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Girls in Jordan science camp aim for brighter future

By Catriona Davies for CNN
  • SciGirls was conceived and is run by a 17-year-old Palestinian Canadian
  • Only 21% of scientists in Jordan are female, according to UNESCO
  • SciGirls is two-week camp for 44 talented girls in disadvantaged community

(CNN) -- A science camp set up by a teenager is helping disadvantaged girls in Jordan gain confidence to aim for a university education.

The two-week SciGirls -- for 44 talented 12-15-year-olds from the Jabal Al-Natheef district of Amman -- has been set up by 17-year-old Palestinian Canadian, Yara Sifri.

Sifri, whose parents grew up in Jordan, had the idea for the camp and raised 22,000 Jordanian dinars (approximately $30,000) sponsorship to make it happen.

The girls are taken daily by bus to a school in another part of Jordan to study electronics, robotics and math through chess. In between classes, they learn art and soccer.

They went to see each family and asked them to allow their girls to take part.
--Yara Sifri, 17-year-old founder of SciGirls

According to a UNESCO Institute for Statistics report in 2010 on women in science, only 21% of researchers in Jordan are female, compared with 34% on average in Europe.

Jabal Al-Natheef is a community of at least 50,000 -- possibly as many as 75,000 -- in East Amman living in cramped conditions with poor buildings and little access to higher education, according to Ruwwad, a local NGO working in the area.

Samar Dudin, regional program director for Ruwwad, said while girls in Jordan generally receive a good level of education, access is harder in poor urban communities such as Jabal Al-Natheef, which contains an unofficial and badly-constructed refugee camp. Sifri said it was a mixed area of Muslims, Christians, Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians.

For several years, Sifri, a student at a Massachusetts high school, has been teaching English and chess at Ruwwad's community center while spending school holidays with her grandparents in Amman. With the help of Ruwwad, she has taken her involvement to the next level with SciGirls.

She said: "I'm very interested in science, and I wanted to bring to these girls some of the opportunities I had in Montreal.

"We selected 44 girls who had the highest science grades in the schools in the area.

"Ruwwad already had a relationship with the people living in the area so they went to see each family and asked them to allow their girls to take part in the program. We had to gain their trust for the program."

Dudin, of Ruwwad, said: "Jabal Al Natheef is a conservative community and with adolescent girls parents tend to be over-protective and afraid to allow girls outside unless accompanied by a family member. So these girls often miss out on the services such as a library and creative workshops that we offer.

"It was important for us to seek out these girls and engage with their parents to remove obstacles so they could benefit from Yara's initiative."

Sifri began by gaining sponsorship for a robotics team of 12 local teenage girls who have been doing well in competitions. She said she has secured scholarships American University of Science and Technology in Beirut for any girls who stay with the robotics team for three years and consistently have grades above 95%.

"The entire neighborhood has grown interested in how the team is doing and have started to trust the girls-in-science idea," said Sifri.

One participant, 14-year-old Haneen Abu Dbour, one of six siblings from a family living on the outskirts of Jabal Al-Natheef, talked to CNN through an interpreter.

It's challenging and that's what makes it fun.
--Haneen Abu Dbour, SciGirls participant

She said: "I've not done much science at school, so this is all new. It's challenging and that's what makes it fun. It's a chance to be responsible and to make new friends.

"I love playing soccer, which I've never done before."

Haneen said she learned about the camp after doing a computing course at Ruwwad community center and that her parents were supportive of her taking part.

She said she hopes to study psychology at college and become a psychiatrist when she is older.

Sifri hopes to make the camp, which is currently running for the first time, an annual event and extend it across Jordan. She hopes the original 44 girls can continue coming to develop their confidence and skills until they are ready for higher education.

She said: "I'm working towards finding funding for more scholarships.

"I believe in empowerment, to make them realize someone cares about them. Once they are given the chance they will work hard to prove to everyone what they are capable of."

Sifri described the difficulties girls in Jabal Al-Natheef face: "They often go to school in three-hour shifts. Any opportunities that come up are given to boys.

"They usually come from big families so there's not much attention, especially for the girls. It's rare for girls to go to university."

Dudin added: "I was deeply touched when Yara said she wanted to do this specifically for girls, and felt in my heart that it would be a tremendous opportunity for them. They are excited to feel so valued and engaged. The relationship she has built up with the girls is beneficial for everyone.

"We are committed to following up with these girls and developing their science education."