5 Things I Learned From Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Last January, I traveled to Jordan and interviewed 40 Syrian refugee women living in Zaatari refugee camp and in various cities. Out of the 4.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, Jordan is the third largest host of Syrian refugees and has a history of taking in refugees from different countries. The women I met invited me into their homes and spaces and talked to me about their hardships, fears, and wishes. Through my various conversations and interactions with individuals who had been forced to flee their homes, I learned 5 important things about life and resilience that dispel many of the misconceptions about refugees.

1. The majority of refugees live in cities, not camps.

Urban refugees don’t always make it onto the news, but they are suffering immensely. Over 650,000 Syrian refugees are living in Jordan and the majority lives in unfinished apartments and dilapidated buildings in the cities. Urban refugees struggle to pay for rent, food, heating oil, and utility bills. They are also often the first to have their aid cut. In 2014, the World Food Program (WFP) cut food vouchers for urban refugees in Jordan. Some refugees in the cities are still without food vouchers and some only receive 10 JD per person per month, which is equivalent to about 14 USD.

The camps aren’t glamorous by any means, but there are over 100 organizations providing aid to 80,000 refugees in Zaatari. Whereas in the cities, where 85% of refugees reside, organizations are overrun with requests and are underfunded and understaffed.

2. Don’t judge a group by the actions of a few. 

One of the women that I met, Shadia,* invited me into her home, prepared a traditional Syrian meal for her family and me, and told me about her experiences in Jordan. As we sat on worn mats on the floor eating with pita bread as utensils, we discussed the treatment of refugees by humanitarian aid providers. Shadia was grateful for all of the assistance she received, and she explained that she had generally been treated well by aid providers. For the instances when aid providers had not been so amiable, she stated, “Just like humanitarian aid providers who may not always be friendly, there are good Syrians and some bad ones, but the bad ones shouldn’t represent the whole group and hide the good ones.” Shadia’s conviction is especially relevant to the hateful rhetoric that has been employed against Muslims and refugees. Her remarks remind us how imperative it is not to pass judgment on an entire group based on the actions of a few.

3. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

Fatima, another woman I spoke with in Zaatari, told me about the hardships she faced. She had 2 kids, and she worried about their futures, especially because the educational system in the camp was weak. She yearned to work or learn a skill, but vocational programming was limited and did not always lead to employment. Her efforts to provide for her children were also stifled by the limitations of living in the camp. She recounted an incident in which she carried her 8-year-old son who had a piece of glass stuck in his foot to a clinic at the opposite side of the 2-mile camp because none of the ambulances were available to take them.

Despite these struggles, Fatima remained resilient. “What doesn’t break the donkey’s back makes it stronger,” she stated. Refugee women know all too well that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

4. Hateful rhetoric in the West towards minorities is having far-reaching effects. 

“Should we immigrate if we have the chance?” asked Mohammad, one of the women’s husbands, while we sat in their caravan in Zaatari. Mohammad, his wife, and 5 children lived in cramped quarters in substandard conditions, and he was unable to find work to provide for his family. “We see on TV the American politicians speaking badly of Arabs and Muslims and the harm that refugees are facing all over Europe,” he continued. Mohammad, like any parent, worried about the future and safety of his children. If given the chance of resettlement (which is very slim to begin with), Mohammad felt safer staying put in his difficult situation rather than traveling to a distant Western country where he had seen such negative responses towards Muslims and refugees. 

After everything refugees have heard and seen on the news about Americans comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs“ and the praise of a twentieth century war general who dipped bullets in pigs blood and shot Muslims, can you blame them for being wary of resettlement, no matter how much they are suffering? The fact that refugees in a camp with extremely limited cable and Wi-Fi are able to see the negative actions and comments towards Muslims and refugees shows the far-reaching nature of the abominable speech that we should be actively condemning. 

5. Despite their own hardships, refugees are still able to empathize with the suffering of others.

Ali, one of the men that I met, explained that he was fasting in solidarity with the residents of Madaya, Syria, a town that was under siege and cut off from humanitarian aid for months. Ali, his wife, and his 4 children all shared 2 caravans with a small open space in the middle covered by a tent. They had no running water and used a propane tank to stay warm. They also had been living in Jordan for 4 years with little prospect of returning to Syria in the near future; however, he was still able to empathize with others who were suffering. Ali’s story is a clear example of the common humanity of refugees that so many politicians are trying to hide in order to restrict the movement and resettlement of refugees in the West. 

