Providing light and hope for thousands

To say that it’s been an amazing week would be a drastic understatement. Thinking of everything that we’ve learned in the past three days alone is mind blowing – and this is only the beginning.

This week we got to learn about the many ways that the IKEA Foundation contributes to the lives of thousands of refugees – but for the rest of this article, I’m just going to refer to them as people… because that’s what they are. Normal people like you and me, displaced from their home. From their country. From their family, friends, colleagues – everyone. And while their world was falling apart, as they fled across the border, their neighbour – Jordan, accepted them with open arms.

Have you ever helped a neighbour out before? Maybe they needed some milk… or wanted you to look after their cat for a week. You did it, right?

As of March 2015 there were 680,155 refugees of all nationalities in Jordan – 627,287 of them Syrian. And they all needed a bit more than some milk. They needed shelter. Food. Safety. And the people of Jordan responded with overwhelming support, despite having already limited resources themselves. 54% of these people are children.

Ryan_Children in Zaatari copyThese people were used to living in conditions just like me – in an urban environment, with electricity, water, their own homes, cars, games, toys, sports, electronics, television, etc. And so it makes sense that many would rather live in the city than in one of the two massive camps setup to house them.

That is why of the 680,155 people, only 100,707 live in camps. That means there’s almost 580,000 people living in an urban environment in Jordan. Sadly, two thirds of Syrians are living under the poverty line. Of the 1.4 million foreigners the Government of Jordan has registered in it’s country, there have only been approx. 7000 work visas issued. So in all likelihood, those living in the city don’t have a job, or at least not a legal one. And if they are caught working illegally? They could very well be sent back to Syria.

But of course, they are provided with cash assistance; food assistance, right? Unfortunately, the funding for the Jordan Mission is drying up… and this means limited resources. Of all these people, only approx. 22,000 of them are receiving cash assistance from the UNHCR. And the cash assistance they receive is barely enough to live on.

Food assistance? The WFP (World Food Programme) provides many with food assistance, but due to a recent reduction in funding, many have gone from receiving 20 JD a month per person to 10 JD a month per person (1 JD = 0.75 CAD). Imagine having your child ask you why… why are you not giving me enough food to eat? I’m hungry.

As a parent, how do you respond to that? Many here face that reality daily.

On top of everything, these are people who have come from a country waging a civil war. Where your neighbour could be reporting on you. Trust is not something that comes easily. Those we met living in the city have very little community to rely on. Despite there being a great many Syrians living in the city they seem hesitant to join together and support each other. Many are afraid to leave their apartments. Despite being in a “safe” environment, they do not feel truly safe. Another area of concern for us was the number of children not attending schools.

In a typical refugee environment families and children are thrilled to attend school. Not so much here, with a school enrollment rate of only 34%. There seem to be many different reasons why they are uninterested in attending school, some children saying they are embarrassed to go to school without new clothes, fearing that they will be made fun of. Others feel like they have fallen too far behind, and do not wish to attend school outside of their grade level. Perfectly normal reasons, things that would seem very familiar to us.

One child we met had broken his glasses, and his parents do not have the money to repair or replace them right now. This is considered a non-essential item, and not covered by the health care services. He tried going to school with them taped together, but was made fun of and has since refused to return.

There are many, many more heart breaking stories just like these all across the country. And more to come. There could be as many as eight million displaced Syrians in the coming years, and they all need to go somewhere.

What about those who have chosen to stay in the camps?

Ryan_Dave with kids in Zaatari copyOne thing I can say about these camps is that there is a great feeling of community here. How could there not be? Everyone is living in very close quarters, sharing many things.

We had the chance to visit the health services in the Zaatari camp, which handles around 700 consultations a day. Just like everything else in this amazing operation it is efficient and respectful. Over 350 children were born in the camps last year – a number they have already exceeded this year.

Ryan_Zaatari health centre with Doctor copyThe staff there are amazing, and truly dedicated to their work.

