The Children's and Community Center of Jabal Nazzal, Amman, Jordan, looks like an oasis in the middle of the mud-color houses surrounding it. It stands on slightly less than two acres and has several buildings, including a library, an outdoor theater, and a clinic. It also has an aviary, a basketball and volleyball court, and a children's playground.
Nazzal Center was built during the past three years by students taking a University of Jordan course titled: "Theory of Change and Social Development," probably the most original course the university has to offer.
The course, which is offered all year round and handles about 50 students a semester, is required for sociology students but is quite popular with others. When the teacher, Dr. Sari Nasir, introduces it to new students, he does not mince words about the kind of course it is and the amount of hard work it requires:
"I tell my students to be prepared for a new experience, one that will affect their self-image as well as the image other people have of them. I say that I intend to turn them into leaders and suggest that anyone who does not feel up to the challenge had better quit, because leadership exacts a price."
Professor Nasir received his education in the United States, at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He describes how he developed it by saying:
"I started teaching 'Theory of Change and Social Development' in the traditional manner; all theory and no practice. Then it dawned on me that in a society like Jordan, we can't afford to sit in an ivory tower and talk about 'social change' without experiencing it. So in 1974 I assigned my sociology students their first project: building a badly needed bus shelter on the route to the university."
The project was successful. Now every bus stop in Amman has a shelter, and students who built the first one like to think that their project had something to do with that.
Several projects followed, but the most ambitious one was the establishment of Nazzal Center in an area with a large concentration of 1948 Palestinian refugees and low-income Jordanians.
The center is now fully operational and receives about 200 children a day, but students can still be seen putting up new buildings, painting finished ones, and planting trees and flowers in areas where no work is needed.
Getting the municipality of Amman to give the students a piece of land was no easy feat. The officials who made the transaction knew the location of the land only on the map. When they realized how central its location was they wanted to withdraw the offer. Dr. Nasir recalls that critical stage:
"My students began to feel frustrated and started to doubt we could accomplish anything. So I took them to the land and we dug little holes all around it. The next day, we drove to the local headquarters of the armed forces and asked them to donate some cement pillars. They were extremely helpful and gave us enough pillars to fence off the land. We went back to the municipality and told them that we had begun our project. They were furious and threatened to call the police, but they finally relented and we won our first challenge."
Students then formed several committees. One was in charge of collecting donations. Another had to contact the news media to get their blessing as a form of security, and a third had to get in touch with the decisionmakers in town to explain the idea to them.
At first money was hard to come by, but when the first building came up, donations came in the form of cement, iron, an iron gate, a prefabricated unit, trees, and flowers. CARE helped, and so did a number of individuals who donated their money or their labor.
Occasionally, miracles happened. A self-made millionaire who started life in a refugee camp in 1948 visited the site and was so impressed he gave the $24,000 that was used to put up the main building. It was occasional generosity like that that kept the project going, as did the devotion of students who not only continued to help after their course was over, but brought in friends and relatives.
It was hard work, says Lana Bisharat, a third-year sociology student: "My first few days as a laborer were a disaster. My muscles ached, and I thought each day was going to be my last. Now I love it all; the digging, the cement mixing. I even enjoy lugging stones around."
There were those at first who did not support the center and persuaded many of the mothers to keep their children away. There was suspicion and even some hostility. But slowly this changed, as Abla Musa, a second-year sociology student, explains:
"A few courageous women started asking questions. Friendships grew. They started bringing us water, then they invited us to their homes, and finally, they encouraged their children to use our facilities. The library was the most popular activity; next in popularity came the basketball court."