On a sunny, wind-swept Saturday, 14 youth dressed in jeans and sporting ball caps mix paints and soak brushes on the steps leading up to the Prince Mohammed School for Boys in Zarqa, Jordan. Over the next three hours, the group will paint a series of murals on the schoolyard’s concrete walls as part of a volunteer activity organized through Youth:Work Jordan.

Youth:Work Jordan (YWJ) is a five-year initiative of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Youth Foundation, and the Jordanian Ministry of Social Development. YWJ enhances the prospects for disadvantaged young people by increasing their employability and entrepreneurship skills, improving local services for young people by making them more youth friendly, and engaging them in activities that benefit themselves and develop their communities.

The youths’ plans for the murals include a colorful landscape, the Jordanian flag, and a map of the country and its place in the Middle East region. Above the school’s entranceway, a phrase artfully painted in Arabic will welcome students: “With knowledge we build nations.”

Yet beneath the surface of this scene is a hint of irony. All of the young volunteers are secondary school dropouts. While some returned to school as a result of the program, all previously abandoned the formal educational system for reasons ranging from boredom to lack of interest to the need to make money to support themselves and their families. These youth are not alone, with 45 percent of secondary school students in Zarqa dropping out. 

Ayham, 19, stopped going to school as a result of peer pressure. “My friends were a bad influence,” he admits, wiping white paint specs from his forehead. “They’d encourage me to skip school and I would.” Instead, he and his friends would hang out on the streets or play soccer.

“I used to think life was just a game,” says Ayham, until he took part in the life skills, IT, and basic English training offered through Khawla Bent Al Azwar, a community-based organization and YWJ implementing partner. Now, Ayham’s back in school and hopes to attend university some day.

As part of the program, Ayham participated in 20 hours of volunteer training led by the Challenger Team, a leadership training organization charged with implementing YWJ’s youth engagement strategy. “I was shy at first and almost left,” he recalls, adding that even though he’s completed the required number of volunteer hours, he still attends the Challenger-led activities because he enjoys them. “You feel something good,” he says, reminiscing about a visit to an orphanage, where the youth volunteers brought presents and read stories to the children. He even donates his time as a graphic designer to Khawla Bent Al Azwar, making informational brochures on issues such as smoking awareness and traffic safety.

“We introduce youth to volunteering through games,” says Ibtisam Elissa Murad, the Challenger Team’s Program Manager for Zarqa. “Through the games they learn skills like communication and teamwork; the youth gain confidence and start to believe in themselves.”

The volunteers receive instruction in how to reach out to local businesses for donations like building supplies and toys for disadvantaged children. Their efforts spark a ripple effect, says Ibtisam, recalling an instance when the youth conducted a neighborhood cleanup and were rewarded with tea and sweets by residents, who were moved by their ‘can do’ spirit.

Creating a sense of belonging and connectedness plays a big part in the Challenger Team’s work—from how its staff interacts with youth to the youth’s overall relationship with each other and their communities. Eighteen-year-old Osama, who was expelled from school due to poor attendance resulting from problems at home, nearly dropped out of the Challenger training on the first day because he felt uncomfortable and out-of-place. “Then I found I could meet people,” he says. “The instructors were really supportive. They didn’t act like they would kick you out if you did something wrong.”

Teamwork now comes naturally to the young muralists. The taller members paint the sky while others fill in the trees. There’s an air of camaraderie and fun. Once the mural is complete, Ibtisam instructs the youth to form a circle around her. Making eye contact with each, she asks them to respond to a series of questions.

What did you learn?” she asks.

“Teamwork,” says one volunteer.

"Do you have a place in society?” she continues.

“Yes,” says another.

“Is anything impossible?” she urges.

“No,” says a third.

And so on until everyone in the circle has responded. Tomorrow, when the school day begins, the principal will thank the youth, who have been invited to attend, for their efforts over the loudspeaker for all to hear.

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