We as a society have a responsibility to stop perpetuating negative images of refugees that have come out in full force throughout the last couple of years. Fleeing your home does not make you a terrorist, a “rabid dog,” or a bad person. It should go without saying, but refugees are just trying to survive and support their families. We must stop fearing refugees, and instead, we should defend their right to seek safer lives for themselves and their families.

Michelle conducted research in Jordan in January 2016 for her Senior Honors Thesis with the support of the Pardee School of Global Studies, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilizations, and the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University.

*The names of the refugees mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

*The original article was published on Huffington Post.

Garima Sharma on Entrepreneurship, the Power of Technology on Social Impact, and Non-Bra Burning Feminism

BY Ellie Hitt

This week begins our series highlighting the "Phantom Helpers" who have supported Urban Refuge throughout our development from the classroom to the present. 

Self described as a storyteller, creative strategist, consumer of all things social media-related and passionate feminist, Garima Sharma is a journalist and former editor from India, currently pursuing her MS in Media Ventures at the College of Communication at Boston University.

Garima immediately expressed interest in our project when she discovered Urban Refuge is entirely comprised of women. Skyping in from LA last spring, her idealism, enthusiasm, and the belief in the power of technology to spark social change breathed life into our idea at the earliest stages of our app development. 

In addition to her words of inspiration, Garima shared her business savvy. Below are a couple kernels of wisdom she shared with us about honing in on our product and target audience which she has graciously allowed us to share with you via this blog.

Be Fragile, Nimble, and Ready to Pivot: During our earliest stages, every week our concept was modified as we explored new fields of interest and connected with more partners and consultants. Garima reminded us that there is no shame in taking steps back and reorganizing. What distinguishes us as a group is the fact that we are willing to adapt with every new piece of advice and data we receive. She urged us to look at Facebook and Twitter as examples of the beauty of improving our ideas to deliver the best product possible.

Bridging the Cultural Gap: Hailing from India, Garima appears to acutely understand the importance of bridging the cultural gap when marketing and developing an app. She reminded us to focus on the language we used and also to initiate the conversation with our clients themselves. Although we may think we understand our clientele because we have researched the refugee experience in Amman, we cannot purport to fully comprehend all the questions and concerns of the population we are attempting to cater to. Our collective research has forced us to be profoundly in tune with the implications of our word choice. In every step of the process, we have tried to gain feedback from our clients which is something we intend to continue through the use of refugee peer consultants on the ground in Amman. 

As a class, we want to publicize our gratitude for the conversation we had with Garima and the brilliant insight she offered on a gamut of issues especially during our earliest stages.

If you want more wisdom from the source herself, feel free to check out her out on Twitter (@garimasharma) or get lost in her accomplishments on LinkedIn. We can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.


BY Andrea Vidal

The first months of each year bring a breath of new life for many. As a proud, all-female team working on forced migration, many events in these first months of 2017 have deeply challenged us. Recently, one instance seemed to project our essence: the silencing of Elizabeth Warren and her subsequent decision to finish speaking Correta Scott King's words on social media.

This is really how Urban Refuge started. Each of us decided to take IR500 Forced Migration and Human Trafficking out of a desire to act. When we found our policy recommendations falling short of action, we took change in our own hands.

I am fascinated by each of our own separate wills becoming a single coherent voice. Within that voice lies a deep sense of camaraderie.

This gives me a fierce hope for the future.

In honor of International Women’s Day (or everyday as we celebrate it at UR) and Elizabeth Warrens persistence, I wrote this poem to remind us of our spirit.




Each swings the door to a classroom like the rest,


boots dragging…


there is excitement.


there is exhaustion.


there are nerves



Building Connecting






A collective…


each becomes we.


boots skipping


there’s vibrancy,


there’s vida…



We are waves



Building mixing




So we continue.


Michelle addresses the United Nations

by Michelle Abou-Raad

Michelle Abou-Raad had the chance to speak at the United Nations at the 15th Coordination Meeting on International Migration organized by the Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 

Skip forward to 1:16:00 to hear her speak on behalf of the UN Major Group of Children and Youth (UNMGCY). We are so proud to have one of the Urban Refuge team members addressing such pressing issues regarding international migration! 


Click the image above and skip to 1:16:00 to hear Michelle. 

Click the image above and skip to 1:16:00 to hear Michelle. 



The Work Permit Initiative for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

BY Victoria Kelberer

This week we are highlighting the work of Urban Refuge team member Victoria Kelberer. Published in conjunction with the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, her policy paper examines the implications for policy and practice of the Work Permit Initiative. 

