Marriage can wait

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Marriage can wait

Marriage can wait: Syrian teen in Jordan sets sights on starry career

Hind Bakri, a teenage Syrian refugee, dreams of becoming an astrophysicist despite economic and social pressures on her to marry.

ZARQA, Jordan – As a teenager obsessed with science, Hind Bakri grew up scouring NASA’swebsite, reading about everything from exoplanets to black holes. It was there Bakri found an online questionnaire for astrophysicists interested in NASA scholarships. Seeing nothing to deter her, Bakri filled it out and clicked the send button.

Months later, in February 2014, an international phone number popped up on the caller ID of the phone in Bakri’s family home. The caller identified himself as David, from NASA, and said he needed information regarding Bakri’s visa status and university degree.

“I was like ‘come on, do you know how old I am? I’m only 14,’” says Bakri. Discovering that he was speaking to an adolescent Syrian refugee and not an astrophysicist with a PhD, David gently told Bakri to reapply when she had a university degree. The call only lasted five minutes, says Bakri, but the hope it inspired endures.

Originally from Hama, Syria, Bakri no longer surfs NASA’s website. Instead, the 17-year-old, who arrived in Jordan in 2012, devotes herself to excelling in school in order to qualify for scholarships that will enable her to afford college tuition. She wants to study physics and eventually work as an astrophysicist for NASA.

Outwardly, Bakri’s otherworldly ambitions seem to make her unique compared to her peers in Jordan’s Syrian refugee community. But it is not her ambitions that mark her out, it is that she has been allowed to have them at all. The most recent school year for which statistics werepublicly available in Jordan, 2013-2014, show that only 3,670 secondary school-aged Syrians, out of 81,842 registered, were enrolled. That is 4.5 percent. Attending university, let alone a career as an astrophysicist, is unimaginable for most Syrians in Jordan.

In Zarqa, a bustling city of 400,000 inhabitants, only 24 kilometres northeast of Amman, Bakri is witnessing a disturbing trend among her peers. Poverty and scant economic opportunities are suffocating the ambitions of a populace already reeling from the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year. Consequently, many Syrian youth living in Jordan have abandoned their education, seeing no future in it. An increasingly common alternative, mostly for girls, is early marriage – but not for Bakri.

Bakri’s mother, Aysha Alothman, married at age 12 in Syria, and this experience convinced her that her daughter should be allowed to wait.

“Being married at age 12 prevented me from continuing my education in regular schools,” says Alothman, 37. “It is great to be a mother and housewife, but this is not everything I aspired for.”

By sheltering her daughter from the prospect of early marriage, Alothman has enabled Bakri’s ambitions to flourish. Now Bakri’s family, consisting of her parents, older brother Fayez, and younger sister Nuha, are determined to help her finish her education, despite the economic and social pressures facing them as refugees.

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