Ameena is one of my very favorite students. One of those who will stay in my heart forever, putting a smile on my face whenever I think of her.
Ameena arrived at our school in October of last year, a few weeks into our academic year. Her family had recently moved to the valley from Beirut, where none of the children had been able to attend school. At age nine, Ameena had never been in a classroom before. She and her younger brother Ali could barely hold pencils when they arrived at our learning center and were placed in a 1st-grade classroom for students around their age. Their younger sisters, Huda and Hiba, were placed in kindergarten classrooms.
Ameena quickly blossomed.
It was immediately apparent both she and Ali were naturally very bright. And not only did they focus well and participate eagerly, but Ameena and Ali also had the best attendance out of everyone in their class. Despite living farther away than most students, they never missed a day. They were respectful and diligent in their learning, both in Arabic and in English.
I was so intrigued by her and her brother that I asked if I could visit them at home one day. I was picturing them in this immaculate little tent with a sweet, caring mother. How could she not be with such respectful children? I assumed Ameena was the eldest in her family because she's so responsible and such. They enthusiastically agreed, and the next day Ameena sweetly waited for me at the end of the day so we could walk hand in hand to their… building.
I was surprised to see they lived not in a tent but in an unfinished building a five-minute walk from the center. And honestly, it was worse than any tent I’ve seen. We walked up a grungy, unfinished concrete stairwell with no electricity. Their apartment, on the top floor, had multiple holes in the concrete walls and many empty window openings. I slipped off my shoes near the doorway and was led to the one room that was rainproof. Her mother greeted me, looking about 25, which was not surprising as many of the women I'd met from the rural areas were married around 14 or 15 years old. I sat on the floor cushion and read to the girls as the mother left to make us coffee. I met two more little siblings and trying to make conversation, and I asked Ameena if these are the six children in her family. She smiled and nodded. A few minutes later, however, I noticed that under the stack of blankets in the corner was actually a newborn baby! Oh! I think. So there's another one. When her mother returned, I asked, once again trying to make conversation,
“So you have four girls and three boys?” She too smiled and nodded. Minutes later, a preteen boy entered the room. No one introduced us, so I asked if he's a cousin. “No, he's my son,” she responded. What? Apparently there are eight children, and Ameena is not the eldest. I finished my coffee and demonstrated I needed to return home.
And sure enough, as I was preparing to go, Ameena’s mother showed me photos of two teenage boys in Beirut… who are also her sons.
I left mystified by the experience, realizing my assumptions were completely unfounded.
What wasn’t unfounded, however, was my impression of Ameena and Ali’s abilities.
By the end of the school year, Ameena and Ali could read and write basic words in both English and Arabic. Ali became one of my quickest readers, in fact, and Ameena was one of my strongest writers— particularly loving to write the English words, "I love you.”
Knowing that in such a transient community, it's never guaranteed that you’ll see students again after the summer break, I returned to school this fall anxious to see if Ameena and her siblings were still around.
My heart rested happily when I saw Ameena and received the biggest hug.
All four of the children are studying with us again this year and doing well. Although Ali unfortunately developed some surprising disruptive tendencies from the neighborhood boys he started hanging out with over the summer, we’re working together to ensure he remains at our school.
Not every student who registers with us has a success story. Many drop out over the course of the year, either from moving away, switching to another school, or beginning to work instead. Some just aren’t equipped to learn well and, even with decent attendance, don’t progress academically. Some prove so behaviorally challenging we have to let them go for the sake of the other students.
But thankfully, there are also those like Ameena and her siblings, and to be a small part of their blossoming despite the circumstances around them feels like a very sweet privilege indeed.