Two weekends ago, we took an excursion to visit the SOS Children’s Village, a large orphanage in Amman. The orphanage houses 345 children, who range from infants to 18-year-olds. Islam entreats society to care for orphans, but adoption is slightly different than in the United States. Family, specifically family roots, are very important in the Middle East, and as such, orphans may not take their adopted parents name. For this reason, adoption usually does not work the way it does in the United States; the adopted child is raised more as a foster child than as a de facto son or daughter. At the orphanage, children live in family units of 4-8 “siblings” with one “mother,” a woman who is employed for a minimum of 10 years. House mothers undergo two years of training and must remain unmarried while they work at the orphanage, primarily to avoid risk of sexual abuse. Our mission for the afternoon—interact with the children for one and a half hours. We decided to break into three groups—games, music and art. I signed up for games and brainstormed how to teach with the basic Arabic we knew. Duck, duck, goose became bata, bata, jamal (duck, duck, camel) and we finally decided that we’d just demonstrate how to play tag. It turned out that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
To begin with, our group was only boys, and when we arrived, they were intensely engaged in a cutthroat game of soccer. After a foul, one boy pushed another and yelled something about his mother. I didn’t understand the exact meaning, but I suppose that as an orphan, that’s about as insulting as it gets. One volunteer told us that these were the most competitive boys in the orphanage and we got the picture that these boys were not going to be the least bit interested in playground games. What could we do? We joined in the soccer game. And what a game it was! They fought often, but broke it up themselves before we needed to intervene. They ran circles around us and laughed, and they bounced right up after falling on the hard concrete. Eventually the game dissolved, not because of lack of interest, but because of severely unequal teams. The goalie on my side was one of the boys’ favorite volunteers and she had been quietly recruiting boys to join our team until it was 12 boys against 8. The other team had no chance of getting a point. We rounded up the remaining boys and took them to the music group where we found a cacophony of drum-banging, recorders-whistling and general squabbling. Apparently, controlled music making was not the order of the day. The addition of the soccer boys made it worse since they were bigger than the other children and tried to fight to get the instruments. Eventually though, we got them into a circle and got them to sing. As a closing song, we taught them the hokey pokey. They’d all recently learned body parts in their English class and they loved putting their right arm in, taking their right arm out, putting their right arm back in and shaking it all about. We danced around until our bus arrived and then we waved ma salaama and left the children’s orphanage.