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LESSONS IN COMPASSION

A visit to Jordan is a stark reminder of the plight of refugees, especially their children

A visit to Jordan is a stark reminder of the plight of refugees, especially their children
Refugee children in Amman, Jordan play before school starts. (Photo: Mark Potterton)

In April, I visited Jordan to learn more about the refugee situation there. Amnesty International reports that Jordan hosts 676,606 Syrian, 65,818 Iraqi, 12,957 Yemeni, 5,522 Sudanese and 650 Somali refugees.

It also hosts two million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Refugees in Jordan have limited access to essential services such as water, sanitation, education and healthcare. This is mainly because of insufficient funding from the UN and its implementing partners and international organisations, as well as limited national resources. Organisations trying to obtain approval for aid projects targeting Yemeni, Iraqi, Sudanese or Somali refugees also face many obstacles.

Jordanians are a generous and welcoming people and have made significant efforts to provide education for refugees, having a high number of displaced people in their country. The types of schools provided for refugees in Jordan vary depending on the age and needs of the students.

Refugee students access education through education ministry schools (in camps or host communities) or informal education programmes. There are also refugee-only schools that are run by the UNRWA and other aid organisations.

Refugees world

Pupils in an english class. (Photo: Mark Potterton)

In addition to traditional schools, there are community-based education programmes that provide non-formal education for children who are not able to attend school regularly owing to their status as refugees.

These programmes often take place in community centres or other informal settings and are designed to provide educational opportunities for children who might otherwise miss out on schooling.

Challenges faced in school

Overcrowding in classrooms is a major barrier to children’s schooling in urban schools. Educational resources are under pressure because of the large increase in the number of students, putting strain on both physical and human resources.

Teachers’ salaries are not high, and some people believe this also affects the quality of education. Limited training and professional development support for all teachers and school leaders also have a negative impact.

A recent report by the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) notes that “most lessons in schools are teacher-led and textbook-oriented. There is insufficient monitoring of teaching and learning to support quality education.

Read more in Daily Maverick: World Refugee Day – millions more welcomed to hell on Earth

“Limited assessment data to measure quality education represents a problem, as evidence is needed to identify areas for improvement that could help students to become more successful in their learning, particularly those at risk of dropping out.”

The relationship between school attainment and potential earnings has an impact on households’ decisions to invest in education. Low returns from schooling mean keeping children in school is not attractive. The difficulty of accessing the job market is another factor that makes schooling far less attractive, especially for refugees.

Even though basic education is free for Jordanians and Syrian refugees, families must still spend money on school supplies and other related expenses. Indirect costs such as transport are the biggest expense for families with school-aged children, and Unicef observes that children from poor households are more at risk of dropping out of school before completing basic education.

Concerns about the safety of girls on their way to school because of the risk of harassment, as well as a preference to invest in boys’ education, also have an impact. Some children may also be required to work instead of going to school to supplement their household income.

The Latin School for Iraqi Refugees

Iraqi refugees in Jordan are treated as “guests”, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Iraqis have an unclear legal status and are seen by the Jordanian government as temporary and likely to go back to Iraq. Their legal status makes it difficult for them to work.

Most of the Iraqis in Jordan came during the Iraq war in 2003, but some have since arrived because of the Islamic State insurgency that began in 2014.

Father Khalil Jaar was keen for me to see his school in one of the poorer suburbs of Amman. Jaar is the director of a private Catholic day school serving both Christian and Muslim students from 8am to 2pm.

In 2014, the church welcomed 150 Christian families from Mosul after they had fled Iraq to escape persecution. These Aramaic-speaking families were desperate.

They were accommodated in and around the church. Two or three families lived together, and there was a need for the children to be taught. Jaar organised an informal school that operated from 3pm to 7pm, using the facilities of the morning school.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Help them, don’t hate them – Joburg pupils urged to open their hearts to desperate foreigners

Driven by his mission to create a better world, Jaar, a diocesan priest from Bethlehem, makes sure that the children have a meal at 4.30pm every day. The teachers are all refugee Iraqis and paid a small stipend. There’s a great rapport between the children and their teachers, and they interact easily.

The curriculum focuses on English. All the subjects are taught in English; in addition the children learn the English language, Arabic and Aramaic. Jaar believes they need to have good English to make it easier for them if they are repatriated to other countries. Courses are also offered to parents to help them improve their English language skills.

Staying in Jordan is not really an option for the refugees as they are not allowed to work. Access to other services in the country is also very limited. These refugees do have asylum-seeker certificates issued by the UNHCR, but that does not give them access to schooling in Jordan.

Refugees world

Children return to class after break. (Photo: Mark Potterton)

Jaar says this is a major humanitarian crisis that is being ignored by both the government and humanitarian agencies. The school distributes a grocery voucher equivalent to R750 to each family twice a month, which does provide some relief. There are some parents who cannot pay their rent and the church provides help in some cases.

Jaar tells the story of John, a student whose father was killed in Baghdad. He was coming to school early and disappearing during the day. After some investigation, Jaar found out that John was working, selling coffee on the street to make money to support his mother and sisters.

“I confronted him and asked him what he was being paid, and he told me that he was earning one dinar [about R25] a day. I asked him to come to school every day and told him that I would pay him that money at the end of the week.”

Life is just as hard for Iraqi refugees in Jordan as for refugees from Africa here in Johannesburg. Finding work and making a livelihood is by no means easy, and worrying about where the next meal might come from is also a reality. Getting a decent education isn’t that simple either. DM

Mark Potterton is the director of the Three2Six Refugee Children’s Education Project.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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