Find the full report by clicking the graphic below. 

Working Within Your Power

By Ellie Hitt

“God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

….and the insanity to pursue what I know to be increasingly difficult.

Though I am not religious, I’ve been pondering the quote (and my addendum) a lot lately in a world that seems increasingly outside of my control--a world in which I wake up each morning to the news of another set of rights stripped from one group or peoples to the next.

I’ve been swinging between poles all week. Empowerment to disempowerment. Felicity to frustration. Action to inaction.

I’ve spent time thinking about how to manage the conditions I find myself in and trying to categorize what I do and do not have control over.

This is not a form of acceptance. It’s a concerted effort to distinguish between perceived problems in an attempt to plan better for the things I can control. It is a calling to look deep within myself to realize what I believe and just how deeply I believe in it to distinguish what I will do to ensure the world I live in encourages my generation’s boundless potential.

I’m fired up. Our Urban Refuge team is fired up. With the launch in Amman coming closer with each passing day, I can’t help but to cling to the insanity that we all share that some ideas and all people are worth fighting for.  Just because we cannot control everything, does not mean we do not have power to make a difference.  Working on Urban Refuge has taught me there is much within my power to make an impact and change things for the better.   

Just because we cannot fix a broken international system that seems to be turning its back on refugees and displaced peoples in a day, doesn’t mean we should not try. Just because we can’t single handedly end a civil war or drastically alter systems of aid delivery with an application, doesn’t mean we should not try. Just because we cannot always convince our elected representatives to listen to our voice, does not mean we should not shout.

Every day, we must do what is in our power to create the world that reflects our values. The sheer size of a movement does not dictate its success so we must increasingly work together to strategize, organize, and practice open dissent against injustice that threatens the rights not only of ourselves but of others. We must learn to be more effective allies and to put our bodies on the line in defense of others. We must work within our spheres of influence, within and without institutions and politics, and with each other to learn best practices and build empathy.

We must never succumb and always fight to overcome. We must unite with our commonalities rather than let ourselves be divided by our differences.  Respect, empathy, and love cannot be signed away or blacked out with the stroke of one man’s pen.

Snapshots from Amman


“Why hasn’t this been done before?” was a phrase I encountered at just about every organization I visited in Amman. Indeed, “Why hasn’t this been done before?” became somewhat of a refrain of our trip, a typical response to our explanations of our efforts at Urban Refuge.

During the first week of January, I traveled alongside fellow team member Vicky Kelberer to Jordan to conduct research and to prepare for the upcoming launch of Urban Refuge. Because of the generous support from our Crowdfunding campaign, we were able to cover transportation costs within Amman in order to verify organizations and services in our database on our trip. We embarked on this process by dividing up data points regionally before visiting the locations and asking questions to ensure that all of our information was up-to-date and ready to be added to the application. Although we started the process of aid location verification, the rest will be completed by a team of Syrian and Jordanian interns on the ground.

What Urban Refuge intends to do—map aid and services—is a basic process that will have a large impact on refugee and vulnerable populations in Jordan. For us, the beauty of this idea lies in its simplicity. Judging by the response we received in Amman, others agree.

Through my experience visiting organizations, I found that although some locations were accurate, others had missing or entirely inaccurate information. Others simply did not exist! Because refugees living in Amman often have limited resources, making one’s way to an address found online only to find that there is no organization is not only costly, but also disheartening. For this reason, as a team we are committed to verifying all of the information in our database before adding it to the application.

Having visited some of these organizations on our own, we now better understand how to train our interns to ensure that our process is as efficient and safe as possible. The official Amman-based team will be up and running soon so be sure to follow us on social media to track our progress!



Urban Refuge team member Michelle Abou-Raad admiring street art in Amman, Jordan. 

Urban Refuge team member Michelle Abou-Raad admiring street art in Amman, Jordan. 

Urban Refuge and Womanhood


Sitting in a panic in a cafe in Istanbul, I hastily scanned the courses open for the Spring 2016 semester racing to elect my courses before my scheduled registration. Although one of the courses I selected was open to anyone, the seminar I found myself in last January was ultimately comprised of 22 women. It was with this all-female team with whom I would embark upon the adventure that finally led to our humanitarian aid app, Urban Refuge. At our one year anniversary as a class, I have found myself reflecting on the value of our work not only as a team, but as a group of women working in concert for a grander purpose.

I was used to being surrounded by women: strong, outspoken, gifted, and intelligent women. A graduate of an all-girls institution in Nashville, TN, every day for four years I witnessed the power of women. I watched women excel in the classroom, on the athletic field, on mock trial teams, in Model UN debates, on stage through performance, and in our communities.

