The Life Centre is a quaint building, in a moderately busy street lined with shawarma and falafel restaurants, pharmacies, electronics stores, shopping malls and a library.
Situated in the Mahdood community in Jordan’s port city of Aqaba, the centre is also a safe haven for 160 at-risk teenage boys and girls. They have been chosen from among more than 500 students in low-performing government schools, to be a part of the 11-year-old centre's leadership program.
Julie Lerew is the current program director. She works for the US-based non-government organisation (NGO), World Associates.
“Our students come from struggling economic backgrounds," she said.
"Or they have certain risk factors such as a disability or a disability in the family, or divorce [of their parents]. A good number of them are missing one or the other parent. Eight of them are from the local children’s village or orphanage."
Teachers and students join Ms Lerew in her crowded office, opposite the communal lounge and kitchen, to describe the program and how it's changed their lives.
In addition to their regular schooling hours, students spend two days a week at the Life Centre, learning English. Each three-hour session comprises lessons on culture, leadership and personal character development. They engage in interactive activities such as singing, storytelling and public speaking.
“Our goal is to teach the heart and the mind."
“We are an English scholarship program," she said. "So, if they can express their ideas in English, they will be able to express their ideas - and think more creatively - in their mother tongue.”
Being in the tourist city of Aqaba, there is an added incentive for the students to improve their language skills. Ms Lerew believes fluent English speakers will benefit from job opportunities in the local tourism industry.
“A lot of the time those jobs go to outsiders," she said. "They go to people who are on work visas from Kenya or from Europe and that’s fine. But since the tourism is here we’d like the local economy to benefit. So English becomes a very practical skill.”
Shifa and Mohammed are two of the teachers at the Life Centre. They agree on the importance of nurturing the "heart". Both they and the students teach and learn of their own accord - rather than fulfilling a mandatory requirement.
“We push them towards using their own skills of English; of leadership; of communication,” Shifa said.
Having taught in public and private schools, Shifa notes that the Life Centre focuses more on task-oriented outcomes rather than deadlines.
“Here [at the Life Centre] you work on their... interpersonal relationships, their leadership skills, how to become a global citizen, and how to be more open to the outer world.”
Mohammed says he imagines the class as a farm while teaching and he's helping the students to grow.
“I put any seeds I want and I will grow them through the time," he said. "But we do it from our hearts which is the best. We mainly focus on their personality and how to be a leader, how to change the world.”
Aside from getting students to pay attention in class, disagreements pose a major challenge.
Mohammed recounts a lesson on open mindedness, during which the teachers realised their ideas conflicted with those of the students.
“To maintain [the lesson], we had to find a way not to go through religion [or] politics - just to have a safe relationship." he said.
"At the same time we have to deliver the message which is coming from us as teachers. So we want to change our community, we want to change the students' perspective about other religions, other nationalities, people outside - of different colour. They’re 14 [and] 15-years-old and they used to [have certain values]. To be able to change that, you need a lot of work.”
That work includes arranging guests from South Korea, Australia and the US, and people from minority backgrounds.
Ms Lerew believes that exposing students to diverse ethnicities will allow them grow in confidence by accepting themselves and the way everyone is different.
“We talk about breaking down stereotypes. I want to just pour support and encouragement [into] them so they can be the best that they were created to be.”
Students gain self-esteem and confidence during their time at the Life Centre. Sereen explains her transition from being a non-English speaker, to being more confident in herself.
“It’s become easy. Day after day, it’s become easy and more comfortable for me. I’m thankful for this program," she said.
A visit to the class as they rehearsed their graduation speeches, revealed just how much students appreciate the centre.
“I discovered talents that I had never known I had. Now I have faith in myself and my personality."
“I felt like a small boat in the ocean before. But now, I am the ocean. So, be yourself and create your own personality.”
“You are leaders of today, but we’re leaders of tomorrow. You can trust us of that. We will change the world with our dreams.”
When describing what sets the Mahdood Life Centre apart from other NGOs, Ms Lerew said one word: family.
“No-one works here just because it’s a job. Our ethos as an NGO is to make sure everything that we’re doing builds the community so that if our programs were to stop tomorrow, Aqaba would be better off because we were here. Everything we do needs to be [about] helping people remove barriers from their lives and be the healthiest [they] can be.”
“We believe that a loving safe family with a supportive environment is the best environment for positive change.”
*The author travelled to Jordan as part of The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour, a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) programme supported by the Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR), which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).