For Khalid, the beaches of Tartus are unrivaled. “The sand is white, no rocks to trip on, no urchins to sting you.” He told me this as he brushed off the pebbles that had stuck to his feet. “I don’t like it here.” Khalid, 16 years old, fled his native city of Homs just over one year ago. “I would go back tomorrow if my Dad would let me,” he added, then returning to the subject of Tartus and its clear superiority to the gravely beaches of Aqaba, Jordan. Khalid and his brother live in Mafraq, a small, mainly Bedouin, town near the border with Syria and now home to thousands of refugee families who have set up temporary lives alongside extended family, friends, or strangers who have offered their homes, spare land, or an unfinished building to those fleeing violence in Syria.

Khalid and his younger brother Omar both work full time, earning less than $20 per week between the two of them. Both parents are out of work, and the family relies on relatives and aid donations to supplement the boys’ minimal income. Omar makes coffee at a truck stop all day, and Khalid works at a stationery store taking photographs for passports, government IDs, and other documents. Omar, the younger of the two, joked “Don’t drink the Nescafe, I can make it much better…” He doesn’t mind work, he added, but also has no desire to stay here any longer than he has to.

Their need to subsist in Jordan compelled the boys to work and therefore abandon their studies once they arrived in Jordan.  In the Kingdom, there are well upwards of 200,000 Syrian refugees, with only half or slightly less registered with UNHCR. One group of young men, seven living in a small flat in Ramtha, told our staff “We are wanted by the Syrian Army. We can’t register. We don’t want our information anywhere.” This is the fear of thousands of families, who for this, and scores of other fear-driven reasons, avoid registering with the primary aid agencies. As a result, mapping needs is hard. In the face of such need, and so little documentation, effectiveness rests on deep community knowledge and tendrils that reach to even the most off-grid areas hosting refugees.

Jordan’s infrastructure, especially in the already-poorer North, is trying to adapt to the quarter of a million people that have come over the past eighteen months, but resources are scarce. Schools have had to add shifts, as class sizes grew to 50 or more in some places. In the Za’atari Camp, a sealed-off tent city home to 30,000+ of the poorest and most recent refugees, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the only school is plagued with miserably low attendance, violence, and inexperienced staff unready to deal with the challenges of working with both Syrian students and refugee youth.

Syrian boys at Aqaba Camp, 2012
Syrian boys at Aqaba Camp, 2012

In order for interventions outside the camp in urban areas to work, it is absolutely critical that the Jordanian host communities, including Syrians therein, be engaged in a creative and meaningful way in the design, execution, and expansion of aid programs to Syrians. And inside the camp, the residents’ vast resources need to be better understood and utilized. It is a city, essentially, and its governors and residents need to be speaking the same language, both figuratively and literally.

At Questscope we have worked primarily outside the camp until now. To be frank, though, helping vulnerable Jordanians is not sexy anymore for much of the international community, in light of the “sadder” stories of refugees fleeing under the cover of night and threat of bullets. This makes work in the communities quite a challenge, as effective aid must not widen the gap between Jordanians and Syrians in the same cities, but rather, constructively engage both.

Thankfully, there is an excess of emotional inclination and human resources among the Jordanian community to really revolutionize the way aid is delivered. Like any resource, aid money and goods are not immune to corruption, competition, and positioning that can and has jeopardized the effectiveness of the crisis response. Collaboration between aid providers and target communities, and not just on paper, is a way to ensure more accurate and honest aid delivery. It’s not risk-free, but it provides roles, which in and of itself does more for restoring psychological stability than much of the direct aid itself.

We have worked for four months to train Jordanian and Syrian volunteers working at Jordanian community organizations in informal education (IFE) delivery. Questscope provides IFE through the modality of community organizations, using Syrians who used to be teachers or university students, along with Jordanian staff, to engage youth, now in Jordan, who remain out of school by force, by circumstance, or simply because there is no room for them in the classroom. Questscope IFE, rooted in a Participatory Learning Methodology that wa evaluated by Oxford University in 2010, aims to restore youth-adult partnerships and bring Syrian and Jordanian out-of-school youth into the same space to engage in sessions that boost critical thinking skills and that have been proven to reduce anti-social and violent behavior.

Last week, I was part of the team that took the boys from the IFE program to the coastal city of Aqaba, for a four-day educational camp. Over the four days I witnessed by team of twelve boys transform. The first days were suffocated by infighting between Jordanians and Syrians, between Syrians from one city and those from another. After a day of targeted sessions, conversations, and challenging questions, I awoke to a surprise. And that was the complicated thing known as musalahah in Arabic; it is a form of reconciliation that is far deeper than the American or European understanding of the word. The boys had met at night, fleshed out the issues between them, and came as a group in the morning assuring that all voices and complaints had been addressed. For the last 48 hours of the camp, the group was all smiles, no trace of the lines that had been drawn upon arrival, nor any lingering fistfights. Complete and total musalahah.

In the Za’atri Camp, we have begun planning to implement a similar IFE program and revive its mentoring program, which was first piloted across the Kingdom of Jordan in the country’s juvenile detention centers. In the detention centers, Questscope worked with over 3,000 youth and 4,000 mentor volunteers to restore the educational and personal aspirations of youth who had been completely removed from the system, who had become essentially invisible to their society.

Since 2000, Questscope has restored more than 7,000 youth dropouts, street kids, gang members, and otherwise marginalized youth to formal education, vocational training, and better livelihood options. In the current situation, working to provide alternative paths for Syrian youth requires the same commitment to community engagement, trust in the depth of capabilities inherent in host communities, and a constant application of Questscope’s mission of “putting the last, first.”

Za'atri Camp, Jordan
Za’atri Camp, Jordan

On the last day of our Aqaba camping trip, Khalid told me: “You know, I understand what you’re trying to do.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. He went on: “I’m not saying I think the situation is perfect. It’s not, it’s not fair, but you are trying to provide some sense of equality in a situation where there is no justice.”

Absolutely. How can a young man even fathom justice when every role, every friend, every goal has been stripped from him? When his voice is unheard, lost in a desert hundreds of miles from home? When he works for a foreigner who shamelessly pays him little, but still is enabling him to bring food to his family? The best I could do was to listen. Khalid is bright, opinionated, and relentless in his desire to inform you of what he thinks should be done. Aid agencies should be the first to give time, attention, and support to young people like Khalid. When all is stripped away, the least we can do is to walk next to someone as we mobilize what resources we can to then provide a way forward in a system that has roadblocks at every step.

2 thoughts on “The Hostess with the Mostest: Refugees and Host Communities in Jordan

  1. Hey there! I’ve been following your website for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good work!

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