How Jordan Makes Local Governments Work in the Midst of the World’s Largest Refugee Crisis
An influx of Syrians has strained city services but has fostered cooperation to meet the needs of a dramatically increased population.
Throughout the uprisings of the Arab Spring, while sharing borders with nations in conflict and with no small number of internal challenges, Jordan has continued to enjoy peace, offering refuge to over 1 million Syrians, Iraqis and others fleeing conflict.
But this legendary hospitality lies at the heart of a new problem: Jordan’s welcome of refugees — more than 636,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — has strained public services and exacerbated existing challenges, including already scarce resources like water and energy.
There’s no better illustration than in Um Al Jamal, in northern Jordan. A significant portion of the Za’atari refugee camp, the largest in Jordan, sits within the municipality, which is one of the identified “poverty pockets” in Jordan. In the five years since the Syrian crisis began, Um Al Jamal’s population has doubled — and that does not include refugees inside the official camp.
Although the poorest refugees settle in camps like Za’atari, the majority of Syrian refugees — 81 percent — live in Jordanian communities.
Tensions in host communities rise as refugees place additional burdens on municipal services that were already strained before the crisis. Trash piles up, water prices rise, rent doubles or triples and infrastructure cracks and crumbles under increased use.
A local health center that previously saw 50 patients per day might struggle to see 400, its equipment breaking down from age. Schools overfill, with more children seeking a place than there are chairs.
USAID/Jordan’s Community Engagement Project (CEP) works in host communities, including Um Al Jamal, to strengthen community cohesion and resilience in response to the influx of Syrian refugees.
The project has enabled strained host municipalities to provide services like street lighting, garbage trucks and roads. It has rehabilitated community centers and equipped health clinics. But, most importantly, the project has provided citizens and local governments with a process through which they can collaboratively identify and prioritize their needs, and participate cooperatively in solutions.
“USAID/Jordan is dedicated to responding to the diverse needs of communities who host Syrian refugees,” said USAID/Jordan Mission Director Jim Barnhart. “One important area we address is how host communities can remain resilient following rapid increases in population. Influxes of vulnerable people exacerbate existing challenges in host communities, increasing the demand for scarce resources, creating tension and reducing social cohesion.”
The project’s process is straightforward. It begins with a door-to-door household survey to determine what residents see as their community’s greatest stressors. Results are announced at a community-wide meeting, where attendees prioritize problems and elect a team of men and women — elders, youth, majority and minority tribal members, and other representatives from the municipality.
The team designs and implements projects to help address their main concerns and, at the same time, begins to establish critical, sustainable lines of communication between residents and local officials. Projects are funded cooperatively by contributions from the community, municipality, partnerships with local private businesses and USAID.
In Um Al Jamal, one of the community’s greatest stressors was a decade-long struggle in the neighborhoods of Aqeb and Saideeyeh.
Citizens of both, who belong to different tribes and have to travel 10 kilometers to reach the municipality center, said they felt marginalized and ignored. For more than 10 years, they had asked the municipality to open a closer administrative office that would serve their needs.
An administrative office can issue business licenses, distribute documentation to refugees to extend their stay in the kingdom, receive and track grievances, and coordinate municipal services like lighting units, electricity and water delivery. Most importantly, every administrative office is represented by a seat on the municipal council. For the first time, the minority tribe citizens of Aqeb and Saideeyeh will be able to directly elect a representative in the next elections, eliminating their greatest grievance with the government.
“We did not think it could happen,” said community member and CEP youth participant Subeih Mohammad Al Masa’eed. “We felt that because there were previous unmet demands regarding this issue, because we had fears of the governmental processes, and because the two areas were not on common ground in terms of the location of the office, that it could not be established.”
Through the project, Aqeb and Saideeyeh citizens learned Um Al Jamal leaders were not unwilling to establish an administrative office — they simply could not identify or afford a building. Then an elder on the CEP team, Salamah Al Gunis, offered — at no cost — a space in a building he owned. The municipality agreed to budget for the office’s expenses, citizens volunteered to set up the office, and USAID outfitted the space with equipment.
Farhan Al Gneis participated in the CEP and now plans to run for the municipal council. “The residents need someone to represent them and voice the stressors and challenges they’re facing to the municipality,” he said. “What encouraged me to do this is my participation with USAID CEP. It gave me hope.”
The establishment of the office has empowered citizens of the neighborhoods. “We have a greater representation in the municipality,” says youth participant Subeih Mohommad Al-Masa’eed. “People used to think that their rights were lost since they are part of another area.”
Added Ibrahim Rakan Srour, director of the new office: “The cooperative spirit and interaction with the local community are the best parts. We work as a team seeking common interests.”
