A nurturing place on the border of despair
MARKA, JORDAN — Father Hanna Mansour was not all that pleased when the Episcopal Church sent him to head the Theodore Schneller School in the urban sprawl north of Jordan's capital, Amman. A slight man with a thick mustache and lopsided smile, Father Mansour had been working as administrator of Saint Luke's hospital in the besieged town of Nablus.
But four months into his new job, he no longer sees himself at a sleepy outpost. Rather, this 173-acre complex of dormitories, classrooms, and olive groves is to him the center of a peace-building effort.
"People talk about terrorism and violence, they talk about politics," says Mansour, "but without creating hope we will always face the same problem."
This is what Mansour and his staff of 70 nurture in the 180 students, all boys, half of them Palestinian refugees and most of them from families where poverty, abuse, or neglect endangers their future - as well as that of others. "For what makes a person bomb himself?" Mansour asks. "What makes a person violent? Hopelessness. Despair."
Founded in the late 1800s in Jerusalem by the Lutheran Church, the Schneller School was pushed out after 1948 and moved to Bethlehem. Then, in 1957, it was moved again, this time to Jordan. In addition to offering academic classes and vocational training through ninth-grade, the school houses the boys during the academic year, emphasizing to them that they are members of a community.
The boys live in seven houses with upbeat names such as House of Happiness. Dorm rooms are airy and clean, with a row of beds along one wall and closets on the other. Each house has a mix of first- to ninth-graders and a house father who lives there with his family.
To the newcomers, this is a haven where they find shelter, food, physical safety, and the assurance that tomorrow will bring more of the same. As the year progresses, the walls fill with posters, the bedside tables sprout treasures, and the house becomes home.
It has been more than 20 years since Aiman Habawal completed ninth-grade at Schneller and graduated, but his eyes fill with tears as he relives the old days. "You are in a family," Mr. Habawal says. "There are 20 persons living together, eating, washing, playing, studying - all that together. It is a good family, and the house father is a great father."
Habawal's father abandoned him and his mother, leaving them destitute.
"If Schneller had not existed," he says, "I would have lived on the street. The future would have been nothing." Instead, he spent summer holidays working as a "gofer" in a salon. Eventually his hard work and attitude impressed his employers and they decided to train him.
Today, Habawal is the founder and director of two cosmetology schools in Jordan that train 300 students a year.
Schneller's alum-ni work at NASA in the United States, head small businesses, and pursue careers in Europe and the Persian Gulf.
Graduates typically find jobs within months. Some attribute this success to the small classes - 15 students on average - and the quality of vocational training in metalworking, carpentry, and mechanics.
But Habawal points to the fact that Schneller imparts lessons on how to forge meaningful ties. "Everyone can teach you how to read and write," he says. "The most important thing is to teach you how to feel and how to act with your friends, your relatives."
Everything about life on campus is geared toward this. The boys change houses each year, for example. "We cannot afford any isolation," Mansour says. "People need to communicate and deal with one another so no factions can form."
Besides myriad impromptu conversations with faculty and administrators, students meet with a handful of peers culled from various houses for weekly two-hour discussions. Whether it is to digest news of the latest rash of killings in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to talk about their dreams, aspirations, and fears, the boys here speak freely. And they have the ear of adult educators who model for them what Mansour calls "respectful listening."
Mansour has transformed from reticent appointee to a vocal champion of the school, and his greatest worry is how to keep it going. Schneller must raise some $210,000 of the $710,000 it takes each year to provide free housing and services to the students. The school's vocational workshops run profitable side businesses, and Mansour hopes to generate more. He's exploring the possibility of raising rabbits for money; he already has a few hopping in his yard.
For Mansour and the rest of the staff, the stakes are enormous. They believe Schneller does more than turn out employable young men. It steers the disaffected away from violence by giving them something they might not want to risk losing. It offers them positive ways to connect with the world, a sense of possibility and hope.
Experts have different views about the degree to which such small-scale efforts can reduce violence in the Middle East.
Laura Drake, editor of the Springfield, Va.-based Middle East Affairs Journal, says that although programs like Schneller's strengthen the individual, "issues [of terrorism] are much too broad for change at a micro level to have an impact."
Others say there is a more far-reaching effect. Peace is "absolutely not" just a matter of geopolitics, says Mary Jane Deeb, a specialist on the Arab world at the Library of Congress and a professor at American University. One type of violence is born "out of a sense of duty, an idealism," she says, but that is "quite different from people turning to violence out of a sense of desperation, of no light at the end of the tunnel." Schneller, she says, helps children who potentially could fall into the latter category.
Whatever the experts say, Mansour is happy to speak of the school's mission in sweeping terms: "Despite what is happening [in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel], we are doing something unique on behalf of Christ, on behalf of humanity."