The TIGER Girls: Grit, grace & hope?

Professor Helen Storey, Professor of Fashion and Science at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, talks about her visit to Za’atari Refugee Camp and the inspiration she recieved from the TIGER girls. 
Whilst visiting Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan this Summer, I met the TIGER Girls – a group of 1,200 adolescent females who are a beacon of light for a larger group of 10,000 young women, in a place where only 20% will complete high school education. Early marriage, increased domestic chores and low paid work, keep many of them from aspiring to an education, or imagining what it may bring them.
TIGER Girls stands for ‘ These inspiring girls enjoy reading’ – it began as an initiative by The Open Learning Exchange, based in Cambridge, MA in the USA, as a pilot for innovative refugee education.
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On the day we met some of them in one of their caravan classrooms, they were sitting in a semi circle in the middle of a maths lesson, led by 12 female coaches, reciting times tables to each other. The youngest girl, who had joined that day, was about 10 years old, shy, but constantly encouraged and supported by the other girls too. They took it in turns to come to the top of the class to say out loud what they had learnt, met by applause each time.
The TIGER Girls are the first ‘ recyclers’ in Jordan and spoke of the way in which they collect all the camps residue materials, turning pipe lagging into lamp shades, cardboard into mirror frames and reinventing what we might deem as ‘rubbish’ into something of household value. Nothing at Za’atari goes to waste.
Tiger girls
The bond between the coaches and the girls is immensely strong. There is an unspoken sense from them, that they know what they are striving for within the camp is part of a historic opportunity for young women, that perhaps only the catastrophe of war has ever previously rendered. Somehow, when life is torn apart for everyone, for men, women and children alike, the equality in starting life all over again, together, seems to be quietly mirrored in the opportunity for preparing young women to play a bigger social and economic role for the future.
In this forthcoming academic year at LCF, we can expect the arrival of 2,007 young female minds; the nurturing of their imaginations, skills and creativity, underpinned by a natural expectation, that they will go on to positively shape and contribute to the world beyond their education with us.
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It’s this passion, commitment and experience of creativity and productivity that can in turn help us to contribute something of tangible value to The TIGER Girls and their coaches too. From offering teaching training, hair and beauty experiences creating new relationships, (as well as provide skills with a monetary value), to psychological healing, through making – there is a vast opportunity to shrink the world for young women and play a part in helping rebuild the next generation of Syrian livelihoods, in the hope that their land can one day be rebuilt to be theirs again.
Meanwhile, the experience of meeting the next generation and being at Za’atari doesn’t leave you – such is the impact of the people we met and all that the Jordanians and the UNHCR are doing for them. (A population doubled by the refugee numbers and not a word of walls and irreconcilable drains on social fabric, or resources).
Za’atari works on you.
Whether you like it or not, it offers up a new and gently nonnegotiable mirror to everything else you return to.
And so I am left wondering, given NGO’s and charities are our global and local declarations of human need, what our curriculums might look like, if they sought to deliver to them directly?
What courses would we create, merge, keep, or drop?
What would our research trajectory then be?
What would we stop measuring?
And, which words might we choose to shape and express what our ethical mission statement is, to the rest of the world?
Helen Storey – August 2016
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Twitter: @profhelenstorey