The project is also addressing more recent concerns. Sarhan, also located in northern Jordan, is another of the country’s “poverty pockets,” and has absorbed 12,000 refugees over five years — 25 percent of its current population. There, program participants prioritized street lighting as their top municipal stressor. Sarhan citizens partnered with the municipality to determine the number of lights necessary and map the locations of their placement.
Proper street lighting reduces automobile accidents and petty crime, increases citizens’ — especially women’s — ability to move within the community at night, and deters feral dogs, which have increased substantially in northern Jordan as they flee the noise of conflict in Syria.
One beneficiary of the project was Abdullah Al Sharif, a Syrian refugee. After fleeing to Jordan, he opened a restaurant in Sarhan.
“The streets here were very dark at night, making it difficult for my customers — particularly women — to come after sunset and buy meals from my restaurant due to local traditions and fear of harassment by young boys hanging out around the streets,” said Al Sharif. “The lack of lighting was a big issue, even bigger than the lack of customers.”
His restaurant was robbed twice, along with other businesses. After multiple robberies, local shop owners signed a petition to the municipality requesting lighting. But due to lack of resources, the municipality was unable to meet the request.
“Our efforts eventually paid off with the support of USAID CEP, who responded to all of our needs. Since the lights were installed, our sales have increased by 40 percent,” said Al Sharif, who is now able to keep his restaurant open much later. “We even expanded our restaurant, and for that we are truly thankful.”
Q&A: A Voice for Conviction
When Jumana Hulayyel Suhail walked into a community center in northern Jordan’s town of Um Al Jamal in November 2015 to learn the results of a USAID contest that she had entered, she didn’t know that, in a matter of minutes, she would be advocating for USAID’s standards and ideals before her fellow community members. But that’s exactly what happened.
Suhail, 22, led one of 11 teams in a youth engagement contest designed to alleviate community-identified stressors. She recognized the need for winter coats for many families in Um Al Jamal, which, like other communities in the Mafraq governorate, has welcomed Syrian refugees, straining infrastructure, municipal services and community cohesion.
The contest, Yalla Shabab! (Let’s go, guys!), is an initiative of USAID/Jordan’s Community Engagement Project. Youth teams wrote proposals addressing major concerns in Um Al Jamal, and had to approach donors not associated with USAID to request funding to implement their proposals. Winners would receive up to 500 Jordanian dinars ($703) of in-kind support from the USAID project.
Before the announcement of the winners at the Rawdat Al Ameera Basma, Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development community center, a young man stood up in the back of the room and said he did not understand why he had to raise money for his project. He wanted to know why USAID did not just give him the 500 JD to implement his proposal. USAID staff tried to explain that, if the money was simply given to the youth, they would not learn how to make a proposal and approach donors. The young man remained undeterred. The two sides were at a stalemate.
Suhail surprised everyone when she insisted it was better to work for the money rather than receive it from a donor, and that it was important to go outside Um Al Jamal and Mafraq to talk to people. These are the same principles — identifying community stressors, solving problems, and building capacity and independence — that USAID was trying to bring to the community.
Later that morning, before an audience of more than 100 people from the community, Suhail’s team, Clothes 4 Winter, was one of three teams announced as winners of the 500 JD prizes.
FrontLines: Why do you volunteer?
Jumana Hulayyel Suhail: I started volunteering in high school. There are a lot of community members in need, but they don’t ask for help. Charities only serve known groups, not everyone. I conducted statistics to find out who is in real need.
FrontLines: What did you do after you found the need?
Suhail: There were 300 families in Um Al Jamal that needed coats for winter, but they didn’t ask for help. I went to businesses outside Mafraq: the Madaba Women’s Foundation, the Human Rights Foundation, the Potash Co., RajHi Holding Co. and the Clothes Bank. I received winter clothes and money from the Madaba Women’s Foundation, the Human Rights Foundation and the Clothes Bank.
FrontLines: What will you use the money for?
Suhail: I will buy water, cookies, tea and stuff like that for when we hold the meeting to distribute the clothes.
FrontLines: Why do you do this kind of work? Where do you get your inspiration?
Suhail: My father encourages me. He tells me to give to my country without waiting for someone to give back to me. I like the smiles I get from the people I help. The satisfaction I get gives me peace.
FrontLines: What are your plans for the future? What will you do now that this project is over?
Suhail: There is a blood donation campaign for cancer patients in the spring for Al Amal (the Al Amal Center, renamed the King Hussein Cancer Center). I will volunteer for it.
About the Authors
Erin Leonardson is a development assistant with USAID’s mission in Jordan. Susan Ball is an outreach and communications assistant with USAID’s mission in Jordan.
This story was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of FrontLines, USAID’s bimonthly online magazine.