In the Middle East, a Changemaker Wants Children to Experience the Joy of Reading

After a stint in the U.S., Rana Dajani returned to Jordan and noticed that kids didn't pick up books for pleasure. She has raised millions of dollars and trained thousands of volunteers for We Love Reading, a nonprofit that fosters a love for reading in children.

By Christina Kelly

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Rana When the parent is reading aloud to the child, there's a connection between the feeling of security and happiness and reading. So when you grow up, when you're happy, you want to read, when you're sad, you want to read, because it gives you this good feeling.
TEXT Rana Dajani – Founder + Director – We Love Reading – Amman, Jordan
Rana We Love Reading is a community-based program to encourage children to read for pleasure by training adult volunteers on how to read aloud in the native tongue on a regular basis within their local community.
TEXT Rana’s father is Palestinian and her mother is Syrian. She grew up in Jordan in a household full of books.
Rana My parents moved to the U.S., until I was in the third grade, so I’m bilingual. And then we moved back to Jordan. I feel very comfortable in both cultures, and I think I've been able to take the best of both worlds.
TEXT Rana began college in 1985 at just 16. She completed her master’s in molecular biology in 1991.
Rana I wanted to be as scientist, right, but there were no PhD programs in Jordan. So I became a school teacher. I taught biology, I taught science, I taught it in Arabic, I taught it in English, and I was always trying to get them to love to learn.
TEXT Rana married Mohammad Awad in 1990.
TEXT They had four children.
TEXT In 2000, Rana won a scholarship to the University of Iowa to finally begin her doctorate.
TEXT She went with her family.
Rana I got my PhD in 2005 and we moved back to Jordan. When you've been away from a country and you go back, you notice things you hadn't noticed before. So I noticed that children don't read for pleasure. Jordan has a literacy of 99%, so everybody knows how to read, but they don't read for pleasure. I wanted to explore: why should we be worried about reading for pleasure?
TEXT Rana decided to find out by reading aloud to children in her neighborhood.
Rana So we needed a public space. In Jordan, in every neighborhood, there's a mosque. We said, “Why don't we use it? It's got a carpet, it's clean, it's empty half the time, it's welcome to everybody, and it's in every neighborhood.”
TEXT In February 2006, Rana held her first reading in her local mosque.
Rana They fell in love. They fell in love with reading because it was the funny hat, it was the reading aloud in an animated way. Then they line up and I give them all the books so they can take them home.
TEXT For 3 years, Rana read to kids in her neighborhood.
Rana And I found that reading for pleasure increases your imagination, right, broadens it. You learn to empathize because you're learning about other cultures and other people. You also increase your vocabulary and you become better at expressing yourself.
TEXT In 2008, Synergos awarded Rana a $34,000 grant to grow her program.
TEXT Two years later, she registered We Love Reading as a nonprofit.
TEXT She set up programs to train volunteers to start their own reading groups.
Rana These volunteers that are reading aloud, they have become, in their own right, leaders in their community. Especially the women. Through this very gentle, culturally appropriate entry, they become leaders. And the effect on them is that they become very confident. They start thinking, “If I can become a leader in this project, what else can I do?”
TEXT Volunteers choose books that are fun -- with no ideological or religious agendas.
TEXT We Love Reading has trained 4,000 volunteers, mostly in Jordan, including adults in refugee camps.
Rana In the case of refugees, it has been a huge impact on their psychosocial status, improving it, because refugees in camps are waiting listlessly, not knowing where they're going, what is the future holding for them. Suddenly, We Love Reading becomes a very tangible target that they can actually use, and feel useful.
TEXT Using social media and a mobile app, We Love Reading has spread to 42 countries.
TEXT But volunteers still read real books to children sitting next to them.
Rana Our logo is the butterfly. It's the butterfly effect, it's about metamorphosis through reading, you can change a caterpillar into a butterfly. So to help change a child to discover their inner potential and their outer potential through reading aloud, it's a very simple solution, but the consequences are huge. And with all the strife and turmoil going around in the world, I think this is one way of making a difference.

Posted: July 10, 2018

Christina KellyIn the Middle East, a Changemaker Wants Children to Experience the Joy of Reading