We also had a chance to visit the market place, a huge draw in the Zaatari camp. It’s a row of shops created by the people themselves with no official support – truly amazing to see. It was here that we actually met up with a former IKEA Co-worker from Saudi Arabia who is now a refugee living in the camp. The IWitness group from Norway last year saw him, so we got the chance to have lunch with him and see how things are going now. It was a very impactful experience, and again really drives home the message – it could be you.

Ryan_Lunch with IKEA coworker Zaatari copyBack to the market – you can buy everything here – cell phones, toys, electronics. You can even rent a wedding dress!

P1010195 (2)This of course brings up the subject of weddings… and a concern by the UNHCR about the number of young, underage women being married. Many marry for security, and of course right now the sense of security amongst this group of people is not high. Underage girls are frequently getting married because the families think they will be safer that way – this can lead to underage pregnancy, another mouth to feed and child to support, and of course, more young people not attending school.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Ryan_Azraq signIn the Azraq camp we had the opportunity to see some of the impact that IKEA has had directly on the Jordan Mission, and one of the focuses of our Brighter Lives Campaign. There is no electricity in this camp yet – no light, no TV, no computers, no cell phones… could you live like that?

Ryan_Solar light copyIKEA donated solar lamps to provide light to people at night, and to allow them to charge their phones – providing two very basic and necessary things. The ability to function after dark, and the ability to communicate with the outside world. IKEA also donated Solar Street Lights, allowing people to feel safe moving about at night.

Ryan_Solar street light copyI was so proud to see the impact that our company has had on the lives of these people. Often times it seems like money donated can go into a black hole – it’s all necessary, and all used, but it’s hard to see tangible results. In this case, it was very easy to see – we provide light.

Ryan_Solar light with kidsThe support of IKEA and the IKEA Foundation is critical to the mission in Jordan, and it’s amazing to see the impact that we have… we are so impactful that we actually have our own football (or soccer, to Canadians) team at the Azraq camp!

To commemorate the one year anniversary of the camp they held football matches, and IKEA had its own team. While in the Azraq camp we were surprised with the opportunity to play against them – and it was amazing. For a brief moment I forgot where I was, and who I was with.. and just played some football. It was one of the brightest moments of the week.

Ryan_Football group photo copy

As the day drew to a close we had the opportunity to travel to a high point in the camp to get a good look at it. Wow. A capacity of 130,000, this is a truly massive place – and as the sun went down, and the solar lights flickered on, we could truly see the difference light makes.

Ryan_Camp lit up copySince I started researching this mission the word “hero” has been bouncing around my mind. I thought of all the amazing people who have given up their lives to support the lives of these refugees. Are they heroes? They insist that they are not. The true heroes are the refugees whose lives have been turned upside down and inside out, and are still here to talk about it. And invite us into their homes, and with pride show us the work they have done to create a home.

Ryan_Collage of Heroes copyThey support their children with everything they have. They find creative ways to live out their days, building up their homes as much as they can, growing gardens (in a desert!), and most of all remaining hopeful – hopeful that the situation in their home country improves… hopeful that they can someday, somehow, return home.

I feel truly privileged to have spent a few days among heroes, and will do my very best to share their story. They may not be in a comic book, they may not be in the next Avengers movie, but these people are stronger than any superhero I’ve seen.


This is the last post in the IWitness series from my trip itself, but as I’ve said – the journey is just beginning! Since returning home the team at IKEA Canada has already been hard at work to come up with ways to share this experience with our Canadian co-workers, and continue to raise awareness.

IKEA runs a Soft Toys and Brighter Lives campaign each year to help fund the IKEA Foundation – your continued support of these campaigns means the world not only to refugees, but the millions of people supported by the IKEA Foundation through over 40 different non profit organizations.

In addition to your support of the IKEA Foundation, I would personally suggest that you support the UNHCR directly. Canadians can go to and internationally you can visit

Thank you for following along – this will not be the last you hear of this from me! 😉Ryan_UNHCR Thank you copy