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Lessons Learned from Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

by Carine Allaf, Lecturer, Teachers College, Programs in International Educational Development and Comparative & International Education, Columbia University

A Syrian Kurdish refugee child comes back from school in Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan
A Syrian Kurdish refugee child comes back from school in Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan

As the 18-month uprising in Syria rages on hundreds of thousands of refugees are crossing into neighboring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. While the immediate responses have rightly focused on survival needs such as food, water, and health, education must also be addressed as early as possible. The importance of education in crisis situations is gaining momentum on international agendas, with USAID highlighting it as a goal in the 2011-2015 Education Strategy: “Increased equitable access to education in crisis and conflict environments for 15 million learners by 2015.” More recently, at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched his ‘Education First’ initiative underscoring his recent statement that “[e]ducation is key to everything the UN wishes to achieve. It should be the first priority in all member states.”

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) more than 50 percent of all Syrian refugees in Jordan are children under 18, making education particularly essential in the humanitarian response. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 85,000 refugees from Syria are already registered in Jordan, with hundreds of thousands more residing in urban areas and roughly 2,000 Syrians continuing to enter Jordan daily. This situation is reminiscent of the 2008 influx of Iraqi refugees into Jordan, from which important lessons can be drawn:

  1. Use education to re-establish normalcy and provide essential services. Children who have experienced trauma benefit from a resumption of their normal behaviors such as going to school. Although Iraqi refugees were not housed in camps and lived amongst the Jordanian population in urban areas, schools were important locations for service delivery, including psychosocial support, school feeding programs, and health screenings. For Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, the harsh daily conditions of sandstorms, limited food and water, and cramped living conditions differ starkly from their lives in Syria. School can provide a sense of normalcy, help revitalize hope, and at the same time allows other services to be administered. Additionally when children come to school, parents have time to access important services themselves.
  2. Do not let support inadvertently breed resentment and violence. As the numbers of Iraqi refugees increased in Jordan, so did the attention and the amount of funding targeting Iraqi beneficiaries. When NGOs pursued aid money to target and support Iraqi refugees, they sidelined vulnerable Jordanians and stretched Jordan’s already limited resources, creating a backlash of resentment and even violence against Iraqi children. With the Syrian refugees, donors need to prioritize the improvement of conditions for all those in Jordan, not a select target population simply to satisfy a beneficiary count. Furthermore, schooling must work to address differences and promote tolerance not only amongst refugees, curbing the impetus to seek redress, but also between the host community and the refugees as a means to decreasing the potential of resentment and violence.
  3. Plan for the long term. The violence in Syria will end one day. What can be done today to contribute to a cohesive and peaceful future Syria? As education programs are established in Jordan, both in and outside of the Zaatari refugee camp, plans must be made for how refugees will use the knowledge, skills, and ideally credentials provided by schooling after the violence subsides. In my research in Jordan, Iraqis continuously asked, “education for what?” It is imperative to coordinate with other education providers (government and NGOs) in Jordan and, when possible, with education officials from Syria to ensure that the education that Syrians are receiving will be accredited and certified once those refugees leave Jordan.

The magnitude of the Syrian refugee flow is staggering, and the needs of these refugees are immense. Governments, humanitarian actors and donors should all draw from the recent experience with Iraqi refugees in Jordan to improve educational and life opportunities for Syrian refugees and not only prioritize education in rhetoric but more importantly, in practice.

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