Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Visiting Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Imagine waking up without your bed, finding yourself sleeping on the floor instead. Imagine if there was no ceiling or concrete walls to shelter you, only a tent or a caravan if you are fortunate. Imagine having lost everything you own, including all or some of your family, relatives or friends. This is what millions of Syrian have experienced since the uprising began in March 2011. Syrians, who lost their homes and means of livelihood, were forced to flee the war in their homeland crossing into neighbouring countries to seek safety and shelter and have since became refugees.

Syrian refugees informal tented settlements
According to Amnesty International, more than 4 million refugees from Syria (95%) are in just five countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt:
  • Lebanon hosts approximately 1.2 million refugees from Syria which amounts to around one in five people in the country
  • Jordan hosts about 650,000 refugees from Syria, which amounts to about 10% of the population
  • Turkey hosts 1.9 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country worldwide
  • Iraq where 3 million people have been internally displaced in the last 18 months hosts 249,463 refugees from Syria
  • Egypt hosts 132,375 refugees from Syria

Over the past years, despite its own socio and economic challenges, Jordan has been hosting a large number of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and in the past 4 years from Syria. Approximately 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in informal tented settlements among host communities in urban areas in the north of Jordan, while the remaining 20 percent live in Zaatari (considered to be the second largest refugee camp in the world), Marjeeb al-Fahood, Cyber City and Azraq camps, built on land provided by the Jordanian authorities.
The UN humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees is only 45% funded. Due to the shortage in funding the most vunerble Syrian refugees in Jordan recive approximately JD20 a month, the equivalent of $28, which is less than $1 a day. Hence, more than 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are living below the local poverty line. Syrian refugees also struggle in Jordan to find jobs to help them survive, since it is illegal for most of them to work as per the Jordanian law, so they accept low paying and odd jobs that Jordanians usually would not fill. If they are caught, they risk being deported back to Syria and hence some children have been forced to work as a result to secure food for their families.

UNHCR Report on Registered Syrian Refugees in Nov. 1, 2015
Three of my friends and I travelled to Jordan, on the first week of November 2015, as volunteers to support Syrian refugees there and witness first hand the conditions they were living in. Since visiting the formal gated Zaatari and Azraq camps required government permission, we were only able to visit the informal tented settlements in both Azraq and Zaatari. Our itinerary was arranged by Catherine Ashcroft, Resource Mobilisation Specialist, Consultant to Mercy Corps and Founder of Helping Refugees in Jordan (HRJ) whom we have been collaborating with for the past year. Catherine is also a mother of three and above all a humanitarian who has dedicated her time and effort for this cause and her motto is "if a child needs shoes, it doesn't matter where they are born." She has transformed her garage into a deposit point for donations such as clothing, shoes, blankets, mattresses, heaters, wheelchairs...etc and her living room has become a small bazaar selling handicrafts, scarves and carpets to raise funds. Last year Catherine's projects has been able to raise almost half a million dollars. One hundred and two trucks, one ton each, carrying blankets, clothes and shoes, food boxes and school furniture were transported to refugees across Jordan, without any administrative charges.  
Catherine Ashcroft
Carpets and local handicrafts for sale to raise funds
Maher, a Syrian refugee working for HRJ and MercyCorps 
Clothes sorted and labeled for distribution
Heaters, blanket and wheelchairs

Day 1 we travelled to Azraq in Northern Jordan and visited a school built with the help of donations collected by HRJ and Mercy Corps and is run in collaboration with the Azraq Women Association. It consisted of 4 caravan classrooms from grade 1 to 4, a small playground in the middle, and a fifth caravan that was serving as a sewing training center. The students attending the school were Syrian refugees living in houses in the village as well as some Jordanians. New donations to HJR allowed for the construction of a library and workshop hall on a floor above an existing office building.

A sewing center, part of the vocational training programs for women
We then went to visit a new site which was being prepared to include more tented classrooms and caravans. We were told by the head of the Azraq Women's Association that the area would be used in the morning as a school for students from year 5 to 7, and in the afternoon used for workshops and a vocational project that would secure 26 job opportunities for Syrian refugees. Jobs such as selling homemade food, traditional handicrafts...etc, would generate income and help improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees.

Later that afternoon we visited an informal tented settlement in Nothern Azraq, in a farm 25 km away from the school which we visited in the morning. A few tents were in that farm and they sheltered several families each. We were all overwhelmed by the miserable living conditions we witnessed.  There was an obvious lack of sanitation and medical care and some of the children's growth was stunted due to malnourishment. It was heart breaking to see how these people were surviving with almost nothing. Yet we felt the eagerness of the children to resume their education as we sat in a tented school which was being prepared for them. Many had been out of school for the past 4 years but were excitedly seated around us recounting what they still remembered. The distance and off road journey made this area harder to access. UNICEF was able to provide them with 2 teachers only who could visit them twice a week. We left that camp heavy hearted feeling that the support from our donations was just a drop in the ocean.

