A push for education and livelihoods for refugees in Jordan

Children listen to their teacher at the Zaatari refugee camp, which has grown to house nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees since it opened in 2012. Photo by: Mark Garten / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

It’s been almost four years since Syrian refugees fleeing conflict started congregating in Zaatari, Jordan, today home to the world’s second largest refugee camp.

Now with 80,000 residents, the emergency response phase is over, Hovig Etyemezian, UNHCR senior field coordinator and camp manager, told Devex. His agency’s focus now is on creating sustainable change and looking toward to the future. The focus, he said, needs to be on educating the more than 70,000 Syrian children living across Jordan who are currently out of school, as well as creating livelihood opportunities for adults. Without better prospects for the future, refugees will lose hope — and indeed some have already returned back to Syria.

More than a year and a half after taking up his position, Etyemezian shared his thoughts with Devex in an exclusive interview on the ground in Jordan.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

What are some of the reasons that refugees in Jordan might leave, either back to Syria or elsewhere?

Positive factors would be that the war ends and refugees could return with a real sense of security and peace back home to their country of origin. This is something we favor. Another, not necessarily positive solution, yet a durable one for refugees who can no longer make ends meet and survive in neighboring countries, would be to resettle in other countries in Europe or the United States. The international community should receive a substantial number of refugees to be resettled in countries that can take good care of them.

And what criteria is resettlement based upon?

We resettle based on criteria of vulnerabilities, which we agree upon with the receiving country ahead of time. The criteria are mostly humanitarian based and focus on various vulnerabilities including medical [issues], as well as the situation of the family. We don’t agree on criteria that could be discriminatory based on gender or ethnicity; it’s based on basic human rights principles. Within that framework, countries can say, we’d like to have complete families or we’d like to have “x” percentage of the population be vulnerable [with] medical cases, etc.

What about negative factors that cause the movement of people?

One aspect of negative movement, also called push mechanisms, is the loss of basic survival mechanisms — when refugees are unable to survive in neighboring countries and are forced to move because they cannot have a dignified life. This is happening in Jordan now, although less than before. Six months ago we had many refugees who were crossing back into Syria because of lack of assistance in Jordan. They were going back not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t make ends meet here. If refugees can’t survive in a set up, they’ll seek survival, just like any of us. One refugee said to me: “We’re dying slowly here, so might as well go back and live or die quickly.”

The other factor is a sense of hope for the future. There are Syrians who have been here for more than three years who don’t have perspective for the future. Out of 30,000 school-age children inside the camp, around 18,000 are going to school. Outside of the camp, anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000 school-age kids aren’t attending school. So parents are seeing youngsters’ age without getting the required education, which means their future is at risk. This lack of prospective for the future affects refugees’ decisions — it’s not only the financial aspect.

Negative movement is a mix of  the lack of basic humanitarian assistance, lack of [opportunity] for education, and lack of perspective for a livelihood. If they’re not receiving assistance and they can’t be self-reliant and can’t send children to school and youngsters aren’t going to university, they’re going to say, “Then I’d rather go back to Syria or cross over to Europe to seek a better life.”

And what are you doing to help mitigate these factors?

Luckily the [Syria donors conference in] London happened, and there have been some pledges [toward] supporting neighboring countries. We’ve had some good news on education: that there will be funding for additional schools outside of the camps in order to cater to those 70,000 to 100,000 children who aren’t getting an education due to lack of space and no teachers. We’ve also started investing in higher education, because who sends their kids to primary and secondary school if there’s no opportunity to go beyond that?

We’ve started a program with Al-Bayt University, one of the biggest in Mafraq, Jordan, where we’ll be doing computer programming courses for Syrians and Jordanians. After they graduate there’s an opportunity for employment. To complete the education cycle, you also have to invest in higher vocational training, and that’s something we’ve been seeing more interest in from donors who are visiting the site. Prior to the London conference there wasn’t that much interest; we only had a few parties [who were interested], but now we’re seeing momentum.

What do you tell donors and private firms who want to help?

There are a lot of good willed people who want to build in Zaatari, but what we tell them is that instead of investing in a temporary camp, to look outside of the camps. We prefer people to live in the cities and not in camps, as it’s closer to a sense of normalcy instead of living in a synthetic environment. If we invest in the training center and the university, it’s more sustainable and Jordanians and Syrians can [both] benefit.

