Gather any group of teenagers together and you will get chatter, smiles and gossip. But as the projector clicks on in the meeting hall in Amman, Jordan, the assembled teens fall progressively silent. They are here to learn, and today's subject matter could not be more important.
Assembled today to take part in an awareness lecture on HIV, these teens are part of Caritas Jordan's ongoing HIV/AIDS Awareness Project, which is supported by Catholic Relief Services. Launched in 2007, the project seeks to fill a void Caritas saw in AIDS education across Jordan, where traditionally conservative attitudes make it difficult to openly discuss HIV and AIDS.
To help change that, Caritas Jordan set out to reach into Jordan's schools, parishes and communities to target students, youth groups and those served through Caritas programs with a message of AIDS awareness. Although HIV prevalence rates in Jordan are thought to be low, measured in hundreds of cases in a nation of 6 million people, many fear that ignorance about HIV could open the door for the virus to spread.
"This program is important to help people know what AIDS is," says Dr. Ammar Burgan, a general practitioner with Caritas Jordan. He speaks at awareness lectures to teach young people about HIV from a medical standpoint. "The most important slide in this lecture is the one on how to avoid getting HIV. If you can avoid getting it, we can stop the spread of the virus."
Through the lectures, Caritas teaches thousands of Jordan's young people about HIV, providing what, for many teens, is the first information they have received about the deadly virus. With staff members simply unable to meet the full demands of educating teens all over the country, a key component of the HIV program is a basic HIV awareness session for peer educators. They, in turn, carry the message back to their schools and serve as teachers to their peers.
"We learned the definition of AIDS and how it's transmitted from one to another," says 15-year-old Shareen Awad, who took part in the HIV training in early 2010. "We also learned how to protect ourselves."
A Skit Helps Spread the Message
Armed with that knowledge, Shareen and four of her classmates—also trained—designed a skit on HIV awareness, which they delivered to their class of 200 students at the Rosary School, a private Christian school outside of Amman. Most of her classmates, she says, knew little about HIV before she and her fellow peer educators began spreading the message.
"AIDS is an important disease that we should all know about," Shareen says. "Our classmates ask many questions. They know a little bit about it, but after the skit, they know more."
Some believe HIV cases are underreported in Jordan—that the number of people infected is more widespread than statistics show. Just 2 years out of medical school, Dr. Burgan lays some of the blame on the shoulders of his colleagues, many of whom have not had proper HIV training.
"Doctors even have the wrong information. We are trained in our careers to treat diabetes and cancers—we never discussed HIV," he says. "Caritas is really the first to discuss this."
Back in the Parish Club, a site used by Caritas volunteers to carry out local training and activities, after today's lecture ends, the assembled teens write down what they learned about HIV on large scrolls or paper located throughout the room. Moving quietly from one scroll to the next, Dr. Burgan is happy with what he sees and pleased to be providing real, science-based education on HIV to the young people of Jordan—a theme he comes back to as his mantra for combatting the spread of the virus here.
"The most important thing is knowledge about AIDS," Dr. Burgan says. "If you don't know about AIDS, you can't avoid AIDS."
David Snyder is photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.