Rana Dajani Ph D
Nov 11, 2022

To Improve Mental Health for Refugees, Focus on the Islamic-based Virtue, Istijarah

TWCF grantee Dr. Rana Dajani shares why it's important to build and grow support for character virtue-based programs for those displaced by conflict.

By Templeton Staff with Rana Dajani

Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) grantee Dr. Rana Dajani is working to develop a character virtue-based curriculum for use in the public school system in Jordan. For this Grantee Spotlight, we asked Dr. Dajani to share a little about her work in a brief Q+A session.

With a TWCF grant, Rana Dajani and project co-director Abdullah Awad aim to develop a character virtue-based curriculum for use in the public school system in Jordan. The curriculum will be focused on the Islamic concept of Istijarah, the ethical response of accommodating those in need. Istijarah offers the language and practice needed to inwardly cultivate virtues while outwardly building community. Character traits associated with Istijarah are humility, hospitality, kindness, and fraternity. By engaging educators, policymakers, and the humanitarian community, the project seeks to fill a void in the forms of educational and humanitarian assistance provided by government and non-government actors by offering an opportunity for young people to develop their inner strengths and capacities.

What is your main focus of study and how did you become interested in the area of research related to this TWCF-funded project?

Rana Dajani: I am a professor of molecular biology and as a scientist, “I see what everyone sees, but think what no one has thought," as Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi once said. I follow my curiosity. The waves of refugees flowing into Jordan, and being the daughter of refugees [brought me to this area of study.] My father is from Jerusalem and my mother is from Aleppo — I know firsthand what it means to be a refugee. My curiosity drove me to want to understand the biology behind the responses of the body to the trauma of war and displacement, but in a positive manner. That is, how do we as humans thrive and flourish under pressure? What can we learn so that we can develop better programs and interventions to reverse the negative impact of war and displacement? What can we learn, most importantly, to create system changes in the structural frameworks that hinder and limit our capabilities for dealing with the multiple crises we face in today's world? We cannot afford to do things as usual. Covid has shown us that. This line of thought has led me to explore frameworks in the humanities, social sciences, and behavioral science  — frameworks that Abdullah had already been developing with the Institute for Critical Thought in Jordan. It has also led me to support and lead projects that are a combination of science and practice, helping create a better world for the future of our Earth and humans.

Tell us more about the concept of Istijarah, and how it might affect refugees.

Rana Dajani: The concept of Istijarah is embedded within the Islamic civilization. There have been waves of circular migration for centuries within the region. Leaders in different contexts had created policies and guidelines for dealing with this issue in a humane fashion way before the UN Refugee Agency was established or even the declarations within Europe. There is much to be learned and reclaimed from the concept of Istijarah to utilize in today's world within the refugee context that is becoming a global phenomenon. This is part of decolonizing science and humanitarian aid: having the courage to understand and learn from how refugees were approached in the past by the Islamic civilization, to learn from terms used and approaches adopted for integration and positioning of the refugee within the society.

What is your approach to program design for this project?

Rana Dajani: The core of our work is twofold: studying the historical, conceptual, and linguistic structure for virtue ethics in pre-modern Islam and developing out of our study a practical program to be implemented in public schools. The project is co-created with the people (beneficiaries) on the ground. This way, we ensure better quality, effectiveness, and sustainability because of the ownership and agency generated by being co-designers. This approach is our unique signature, since most programs are designed outside the local context by people who are not living within the context. We believe [local context co-creation] should be the strategy for all program design to make a difference.

What is an insight or learning you found that might affect future study in your area of interest?

Rana Dajani: Trust. There is a tendency among developmental, humanitarian, and academic organizations not to trust the people they claim to serve  —  they claim that they want to help humanity and people from vulnerable communities but they don't give them agency and this is based on an unconscious bias of not trusting their capacities and capabilities. We must trust people to find their way, ask their questions, develop their solutions, fail and learn and fail again. This is the only way. We sometimes think we know everything but we don't. Being humble and reminding ourselves of this is very important as we work to build a better future for our children.

What is a source of inspiration in your studies?

Rana Dajani: I am inspired by the women and men I work with every day who are living through the journey of life that is so complicated and many times unfair. I am inspired by their resilience, their strength and courage, their motivation and persistence. They inspire me to do more and to want to reach out and learn from their wisdom that comes from experience.

Rana Dajani, PhD is a Palestinian-Syrian-Jordanian molecular biologist, author, social entrepreneur, feminist, and mother of four. She is a Professor at the Hashemite University in Jordan and Director of the nongovernmental organization Taghyeer. She also founded We Love Reading, which seeks to change mindsets through reading to create changemakers by fostering a love of reading among children and has spread to 65 countries around the world. She is also the author of "Five Scarves: Doing the Impossible - If We Can Reverse Cell Fate, Why Can't We Redefine Success?" which seeks to radically transform social and cultural barriers to better support women and create an equal and humane society.