A tented school set up by HJR & Marcy Corps in Northern Azraq
Syrian refugees inside their new school in a Northern Azraq farm
Day 2 early in the morning we stopped at Catherine's house and loaded one of the cars with jackets, shoes, heaters and powder milk before we headed to Zaatari village to distribute them. When we reached the village we stopped at a local society called White Hands for Social Development and were briefed about its activities to support Syrian refugees and the local community, such as micro loans for small businesses and awareness workshops. We were joined by its head to visit some of the settlements there. The first tented settlement we visited was in the middle of nowhere with a tank serving as the only water source for all the families living in the scattered tents around it. Despite the living conditions they were subject to, the children still greeted us with a smile. They had already been dismissed from school since we arrived after mid-day so we visited an empty classroom and saw the children's colourful drawings on its walls. As we drove away, we saw the men being dropped off by a pickup after a day's work in the fields. I wondered how much did they earn that day?

Jackets and coats for children

A water tank serving many families in the tented settlement 
Syrian refugee children smiling against the odds

A tented school by HJR from the inside
Artwork by Syrian refugee children
Afterwards we visited another informal tented settlement in a private gated farm. We delivered some heaters and checked on the progress in another tented school. The children were dressed in winter clothing yet didn't have socks nor shoes to face the cold weather. The tents didn't look like they would survive a heavy rain, let alone the harsh winter ahead either. As we were heading back to Amman, there was news forecast of a storm hitting the area in the next few days. We were daunted by that thought, but were recently comforted by Catherine that the tented schools we had visited were all waterproofed with extra tarpaulin and ropes before the storms hit last week

Syrian Refugee boys standing in front of what is now their home
Another tented school by HRJ from the inside
Day 3 we had two meetings scheduled. The first meeting was with Eng. Raed Nimri, Mercy Corps Deputy Country Director for Jordan. Mercy Corps is funded by the United Nations and US agencies and has been working in Jordan since 2003. It has developed a network cooperating with 175 local community based organisations since they have better reach and more accurate data. Mercy Corps have been focusing on the Syrian crisis in the past 4 years, helping secure the immediate needs of vulnerable Syrian refugees and has built 4 health centres across Jordan requested by the communities. We were briefed on the various projects Mercy Corps is currently working on, including the No Lost Generation Campaign. Their main focus currently is the winterisation of Syrian refugees in order to prepare them for the harsh winter ahead. HRJ acts as a gap filler for Mercy Corps when its standardised program can't provide a certain need, because it has a quicker process and donations reach those in need directly.

Our second meeting was with Lina Farouqi, Regional Director of Middle East Children's Institute (MECI), an NGO which was founded in New York in 2005 and has been operating in Jordan since late 2013. MECI provides an informal education for Syrian refugee children in Jordan and helps out of school Jordanian children catch up and return to the educational system. They presently run after school programs, 3 days a week, in 9 schools with 5 classes in each, in different locations across Jordan, mainly in Irbid, Ramtha and Salt. A portion of HRJ donation goes o MECI to support the education of Syrian refugees.
Shahd's haunting look embodies the Syrian refugee crisis
Before going to Jordan I had been following news about the Syrian refugee crisis and was familiar with their hardship but what we witnessed in Jordan during our short visit was truly devastating. Syrian refugees in the informal settlements were in need of proper shelter, food and clothing. Health and education were secondary needs. Yet, what struck me the most was the condition of the children, Syria's future generation. They not only needed proper homes, but proper health care and a formal education. Many of the children had been out of school for years. What future would these children have?

I had wondered why would some families choose to leave the established gated refugee camps, set up by the Jordanian government and UNHCR, and opt to live in the informal tented settlements with barely any support. I soon realised that life in the camps wasn't much of a life. These camps were overcrowded, limiting in job opportunities and generally not safe. They felt trapped, insecure and desperate, yet they were sadly escaping from one hardship to another.  

As the conflict enters its firth year, and as the situation deteriorates and becomes more desperate for Syrian refugees, the hope for their return is starting to fade. After visiting these informal settlements and hearing about living conditions in the gated camps, it is now understandable why some choose to risk everything and cross hazardous waters to find better living conditions in Europe. The driving force is their hope to secure a better future for their children, a formal education, job opportunities and an extra income that they could send to their relatives back in Syria. Some are so desperate that they even opted to return to Syria.

It isn't enough to just feel sympathy for Syrian refugees, it is our duty to help them. 
You can help sponsor a Syrian refugee family = JD 100 per month, JD 600 for six months, JD1200 for a year, or sponsor a teacher to teach Syrian refugees = JD 250 per month, times 9 months for a scholastic year.  To support Catherine Ashcroft efforts in providing the necessary help to Syrian refugees in Jordan donate through GoFundMe ensuring that 100% of the donations received are spent in essential supplies for the refugees. Catherine welcomes volunteer donors who are also willing to donate their time and effort for this cause. 

"Because the Syrian crisis isn't over. Because children's lives are at stake. Because they deserve better than this. Because it's not too late. Because they are the future of Syria."

No comments:

Post a Comment