Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jesuit Refugee Service

(Sorry no pictures yet....I will add them when I have the time...the blog entries are just stacking up and I have to get them posted before I lose momentum!)

Before coming to Jordan, I contacted Saeed, a friend of my friend Khaled who lives in Irbid, to ask him about possible volunteer opportunities up there. Saeed is a dedicated young man who loved volunteering and saw a need to involve youth in community service in Irbid, so he took the initiative to form a group called “Irbid Youth Volunteers.” He was really generous with his time and information. He suggested that he had just been contacted by the NGO Jesuit Refugee Service to help with a project to reach out to Syrian families in the community. The influx of Syrian refugees has been spread into the community, which is better for integration, but makes helping them a bit difficult. When Syrians come across the border, they are housed for a few days at several make-shift transit facilities along the border in Ramtha or Mafraq. After security checks are made by the army, they are released into the community after about a week to make room for newly arrived families. To date there are no formal “refugee camps” sponsored by the UN for housing people in the long term, although one is under construction and will open soon. But such a camp can only house 5000-8000 people, and there are currently 140,000 Syrians living here in Jordan, so that will hardly make a difference. So most of the refugees live in the community. Many have relatives living in Jordan (the two countries were almost like one country for most of history). Those who don't have relatives struggle, and so local CDOs and a few NGOs strive to reach out and identify who is here, who needs help, and meet the needs of people. In many cases, the influx of refugees into the communities in the north of Jordan has put a big strain on the local economy...increased demand for food and housing has driven up prices, while most refugees are unable to formally work. The sudden increase in the population is also putting a strain on limited water supplies here. As one of the only stable countries in the region, Jordan has been a safe haven for refugees for many years. Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, and now Syrians have all made their way to Jordan for survival. Also because of its central location and stability, many NGOs have their regional bases here in Amman.
Sponsored by Jesuit Refugee Service, Saeed and his group began to work with Syrians in Irbid just as I arrived in Jordan. I had hoped that possibly I could contribute to the effort, but it became apparent that my lack of linguistic skills and foreign passport would create a barrier to connecting with people. One of the things that I admire the most about what JRS is doing is that they are engaging volunteers from the other refugee communities to reach out to the newly arrived refugees. They can connect and empathize much more effectively than an outsider like me. Saeed introduced me to the country representative for JRS, who suggested that with my background in education, I might be more valuable to them as a volunteer in their other project: a refugee education initiative. I was delighted to meet with the project director, Frances, after arriving in Amman. She described the work they do, and it seemed like a good fit! JRS has been running free classes in English for hundreds of refugees to improve their opportunities to find work once they are resettled in a western country. But there is a special new initiative that they are working on right now called: Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, or JC-HEM. It's an initiative by Regis University, in Colorado to offer a bachelor's degree program through distance education to refugees in various parts of the world. Higher Ed is a barrier for many refugees because they don't have citizenship in the countries where they reside, and this program aims to remove that barrier. In September, 19 students here in Amman will begin their studies toward a bachelor's degree while others in Kenya and Malawi participate in the same online classes. Succeeding in online classes (which involve 5 times as much reading and writing as in-person classes) will be a tremendous challenge for these students, most of whom are stronger in listening and speaking because they have learned English predominantly through the media or conversations with english speakers. This is both a tremendous opportunity for them, but also a tremendous challenge. So JRS in Amman has been running intensive workshops for the last month to strengthen the reading and writing skills of these students, and they asked me if I would come and do some workshops with them about academic skills.
This last week I met the students, who are absolutely delightful! They range in age from 19-60 years old. Some of have had some higher education in their home countries, others have not. I just enjoyed being with them so much! They face tremendous challenges (especially balancing family life , work, and now education). I wish so much that I could stay and be their academic advisor because they were so responsive to the advising lessons we did together this last week! They will not hold classes during Ramadan, but it's likely that I will be able to hold some office hours there at the center for those who want to continue the academic momentum that they have built. I'm just waiting for the news from the project director about how they will structure Ramadan services. I feel really lucky to have met them and hope to continue to be involved with them in the future.

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