By Ben Orbach
A week ago, Nuran Kolan sent me an email with three photographs attached. The photos showed the beaming face of the principal of the Queen Noor school in Wahdat, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Amman that is home to the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. The principal of the school was holding one of the two laptops that Nuran had just hand-carried from Washington, DC as part of our School-2-School program.
Tragically, Nuran passed away three days later in an Amman hospital from a sudden illness. From Wahdat to Washington, DC where Nuran lived and worked, she will be deeply missed by friends and colleagues who knew her well and by the many people who never got the chance to know her personally but who benefitted from the kindness and goodness of her life’s work.
For 35 years, Nuran Kolan worked in the US government and with non-governmental organizations to improve the lives of people in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern, Europe, and the United States. Fifteen of those years were spent at the US Agency for International Development, creating programs that trained vocational teachers, public health officials, and civil society leaders. The geographic scope of her work ranged from Nigeria to Iraq to the former Soviet Union; her work enabled the first USG funded humanitarian assistance to Azerbaijan.
Nuran was a bridge between her native land and her home. She was a Senior Diplomatic Interpreter for the State Department, working with every US President and Secretary of State in their bilateral meetings with their Turkish counterparts since 1977.
There were bright lights in Nuran’s career, but one of the beautiful things about her was her focus on the people who don’t make the headlines. Nuran was a champion of the underdog, the marginalized, and the forgotten, both overseas and in the United States. Early in her career she developed training programs for union workers in Appalachia; later she supported girls’ scholarships in Iraq; and along the way she devoted herself to autistic children here in Washington, D.C.
As a board member of Creative Learning, she was a stalwart supporter of our School-2-School program, an initiative that partners a school in the United States with a school in the developing world for a virtual exchange, an infrastructure investment, and a volunteer training mission. Through her contacts with the Jordan Education Initiative, she chose our partner in Wahdat.
In 2012, we paired the Queen Noor school with Panaroma Middle School in Colorado Springs. Brittney Scott, a Teach for America Corps Member, taught her students about Jordan, they raised money to buy an electronic white board for the Queen Noor school, and then she volunteered at the school in the summer of 2012 for two weeks, teaching English and training teachers how to use the white board they had requested.
Of course, Nuran arranged Brittney’s housing and donated generously to support the program. She wanted to continue the partnership and our support of the school after Brittney’s mission. After much discussion, we decided to donate some computers for the school. For more than six months we tried to figure out – on a shoe-string budget – a way to transport a couple of lightly used laptops to Jordan.
Tenacious, determined, and ever well-meaning, Nuran decided that she would deliver the laptops herself on her next trip to Jordan. She deserves all the credit for initiating the partnership and taking it to the next level of support. It is fair to say that without her, we’d never know about those young women at the Queen Noor school, and we would never have had the chance to work with them, to support them, and importantly to learn from them. Nuran wasn’t into charity — she built partnerships that were built on mutual respect, empowerment, and dignity.
The story of Nuran and this school in Jordan is a small one. But Nuran’s career was built on hundreds of stories like this one, and the impact of her vision and her work stretches long beyond “performance indicators.” Nuran would never dismiss the measured outcomes of our trade, but her contribution to the field of international development was so much greater than numbers. To work so long in this field, and to continue to care so deeply about the dignity and the lives of individuals who you will never really get to know is something special.
Those of us who knew Nuran miss her deeply today, but all of us will miss her even more tomorrow. Her legacy is great, and her absence profound.