The Beginning of Hope

A literacy program for women of an impoverished community in the Middle East brings hope

Lila stood on the front steps of the building that housed the woman’s literacy program she directed, one hand planted firmly on her hip, the other peeling off bits of tape from the door where she’d repeatedly hung posters announcing her next classes. She never expected it to be easy, but four torn-down posters felt to her like an open challenge.

As she picked at the tape, she noticed the women who had gathered at the end of the narrow street. She had spent weeks visiting the neighborhood before opening the project.  She knew them; some had even become her friends.

She hesitated at the thought of confronting them, but she quickly adjusted the clip holding her hair back and headed down the street to join them.  It didn’t take her long to realize they knew all about the missing announcements.  

“Oh, we are so sorry,” one woman apologized.  Others began to explain. “Fatima is very angry at what you are doing. She stands out on the street and blocks us from going in when we come to class.”  Lila asked to meet Fatima so she could invite her to observe a class.  Fatima showed up, scowling at first.  But she began to listen, then participate, and finally to cheer on her friends.

Lila has had enough experience teaching in literacy programs to know the value of what she is doing.  She has also experienced the hurdles:  Turning an abandoned church building into workable space. Traveling three hours round trip a day in a bus, then taxi, and finally on foot. Building trust in a skeptical neighborhood.

When she first opened the project, it was actually easy to attract the neighborhood women. But when a local religious leader threatened anyone who attended her classes, Lila found herself making the long trip each day for only one woman who kept coming in spite of the intimidation.  Lila admits, “I almost gave up. But God kept giving me a picture of what could happen here.”  

After weeks, the one faithful student invited a relative to come to class.  The relative brought a friend. The friend brought her neighbors.  Today most of the students, all women from the majority religion, have come by word of mouth, from other neighborhoods, and even through recommendations by the local education center.

Lila’s love for the women gives her strength for the difficulties.  She remembers the husband who prohibited his wife from attending any more classes, “Why are you doing this? You are grown up already!” he insisted.

Lila visited him and appealed, “You will be better off when your wife learns to read.  She will be an honor to you.”  He relented.  Soon he was helping his wife prepare her homework.  Then he was rushing her out of the house when class time came. When he realized she could read about the medication he needed to take, he knew he was better off.

Because the project is an approved literacy program, Lila can award students with an official certificate when they pass the government exam.  It confirms the skills they’ve learned,  allows them to enroll in an area school, and even qualifies them for a small grant to start their own business.  They can also sign their name and read to their children.

The benefit they receive strengthens the project as well.  “When I realized the women needed a marketable skill,” Lila recounts, “I secured some sewing machines and hired three of the project’s graduates to teach the women to sew.  Now they make bedsheets, blankets, and pajamas to raise funds for the project.”  The large building also provides space for children’s activities where graduates are employed to care for the children of the mothers who are learning.

Lila’s materials are simple:  a small collection of children’s books, guidelines from the government,  simple worksheets and activities she creates from the women’s world.  Being adults doesn’t dampen their excitement to learn or their pride when they’ve done well.  The experience is contagious; her classes, capped at 15 students for a 3-month session, fill easily through personal references.

Of course, Lila’s follow-up is personal too and goes far beyond teaching reading and writing.  “They come to trust that I really care for them; they feel safe sharing their problems and challenges.  I become part of their lives,” she admits.  Some call her mom, an enviable position that allows her to influence their parenting, their marriages, their emotional wellbeing, and even how they see God.

She shares with them openly. “I tell them what I think will help them in their lives.  I do not need to bring up anything that creates conflict; I just share from the Bible what I know will meet their needs.”   Sometimes they compare what their faith teaches them with what Lila is sharing with them.  Sometimes they ask her to pray with them.  

“Through it all,”  Lila testifies, “I see God building them up, developing their gifts, bringing them a taste of hope.  He has so much in store for each of them, and they just need to know.”