For most kids, the early stage COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 meant one thing: boredom. Many took the chance to start a new hobby, watch superhero movies, or spend more time on TikTok. But Lujain Alqattawi, a 13-year-old eighth grader in Maryland, saw the pause as an opportunity to do something different.
“With COVID we were just sitting at home and I felt like I wanted to help people or make an impact,” Alqattawi says. “I was just thinking like, what can I do to help people in general? What do I have?” A bilingual teenager of Palestinian heritage, Alqattawi realized something she had that others lacked: language skills. Inspired by her mom, who has taught English as a second language for two decades, and by her family history—her father emigrated to the U.S. from Jordan as a Palestinian refugee—Alqattawi decided she would teach Arabic-speaking refugees English.
Drawing on family ties to Palestinian refugee communities, Alqattawi’s parents made contact with the principal of a school in Jordan. While the adults sorted the logistics, the teen got to work designing a syllabus and lesson plans. She would be tutoring 9- and 10-year-old Palestinian girls, and so tailored her lessons appropriately, incorporating videos and emojis she knew they’d enjoy. And just like that, her non-profit, Sparkle, was born. “‘Sparkle’ means knowledge,” she says. “It outshines everything.”
Every Friday for six months, Alqattawi would finish her week of remote school and get to work preparing 30-minute beginner’s English classes. Then every Saturday, she’d spend her mornings on Zoom, beaming both the lessons and her infectious personality 6,000 miles across the world to groups of school girls in Jordan.
The project’s goal wasn’t just to impart a new skill, Alqattawi says, but “to empower girls to be more confident.”
Alqattawi is intelligent, driven and curious. She’s also a chatterbox. It wasn’t hard for her to connect with the 30-odd fourth and fifth graders she was teaching remotely; they talked fantasy books and anime, played Jeopardy, and did roleplay, all in a blend of elementary English and the students’ native Arabic.
Running the lessons by herself was tough. The girls didn’t have their own laptops, and sometimes their internet would cut out. Alqattawi had to adapt. But whenever she felt like giving up, it was the small wins which pushed her to keep going. “It was really satisfying to see how happy they were and how I made a difference in their lives,” she says.
Alqattawi’s mom, Ahlam, gave her advice on how to structure the lessons, but the activities, learning materials, and syllabus were all the teen’s own creation.
Despite the geographical distance separating teacher and students, Alqattawi recognized aspects of her own culture in the girls’ lives. “I’d hear some background noises and their mom’s cooking and stuff like that,” she says. “It’s like you feel the atmosphere in the background.” It’s a scene she knows well from her treasured childhood visits to Jordan, home to her grandpa and 10 aunts and uncles.
Sparkle didn’t just bring Alqattawi closer to the girls she was tutoring—it built a deep understanding of her family history. Like her students, Alqattawi’s father, Mohammad, was born a refugee in a country that was not his own. Jordan hosts approximately 2 million Palestinians, more than any other country, and 18% of them live in 10 camps hosted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The camps were set up to house the influx of Palestinian refugees following the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948—known as ‘Al Nakba’ or ‘the catastrophe’, which saw 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes—and in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Talbieh camp, close to Jordan’s capital, was Mohammad’s home for the first 20 years of his life.
“I grew up in there,” Mohammad says. He attended one of the 161 UNRWA schools set up in Jordan for Palestinian refugees, “the same schools where Lujain is teaching these girls.” By the time Mohammad reached adulthood, his father had saved enough to get the family into permanent housing outside of the camps. Thanks to encouragement from his college professors, Mohammad applied to study in the U.S. There, he met his wife Ahlam, started a family, and built a career as an engineer.
Without education, Alqattawi’s father would not be where he is today. Alqattawi knows this. It’s why she gave up her Saturday mornings for six months to tutor girls she had never met. Her students, like Mohammad, started life on the back foot—Palestinian refugees in Jordan are more likely to live in poverty than the general population, and many lack access to the same rights as naturalized citizens.
But as girls, Alqattawi’s students face yet another barrier. Despite their high attainment levels, Palestinian girls in Jordan, both in and outside the camps, are nearly twice as likely as boys to drop out of elementary school. A combination of factors, including cultural attitudes, mean girls’ academic abilities are often underestimated. “I feel like girls are not given that much thought in general,” Alqattawi says. “‘Oh, she’s a girl, just whatever.’ Like, no. Girls are capable as much as boys and even more in some stuff.”
Alqattawi decided to focus on girls to break down the barriers holding them back. The fact that they felt more comfortable around their 13-year-old teacher didn’t hurt. “My idea was to have not adults teaching them but people who can relate to them,” she says. “Teenage girls.” Lujain now wants to get her Arabic-speaking female friends on board to expand the project and make a greater impact.
In many ways, Sparkle was a two-way process of learning. Alqattawi’s syllabus started small but got bigger—“We started with me, myself, and I, then my family, my neighborhood, my community, the world, the universe,” Alqattawi says. As the teen expanded her students’ horizons, they too broadened Alqattawi’s perspective. “She realized that people outside her world live a different life,” says Ahlam, “And that we’re so privileged here in the United States.” Alqattawi agrees: “It’s helped me grow.”
The teen has big plans for Sparkle’s next phase. “I would like to start a website where we can provide resources,” she says. She’s keen to help a fresh bunch of students, but also progress the original class to the next level—”Sparkle 2.0,” she calls it. She’s applied for grants to fund laptops for the girls to ease remote learning, and she plans to run in-person classes when her family next visits Jordan. The project has made her consider how she can impact her immediate surroundings. “I was also thinking of doing something with refugee girls here to help them adapt to their environment,” she says. “Not just teaching them English, but to help them with their emotional strength.”
Perhaps the most meaningful outcome of Alqattawi’s hard work is the friendships she has formed with people she would never have met were it not for Sparkle. Apart from a source of memes and jokes, the group’s Whatsapp chat provides a space for Alqattawi to track the girls’ improvement. “I recently just talked to them and they were more fluent, they could express themselves better, and they were more confident,” she says.
Alqattawi has certainly achieved her goal to lift up the girls in her class. What she’s most excited for is their futures: “I feel that we’re producing the next generation of girl doctors, engineers and these jobs that people usually don’t picture a woman as.”
Watch the Kid of the Year broadcast special, hosted by Trevor Noah, on Nickelodeon on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30pm/6:30pm CT to find out which finalist will be named TIME Kid of the Year
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