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Addressing the refugee crisis

A total of 2,373,855 refugees waiting. Waiting to live a life in security that is not marked by the struggle to survive each day. Fleeing from the bloody war that has been consuming their country, millions of Syrians have crossed the border into Jordan as refugees in the hope that they will one day be able return to their homes in Syria. With no signs of peace in sight, millions more are projected to leave Syria by the end of this year. Striving to aid refugees and learn about the current situation in Jordan, ASL parents Rasha Elmasry, Karen Conway, and Robin D’Alessandro recently visited the country to “understand the realities on the ground in delivering education in a refugee situation,” D’Alessandro said.

D’Alessandro is currently CEO of the Vitol Foundation, which provides funding for emergency situations, such as the refugee crisis in Jordan, and supports global projects to bring children out of extreme poverty. The foundation originally sponsored projects that provided medical supplies for treating those injured in the conflict. However, Vitol realized that “access to real education, real quality education, was missing from almost all of the emergency programs we were being asked to fund.” Vitol in response began to focus their work towards a more long-term issue: Education.

When D’Alessandro planned the trip to Jordan, she invited Elmasry to join her. She has a personal connection to the conflict in Syria as she is of Syrian nationality. Her immediate family still resides in their home in Aleppo, Syria, despite the ongoing dangers they face. “It’s not easy for them, they are safe, they are okay, but it’s hard. They are in their own home and they don’t want to leave—you have to respect that,” Elmasry said.

Vitol is currently supporting projects that are being undertaken by a non-governmental organization, Warchild. Warchild works with and facilitates existing education programs in Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in the world. At the moment, only 8,000 to 12,000 children are registered in the camp’s schools out of the possible 37,862 children of school age. Warchild is trying to encourage increased registration in the schools by distributing supplies and facilitating transportation systems to bring these children to school.

The low registration is partly due to Jordanian law. The Jordanian government has made it mandatory to teach only a Jordanian curriculum and to employ only Jordanian teachers. However, their pool of teachers is stretched, and as a result they are giving recently-graduated university students teaching jobs. Many Syrian refugees are complaining seeing as among the 2 million refugees, there are unemployed teachers, who are in great need of work. Vitol is pushing for the right to employ Syrian teachers, which will in turn reassure parents and create jobs among the refugee camps.

Jordanian law presents a second conundrum for Vitol: The age at which students must end their formal schooling. All four schools currently end at 13, an age when education becomes increasingly impactful and important. “The one thing that is woefully underfunded and not prioritized is secondary education. It is almost non-existent. What is the hope for a kid having no school after 13? No hope for peace, no hope for good governance,” D’Alessandro said.

In order to tackle this problem, Vitol is striving to push for mandatory education by the introduction of secondary schools. “Everyone recognizes a fundamental right to primary education, but it is so rare that people prioritize secondary education in any other development or humanitarian context,” she added.

The same problems with education exist outside of the camps in the local Jordanian communities, where as many as 80 percent of Syrian refugees reside. Local schools are operating on double shifts to accommodate both Jordanian and Syrian students. As Jordan scrambles to accommodate the continuous surge of refugees, tensions are escalating between the refugees and their host population.

Addressing this issue is Conway. She is on the U.K. board of Right to Play, an organization that focuses on using sports to teach lessons on conflict resolution and peace-building, skills that are crucial in the relationship between the displaced refugees and their host population. “[By teaching this, we are] hoping that we can teach the children to cooperate and in doing so teach the host community to cooperate,” Conway said.

The organization integrates its programs into local schools with the aim of providing children the opportunity to play. This makes the school more engaging and interactive, increasing attendance rates. During their time spent in Jordan, the parents visited a community center in which Right to Play had organized informal education. Upon entering the building, one would not be able to tell that it was a formal school holiday.“There were hundreds of them. That was the most incredible thing—there were five floors of full packed classrooms on a holiday,” D’Alessandro said.

To continue its work, Right to Play recently received a $5 million grant from the Canadian government to work with Syrian refugees within the host communities.  Planning ahead, the organization plans to further expand their reach by opening more programs in places such as community centers.

Meanwhile, Vitol is planning to open more community centers specifically for the Syrian refugees. Although a vast number of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and foreign governments are providing aid, the cohesive effect is not as strong as it could potentially be. There is a lack of coordination between different organizations, allowing for unnecessary attention in some areas while other areas are neglected. “We met some amazingly smart, competent, really important people, and nobody had the full picture, which was depressing,” D’Alessandro said. “If even the head of some serious charities and the head of the camp didn’t have the full picture, how are the refugees going to know how to access services for them and their families?”

Vitol’s next step forward is the submission of a letter to the Department of International Development, a U.K. government department devoted to eliminating global poverty. They are proposing several changes in regards to the Syrian conflict. Currently, 1.2 percent of the budget is dedicated to education. Vitol is pushing for this figure to double. They are also looking to establish minimum standards that all refugee education programs must adhere to. In establishing this, Vitol hopes to increase both the quality and access of education in Jordan.

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