When I say “refugee”, what’s the first thing you think of?

The first thing you might want to think of is – it could just as well be me.

In visiting Jordan, we have had the opportunity to explore not only the refugee situation in Jordan, but also the definition of a refugee. In the case of the Syrian refugees, we’ve discovered that they are very similar to ourselves.


The Syrian people are proud of their roots, dedicated to their country, and hopeful to return one day. They are also normal, middle class citizens who, prior to the conflict, lived average lives like you and I. Beautiful homes, good schools, gardens, cars, toys, computers, books and a place they felt safe to call home. Doctors, lawyers, mini mart owners – these people could have come from any country in the world, and some day, each and every one of us could be in their shoes.

To go from managing your own business, providing for your family, living happy and productive lives to uprooting yourself from everything you know and own, unable to work without a work permit, hesitant to even leave your own home, is something that none of us imagine as being our “tomorrow”. And neither did these strong, resilient people.

On our first day we were able to witness the lifestyle of an urban refugee. That is, a person who has made the decision not to stay in the refugee camps provided free of charge for them, but instead to rent their own accommodation for their family, living in a typical apartment in Amman. This may seem odd, but really – would you be happy going from living downtown, within walking distance to your local coffee shop and supermarket to living in a structured refugee camp with limited supplies and electricity? I suspect not. 85% of the refugees in Jordan live outside of the camps. Two thirds (⅔) of Syrians are currently living under the poverty line.

P1000962The first stop was to the UNHCR Refugee Registration Centre in Amman. This office opened in July 2013 and has a processing capacity of 500-600 families a day, or roughly 2500 people. The staff here will stay overtime to make sure that everyone who shows up during business hours is taken care of. The doors don’t close until the last person leaves.

This centre is where people go to be recognized as a refugee, providing them with legal protection under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Anyone can walk into the centre and declare themselves to be a refugee – you could go tomorrow. They will listen to your story, verify your identity, and interview you to determine your eligibility under internationally accepted criteria.

P1010001Depending on your situation, they will work to provide you with food vouchers, and in some cases, monthly cash assistance. The availability of both of these is, unfortunately, very limited due to budget shortages – for example, out of the roughly 700,000 known refugees to the UNHCR, only 23,000 are provided with cash assistance.

Using the most up to date technology available, and learnings from the past, the UNHCR has drastically cut down on fraud and corruption – each person is registered with biometric ID (an iris scan), and that same scan is actually used to withdraw money from your cash assistance bank account. All communication is done via cell phone, with free SIM cards provided by a local cell phone carrier, including toll free calling to the UNHCR.

P1010022Speaking of toll free calling, this centre handled 250,000 calls last year alone with 15 dedicated staff members working two shifts every day with issues ranging from emergency assistance to questions about the camps.

The efficiency of this registration centre far and away beats any type of registration that we had encountered in the past, reminding us of the long wait to renew your passport, drivers license or health card in Canada. The staff are dedicated, amazing people who assess, interview and support every single person who walks through these doors.

The director of the Registration Centre took us through the process from beginning to end, showing us what a refugee would experience each step of the way. This may well be one of the most challenging times of a person’s life when they turn up here, and the thought that has been put into this shows great respect.

After visiting the registration centre we went on our way to visit two refugee families living in Amman. This means that they have registered as a refugee with the UNHCR, but have opted not to stay in a camp, instead choosing to pay for private accommodation.

Two thirds of Syrians are living under the poverty line, and the two families we visited would certainly fall into that category.

The first family was very scared – they didn’t want us to use their name or take their pictures. But they were very open with us, which really highlights for me the faith that these people put in the UNHCR. They clearly understand that the agency is only concerned with them and their safety.

They are one of the lucky few who are on cash assistance. They have 7 members of their family, though we only met the mother and father as the children were at school – something we were thrilled to hear. It was interesting to hear though that the school segregates Syrians from Jordanians… they actually have two shifts, which I thought was unfortunate as it creates an unnecessary divide. It is however a new education system for the Syrians, as there are no Syrian teachers used (no work permits).

The situation they described was very sad… you can tell that they miss their home very much, and were originally thinking they would only be here for 6 months or so. Now, there is no end in sight, and they have no idea how long they will be here. They describe a very solitary existence – they have no support network, even though there are thousands of Syrians in the area. No community, no one to talk to besides their immediate family that they may occasionally go out and visit.

They rarely leave their rented apartment, which is subsidized for them by their Jordanian landlord, though even with the cash assistance they can’t fully cover the rent. They also get food assistance from the WFP (World Food Programme), however this was recently reduced as a result of a budget shortfall. Each member of the family gets $10 JD a month, though they appealed this and received $15 JD a month – still less than the $20 JD they were originally getting per month.

This doesn’t leave enough food to really go around, and the mother is frequently asked by her children why they do not buy them enough food.

It’s heartbreaking.

P1010036The second family had 6 members and they were much more open – they let us take their picture, and again I could see how trusting they were of the UNHCR. They lost their eldest son in Syria as he was killed by a sniper. Their youngest son does not go to school because his glasses are broken, and they do not have the money to repair them. Their two daughters do not leave the apartment – they don’t go to school. They sit in front of the TV pretty much all day. Their elder son works illegally in Jordan to support the family – they are not on the cash assistance program. He was caught once by the Jordanian authorities and threatened with deportation. The mother went to the police and begged for his release. He was released with the clear instructions not to work again otherwise he would be deported – but he has to support the family. He makes about $250 JD a month, the rent is about $200 JD a month. This family also gets food support from the WFP in the amount of $10 JD a month.

The girls don’t want to go to school for very normal reasons – they feel they might be too far behind their classmates. They don’t have new clothes to wear. And they’re scared.

What can you say?

The lack of community is very concerning to us. The home visits that we attended are similar 170,000 home visits that UNHCR staff undertake a year. As we were leaving the second family people were approaching the UNHCR staff asking for a visit. These visits help the staff identify the most vulnerable, allowing them to determine based on a set of criteria who might be eligible for the very limited cash assistance available, or other support that the UNHCR offers.

You want to do more. You want to adopt them. Or give them all your money… but you can’t. There are so many, and so many in need. And the sad thing is, this is no longer an “emergency” situation, so funding dries up… it goes to other emergencies. But these people aren’t going anywhere… and money is necessary for their survival.

I can tell you when I got home one of the first things I did was sign up to contribute monthly to the UNHCR (https://donate.unhcr.ca/). I’m not going to notice that come out of my bank account every month, and frankly they can do a lot more with that money than I ever could. I’d really encourage you to contribute as well. Out of the requested funds for the UNHCR Jordan refugee response to the Syrian crises only 18% has been funded this year, leaving an 82% gap.

If you do take a second right now to donate, on their behalf, I’ll thank you.

Tune in tomorrow for my visit to the Zaatari Refugee Camp – thanks for following along.

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