I was supported, challenged, loved, and enlightened by those women and their talents, experiences, and stories. I realized the power of women early on.

Thus, when during my junior year of college I enrolled in a class on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking at Boston University, the idea that a group of 22 women could examine a problem like the Syrian Refugee crisis and determine at least one actionable step wasn’t much of a jump. Nor was it a jump when we started debating the merits and challenges of actually creating an app for Syrian refugees.

I believed that this group of women could and would create such an app. Of course we could band together to revise and rewrite plans, to consider all angles of a particular action, and be empathetic and inquisitive at each turn. Of course women could reach out to companies across Boston and ultimately across the world. Of course these same women could meet with leaders within Google, Uniqlo, and Microsoft and even discuss our team’s plans with a candidate for Secretary General of the United Nations.

Yet the truth is that most teams, especially those working in technology, are not comprised solely of women. Although the main goal of Urban Refuge is to use technology to address information asymmetries in the urban refugee experience, we hope to serve as an example to young women that their ambitions are worthy and that they can make a difference in their communities and beyond-- with or without technology.

This is not to say that all-women teams are automatically geared for success. They aren’t and we have had our fair share of ups and downs already. But what matters is that we as a team strive each day to expand our knowledge and network and to improve our idea. What matters is that our friends and family have supported us in this endeavor as have people around the world because they agree with our core mission and values.

All along, we have been dedicated to pursuing cross-sector solutions to promote agency and empowerment for individuals in need. For me, these two words have been a crucial part of me acknowledging and embracing my womanhood. Perhaps this is why I and (I suspect) many other women on the team feel so committed to this project and this crisis. We understand that all humanity is inherently linked and that injustice to one means injustice for all. So here’s to all women, may 2017 bring peace, stability, and empowerment!


Smartphone Penetration in Jordan and Western Perspectives

By Louise Bertrand

Digital technologies have, over the decades, taken an influential place in the daily lives of individuals around the world. This evolution includes the Syrian migrants and other displaced communities, which they use to stay in contact with their families and to access vital information. One would not suspect, however, that the most widespread digital technology in Jordan, as well as the rest of the Middle East, are smartphones. These smartphones serve as tools of convenience and survival for the displaced. Indeed, even though there is a difficulty of access to information regarding migrant services in Jordan, smartphones and applications can be powerful solutions to providing and guiding the urban refugees to services in their host countries, where they at first feel alienated with the language barrier and their status as non-citizens. That is exactly the challenge my class has been solving during the past semester: building an app UrbanRefuge/Aman (“security” in Arabic) for the Jordanian market, focusing solely on the urban settings in Amman for the moment, by simply “putting aid on the map”. Our main goal is thus to connect the incoming refugees with existing community resources and non-governmental organizations, which are not readily accessible, on a single, versatile platform.

That was when I was faced with a conundrum at the very beginning of the class. The West [and I, at first] is highly misinformed about the refugee crisis, and, more generally, about the region. I would not instinctively think that Syrian refugees possess reliable, connected devices. A lot of people will also think that they are economic migrants, who live in poverty, when they are simply fleeing war zones. In fact, many of them are middle class or highly educated, wealthy families. In addition to representing the contrary of how they are perceived, a large majority of Syrian refugees owns a smartphone. And that is why it is important to efface this misconception from the common belief of the Western public. Instead, we should raise awareness for the high potential of using smartphones as platforms for change and support in the lives of urban refugees. And how can the Westerners help? Well, the most effective options include using apps designed for the public to be more informed on the situation of the refugees, as well as funding apps directly designed to ameliorate the lives of those refugees. We need to realize that, in reality, the urban refugees both fleeing to neighboring countries or Europe are as addicted to their phone as we are, as reports show; except for them, they have a vital role in helping them navigate safely and access essential services, yet also stay in contact with their relatives.

