and I have gone back and forth for a few years now, comparing, contrasting, laughing and sharing the joys and trials of raising our exceptional and incredible DS teens. Your Hannah and my Robin....very close it age.
May you continue to follow your bright star, you are an inspiration and a brave soul for venturing out into the middle eastern world - something I don't think I would have had the courage to do!
gri buongiorne (Dry Creek, Alaska)

Natalie said...

What a wonderful post! Welcome (almost) home, Kate!

Crittle said...

You certainly inspire me as a mom, Kate. Congratulations on successfully completing such a life-altering mission. I can't wait to hear about your next steps.

Cindy said...

This was very eye opening. Thank you for sharing your experience. And thank you for being willing to serve!

Jan and Randy said...

Awesome post. May I spread it amongst my friends?

What are your next steps? You have a awesome gift...


Kristi said...

Wow! What a great post. Thank you for, Beth, for having Kate share her insights. We do have so much to be thankful for.

AZ Chapman said...

Hi Kate

I was wondering if I could talk to u more about this I am thinking of doing something similar when I graduate from college I have mild CP and I would love to help people with disabilites in other countries

Alex's Mom said...

This is a beautiful post and a testiment to all the extraodinary siblings who are changed by the gift of down syndrome. Thanks Kate!

Dan and Marlene said...

Hi, Kate!
We are proud that you completed your Peace Corps service with us. You have a great heart and we wish you the best!
Dan and Marlene