Maddie Ulanow, a Potomac native raised in a Conservative Jewish home, has spent a year living in the Middle East.
The 23-year-old graduate of Carleton College, a liberal arts school in Minnesota, lives and works in Amman, Jordan. It started as a language-learning scholarship to study Arabic, turned into a Fulbright scholarship teaching English to refugees and is now a full-time job at Reclaim Childhood, a nonprofit empowering refugee women through athletics.
We caught up with Ulanow, days before she was scheduled to fly back to Jordan while she was visiting family in Washington.
What prompted your interest in Jordan?
When I was a senior in high school, I received a scholarship called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, to go to Morocco for the summer. It was for [teenage] language learners and I got really lucky. It was a great experience and I wanted to keep learning Arabic. At this point the only places you could really study Arabic were Jordan and Morocco, and the dialects are very different. Morocco has a French and North African influence. I wanted to do a Levantine dialect, which is very close to Palestinian and Lebanese Arabic. So I went to Jordan during college for my semester abroad, and when I graduated I got a Fulbright Scholarship to go back and keep teaching there.
What keeps you going back?
I found a really cool job opportunity there. The organization I work for now is Reclaim Childhood. We run soccer and basketball clinics for girls at risk and refugees.
I taught English at a [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] school for Palestinian refugee girls, and I was really upset that they didn’t have any athletic equipment. I grew up playing sports and I wanted those girls to have something. I was asking around for nongovernmental agencies that [would donate equipment] and met someone who had worked for Reclaim Childhood [which was defunct at that point].
She said the organization has a storage unit and maybe they would let [me] use the equipment in it. So, I found this woman [who owned the unit] and after talking to her, she said, “We’re trying to restart the organization and you seem passionate about it, have you thought about staying in Jordan?”
You’re flying back to Jordan in a few days. What’s your plan?
Now that the Fulbright has ended I’m working full-time for Reclaim Childhood. I have a new appreciation for administration and logistics and I never imagined that would be a full-time job, but it is. When I get back we’re also running a coaching clinic. A lot of the coaches we’re training are young women, ages 18 to 30, who want to coach their own teams but a lot of them haven’t played soccer before or they’ve only seen on it television. They all know what soccer is but they aren’t as familiar with the rules.
What did your parents think of you going to the country right next to Israel?
Israelis always ask: “Why didn’t you study Arabic in Israel? There’s plenty of Arabs here.” The scholarship was for Jordan and I liked being in Jordan because I could go to Israel frequently. My parents were not thrilled, but they’ve been good. My mom wouldn’t have been happy if I had just gone to Jordan, but she was happy that it was with the U.S. government program. She was confident that they would take care of me. I have an evacuation number to call, not that I’ve ever needed it.
Alumni of Fulbright are always with Fulbright. I’m lucky the Jordan commission is very supportive. The director said: “I’ll call your mom. I’ll tell her you’re always one of us. I’ll always pull you out if we’re evacuating.” But we’re not evacuating, Jordan is very safe.
Are you fluent in Arabic yet?
Fluent? There is no fluent. Arabic is just really hard because there are so many different dialects. I’m conversational in Jordanian-urban dialect. But even going across the border, I’ll take a minute to adjust to a Palestinian dialect.