Daily life in Zaatari refuggee camp in Jordan, located 10 km east of Mafraq, Jordan on June 04, 2014. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank Daily life in Zaatari refuggee camp in Jordan. Image credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Tucked away in the basement of the neighborhood mosque in a quiet pocket of the northern city of Irbid, Jordan, the sound of singing children floods into the dusty, sundrenched streets. Inside the building, over 40 children and their families enjoy a new found sense of peace and safety, a small slice of solace in a foreign land after fleeing their homes in Syria.

The aim of the local Jordanian organisation hosting the families is to provide Syrian refugee children with a safe space to experience their lost years of childhood, critical at a time when war has forced Syrian youth to grow up prematurely. The centre also works to create a positive image of Syria by molding and reconstructing the common narrative held by many young refugees that Syria is solely a place of war, violence, and terror.

Many children at the centre are plagued by emotional symptoms such as speech impediments and selective mutism, issues that are becoming increasingly common in younger generations as they grapple with their wartime experiences. Offering counselling and rehabilitation services to those who suffer from an array of physical and mental disabilities is a core component of the organisation's mission.

It’s here where local peacebuilding takes root to support Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Unprecedented crisis

Since the breakdown of the cessation of hostilities, Syria has experienced some of its most vigorous fighting yet
The protracted humanitarian crises caused by Syria’s civil war are unprecedented. Over half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million have been killed or displaced and more than 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 4.7 million Syrians refugees are living in neighbouring countries and another 6.6 million are internally displaced.

Since the breakdown of the cessation of hostilities in late April 2016, which paused hostility between regime and opposition forces since February, Syria has experienced some of its most vigorous fighting yet. This has been centered primarily in the northern city of Aleppo but has also been damaging in Damascus and other cities spread across the southern provinces.

If this resurgence of fighting prolongs, innocent Syrians will suffer and greater numbers of forced evacuations of refugees will be inevitable. It appears that fears of further escalation inside Syria are becoming a reality and angst and uncertainty are spreading throughout peripheral states, creating tensions for its neighbours who shoulder the burden of further spillover.

Jordan’s resources: cracking under pressure?

The Syrian war has strained and stretched Jordan's resources, testing its security capabilities
Jordan is currently hosting a little under 700,000 Syrians—around 10% of its entire population. The Syrian war has strained and stretched Jordan’s resources, testing its security capabilities.

Five years of conflict have taken their toll and according to King Abdullah, Jordan has “reached a boiling point.” “We just can’t do it anymore,” he said, referring to the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Almost 25% of Jordan’s budget is spent on refugees, and with high unemployment, inflation, and dwindling resources, tensions have risen between the current refugee population and Jordanian citizens.

As social and political pressure mounts, Jordan’s first inclination may be to retract funding for humanitarian support efforts in order to focus on domestic issues — turning inward to assuage frustrated Jordanians.

Political and economic vitality, as well as much needed legitimacy from its citizens, is fundamental to a well-functioning state. But within the current context, such a list of priorities ought to include additional resource allocations towards Syrian refugee assistance programmes, including health, safety, education, and other forms of aid.

Local peacebuilding: a lifeline to refugees

Local peacebuilding organisations have begun opening privately administered schools to help children catch up on their education
Despite the huge influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan, less than 20%  are located in camps; 80% of the population are enmeshed in urban communities. Urban refugee populations are difficult to identify and difficult to support with the necessary humanitarian services. Because they are not on the radar of large international aid organisations, they are often the most vulnerable.

Local peacebuilding organisations are best positioned to provide support to such hard to identify and susceptible populations. So far, local Jordanian peacebuilders, along with international aid organisations such as Save the Children, have begun combing rural villages in search of Syrian refugees, speaking with local businesses and knocking on doors to find unidentified refugees. Finding these populations and providing them with basic services—such as health services, youth education, and women’s vocational training—is central to building some sense of livelihood for Syrian refugees abroad.

Considerable amounts of the efforts thus far have focused on nurturing and developing Syria’s youngest populations. Often referred to as Syria’s ‘Lost Generation,’ thousands of Syrian children have become lost in the shuffle of fighting and fleeing. Among a plethora of high stakes concerns plaguing Syrian refugees, one major issue for children is the inability to continue schooling, as well as the roadblocks in place preventing them from returning to a foreign classroom. Jordan requires Syrian children’s education level to be at par with their age. Those who have missed a year or more of school are unable to enter Jordan’s educational system.

Local peacebuilding organisations, such as Project Amal ou Salam, have begun opening privately administered schools—often employed by Syrian refugees— to help children catch up for lost time. The ultimate goal is to assist Syrian youth to reach Jordan’s formal education system. So far, its successes are laudable, as refugees continue to graduate and subsequently enter Jordan’s public school system.

Amal ou Salam: empowering the future of Syria

In the ancient city of Jerash, about 60 kilometers north of Amman, an all volunteer grassroots organisation has recently opened its doors to Syrian refugees in the surrounding villages. Amal ou Salam, which translates to peace and hope in English, is a local organisation carrying out peacebuilding projects inside Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, helping to empower Syrian youth through education, arts, and most importantly, a renewed childhood.

Their efforts have helped thousands of Syrians in two years of operation. Amal ou Salam’s main mission revolves around getting children up to speed in terms of education level, helping them enter the formal Jordanian school system, and providing them with emotional support to heal and rebuild psychological wounds caused by the war.

According to a recent psychological study, 50% of Syrian refugees are suffering from mental trauma, half of whom are children. Amal ou Salam, and others like it, are working to positively alter young children’s damaged perceptions and frightful memories of the country they left behind.

In Irbid, on the basement floor of the mosque, I witnessed the results of the healing first-hand as a group of young boys sat silently in a circle drawing pictures representing their memory of home. The pictures were overflowing with happiness and hope. Some children drew pictures of their actual home, others proudly drew the three starred Syrian flag, a relic of the past and new found symbol of the Syrian opposition.

I later learned, after speaking with a volunteer at the centre, that this was a new phenomenon. When many of the children first arrived, depictions of war, violence, and bloodshed were commonplace. With patience, change can happen.

Elevating local success

As the war and violence cause turmoil across Syria, it is civilians that continue to bear the greatest burden. And the Jordanian government, along with UNHCR and other international non-profits, should be applauded for their hospitality in protecting and providing for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees on Jordanian soil. But the most vulnerable refugees, those not located in UN registered refugee camps, are deprived of basic health and educational services. These conditions are ripe for local peacebuilders.

Knowledge of the local context—including tribal, regional, and cultural nuances—is instrumental in reaching urban refugee populations and providing them with basic goods and necessities. In circumstances such as the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan, local peacebuilding organisations remain invaluable to navigating a path towards sustainable peace and prosperity in the most complex of peacebuilding theaters.