The challenge is to open something outside of the camps and work within the national [Jordanian] institutions. The first step is difficult, but once you install the program it’s sustainable. These institutions don’t rely on us for their existence as they’re already there. We can improve upon the institution and help poor Jordanians and Syrians at the same time.

Then there’s the issue of livelihoods and work permits. [United Nations Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon was just here, as well as the head of World Bank, and the discussion was and is: how do we expand Jordan’s economy so that Jordanians and Syrian refugees can [both] benefit. We’re at the start of this discussion and it will take time until everyone is clear as to how the regulatory framework will work, how the refugees are going to be working, and what format we’re going to use, but there’s a positive momentum.

How can smart infrastructure help with some of the urbanization challenges in a refugee camp?

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to camps. Every single camp has its own specificities, and the clever [response] is to listen to the refugees, because what we do will differ from one set up to another. In Zaatari when there is a demand from the refugee side, we have to respond to it as this demand governs how we act. For example, we’re now building a water and sewage network here. We’d originally built communal kitchens and toilets, however unless you like camping for extended periods of time, after three years enough is enough of sharing a toilet and a kitchen. So families started building their own kitchens and bringing their own toilets and buying water tanks and putting them by their shelters and telling the agency to bring them water. If they were still using the communal facilities, we wouldn’t have built a sewage network.

The principle is to listen to the demand and then to the best of your capacity respond positively. Ultimately, our line of work is unpredictable, which doesn’t help with the planning process. You have to be fast and efficient enough, and clever enough, to listen to the refugees and understand the context. It also depends on your ability to convince the donors and the government that this is necessary.

How does the family dynamic shift while refugees are in transit?

This is a very violent war and it has an impact. Everyone has lost either a member of the nuclear or larger family, so there’s been loss of life, impairment, and many families with members who are wounded. That’s the immediate impact of the violence and the trauma that comes with war, and then you cross the border.

To generalize, if you look at the Syrians, they’re more of a conservative society and the dynamic back home is that of a traditional patriarchal family where the man’s the breadwinner and the woman takes care of the house. Either one or two of the parents are working and the children are either working in the farms or usually going to school and working. Once they cross the border, there’s a loss of livelihood and then trauma. Children, who used to go to the farms after school are now sitting at home, so imagine the consequences for family dynamics. The first ones to pay the price are always women and children, and with trauma and loss of livelihood there’s a higher risk of domestic violence. Men and women are sitting at home, the kids aren’t going to school, and they’re traumatized and frustrated.

What are the obstacles faced as a manager of a refugee camp?

The main difficulty is the future. My worry is that there are many kids who aren’t going to school and youth not going to university. We’re losing generations of Syrians and the world will not understand or feel it until it’s too late. Right now, we can’t feel the impact on the Syrian population of those 70,000 children not going to school. But we’ll feel it when they’re 16 years old with zero tools with which to engage in life. That’s my main worry, even more than the day-to-day stuff. It’s that we’re losing generations of Syrians and we’re trying to bridge that gap.

So what does the future hold?

The focus will be on four main areas. First, on continuing humanitarian support for refugees in neighboring countries. What we give isn’t enough for them to lead dignified lives.

Second is education. Heavily invest in education as soon as possible, in order to have every child going to school and participating in higher education and vocational training. We’ll have all of the youth who are of age and who might have dropped out from university in Syria, able to go back to school.

Third, we need to open up opportunities for livelihoods for adults to work, and you can’t do that without expanding Jordan’s economy. This means investing in bigger agricultural projects so you can make use of more of the land and use new technologies to maximize the uses of water and increase production. Then there are factories and industrial zones, and people are talking about duty free schemes in which companies are encouraged to come and open factories to produce in Jordan. We need to create more jobs, some that Jordanians can take and some the Syrians can take. Short of that, Jordan has a limited number of jobs that it can offer and you already have unemployment for Jordanians, let alone the Syrians.

Fourth, resettlement. Whereas we’re helping the Syrians through sustaining humanitarian assistance and getting education, there will still be many refugee families who can’t stand on their own feet. Those who can’t survive in Jordan should be resettled, and the international community could take up responsibilities by receiving these refugees. It’s funny what’s happening in Europe where they’re receiving a fraction of what neighboring countries are getting and there is a total panic. We know that Europe can easily absorb all the people at their borders, but there needs to be a willingness.

We work on all of this of course as we advocate for the war to end. And as I look into my “crystal ball,” as soon as the war ends, I see the refugees running faster than we do back to Syria.

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About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam is a Devex Contributor based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.