By David Humphries, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for Global Communities | This story originally appeared on Medium.
This picture shows two countries: Jordan and Syria. On one side there is peace, on the other side, war. The people of the Governorate of Mafraq, Jordan, live alongside the wall. Shelling occurs periodically on the Syrian side of the border. Nearby, there is the joint processing center, run by the Government of Jordan and UNHCR, where refugees are first registered before being transported to a camp, such as Zataari, which hosts at least 83,000 refugees; by comparison, Mafraq City has a population of only 59,000. Today, population estimates of Jordan overall vary wildly, but there are thought to be around 1.4 million refugees in a country with a population around 9.5 million.
The majority of these refugees are unregistered and live among the host communities. This causes an enormous stress on public services, especially in places like Mafraq which already experience significant poverty and whose public services are already strained. I visited Jordan this month to see Global Communities’ work on the USAID Community Engagement Program (USAID CEP), which is designed to help develop community cohesion between refugees and host communities, by helping them prioritize their shared needs and address them.
Why is this important? The Arab uprisings did not begin with ISIS. They began with a frustrated Tunisian entrepreneur who was protesting against corruption, relationships between police and community, lack of opportunity, poor governance and other daily frustrations. These uprisings were because of unaddressed, underlying grievances among the broader population. It was only after some time that extremist groups began to find, here and there, receptive audiences to their message, and usually only after authorities had reacted to the protests with repression and violence. Attempting to crush frustration instead of addressing its underlying causes only causes it to take more dangerous forms.
Jordan’s poorest communities have absorbed more than a million refugees. Our work is to help reduce frustrations, uncover grievances, and help Syrians and Jordanians to solve them together. This is to ensure that Jordan remains the stable, secure bulwark of the Middle East that it has been for many decades.
A family living alongside the wall separating Jordan and Syria.
In my visit, I saw two projects, both of which were chosen by the community. First, we visited Al Sarhan municipality, which is located at the very border with Syria and has 31,000 Jordanians living beside 12,000 Syrians in nine villages. Al Sarhan already faced significant social cohesion issues with challenging tribal dynamics, which were exacerbated by the influx of refugees from across the border. Global Communities’ USAID CEP team undertook household surveys and community wide meetings, then formed a community enhancement team. It was a challenging process, but the community agreed on one issue above all others — the need for services for people, and especially children, with disabilities.
The services run from awareness-raising to change attitudes toward people with disabilities to rehabilitating a building to develop the Al Sahran Association for Special Education, a center for public services, including physical therapy and education. This was done with funding from USAID CEP and the local community, in partnership, and the Ministry for Social Development has taken ownership of continuing the center and providing training.
A young woman helps paint murals on the wall of a center for people with disabilities.
It might seem surprising that a community facing so many challenges would focus first on the needs of people with disabilities. But this was a pressing need in the community that everyone could agree on, regardless of tribe, village, nationality or refugee status. And now, having experienced the benefits of working together on shared challenges, the community is coming together to continue working on other issues that could threaten their social cohesion.
Hanan Juma’a, who is visually impaired, is working on a doctorate in Arabic, and wrote and recited a poem during our visit. Her father is a member of the community enhancement team.
The second visit was to Hay Al Janoubi, a populous neighborhood of Mafraq City, where half of the population live in poverty and more than 80% of the hazardous roads have no sidewalks. Through working with the community, Global Communities focused on fixing roads and street lighting to improve public safety. The community enhancement team also implemented a project called “Our Culture is Our Pride,” designed to promote social cohesion between different tribal groups and Syrian refugees around shared cultural attributes, as well as to include typically marginalized groups such as women and youth. During our visit, we watched a youth group perform a play, with actors from different backgrounds, including different tribal groups and refugees, about the dangers of drug abuse.
Actors from different backgrounds perform a play about the dangers of drug abuse.
Regardless of background, drugs are a significant problem among youth in Jordan, especially with a youth unemployment rate estimated by the World Bank at around 29 percent. Unemployed and underemployed youth face many challenges, and are ripe for exploitation in different ways. One is drugs, another is violence. I will write about our approach to counter this more in the next blog.
Again, the community joined together, regardless of background, to help counter the challenges that face all of them. This helps develop social cohesion, essential in a time of great social stresses, and also helps to counteract the pressures that can create instability and conflict.
As I reflected on my visit, I realized that at no point did I know who was a Jordanian and who was a Syrian refugee. This was never an issue among the groups with whom we met, who have been working together to meet shared challenges. This approach was clearly central to creating sustainable stability and security in these stressed communities.