This realization that refugees are just as well-connected as we are in the West made me grasp the amplitude of the app market in front of us and the potential to help thousands of lives. The most important detail to consider, however, is that the smartphone penetration among the refugees, especially in Jordan and the rest of the Middle in East, is extensively through Android OS smartphones. Indeed, 78% of smartphones in Jordan – our area of interest – occupy the Android OS market shares, which offer more reach than all the other OS platforms combined. Smartphones have become an extremely powerful tool for refugees; in one year alone, smartphone penetration in Jordan grew by a rate of 107%, and the sale of smartphones has caught up with that of basic phones and feature phones, going up from 18.8% in December 2012 to 41.0% in December 2013, while feature phones’ usage spiraled down from 59.2% to 40.3% in the same time frame. In comparison, PC adoption rate has slowed down considerably, due to the convenient aspect of smartphones and their portability, which justifies our focus on building an app rather than a website-based migrant services database. Smartphones are also becoming the primary internet access-point in Jordan, with 80% of the smartphone population having 3G access. Building an app instead of a website to address the urgent needs of incoming refugees would be much more accessible solution as 71% of Jordanian smartphone users download apps, and smartphones are becoming more prevalent across all socio-economic segments. A successful app, called Gherbetna, has been growing increasingly more popular in Turkey, especially. It’s something of a crossover between a Lonely Planet guide of sorts and a Craigslist-style section for job ads and other services. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey have been more easily integrated Gherbetna job services, as jobs have become hard to come by. This is an even more significant impact as jobs are only accessible once refugees have cleared their way for employment by getting work permits through the information and location services offered by the app. Now the question is, why choose Android? Besides the very high penetration of Android smartphones in Jordan, building an app for the Google Play Store offers many other benefits. Indeed, Android-based devices’ strength is that they are available in all cost ranges (from low-end to high-end smartphones), unlike iOS based smartphones – a small luxury for the Jordanian masses – which is usually the preferred operating system for which innovators build apps. This increased accessibility for Android phones on the Jordanian market is coupled with an easy portability to other operating systems – such as Blackberry, Symbian or Ubuntu OS – as Android apps are developed using the Java programming language. The fact that Android apps are open-source empowers us, college students with no computer engineering background, to use pre-existing source code to help build our own app. Finally, the availability of Android apps on the Play Store is much quicker (only a few hours) compared to that of iOS apps (usually a few weeks); this also applies to updates and bug fixes, allowing us to constantly and almost instantly improve the experience of the refugees using our app, thus allowing them more quickly and efficiently to enjoy our app services to live a smooth transition coming in to Jordan.

The key takeaway from this academic app initiative and market research on smartphone penetration in Jordan is that digital solutions have the very strong potential to help Syrian refugees because of the fact that almost all of them are equipped with smartphones, contrarily to common belief. Having this information in hand, it is my duty to eliminate these Western misconceptions on the refugee crisis through awareness, and to promote the fact that smartphones – mostly Android OS based – are an extremely powerful tool in fighting poverty, gender-divide, and the lack of access to resources information among urban refugees. That is why anyone who has the knowledge of coding should build apps to help refugees, along so many existing app initiatives. It is important to perceive smartphones as truly empowering tools for the migrants’ integration, safe navigation and connection with family, and break the stigma that refugees do not have access to high-end technology, or that, as heard as an argument in Europe, that refugees with smartphones do not need help because “they must have money if they own a smartphone”. For these displaced communities, smartphones are not simply a gadget, they also are their survival kit.

Why Donate to Refugees in Jordan?

By Taylor Resteghini

Refugees are very apparent examples of the consequences of instability and conflict. Perhaps they make us uncomfortable because they are different. Perhaps they make us uncomfortable because they pose a threat, whether actual or perceived. Regardless of how members of the international community feel towards refugees, there is no denying that the recent refugee and migrant crisis has proven that what happens in one country, most definitely can affect another.

The crisis has brought the political and economic struggles of other countries to the doors of nations who might not have noticed otherwise—and we know that the crisis is not going away any time soon. Which is why it is important for governments and organizations to invest in long term solutions, such as proper housing, education and working permits. We, the everyday people, cannot directly change legal policy towards refugees, but we help attitudes become more progressive towards them by donating to organizations that directly aid refugees and by encouraging our political leaders to do more about the issue.

Why should we do this? Well, besides the argument for simply supporting fellow humans in times of crisis, it is important to acknowledge that refugees are just like anyone else: with the right opportunity, they can make a huge impact on society. Many Syrians and Iraqis fleeing their countries were once doctors, lawyers and teachers who, if given the opportunity and the tools, can become powerful liaisons between their communities and the communities of their host countries and preform powerful work even while displaced.

There are statements claiming that refugees are “a drain on resources” and that they need to “stay in their countries and fight to fix things”. However, if we don’t provide refugees with shelter, education and legal and medical help, they will not be able to contribute to society at their highest potentials. They cannot rebuild their lives during a conflict that is still raging if the international community does not give them the help they need. A country’s prosperity doesn’t have to be zero sum—we can all benefit from helping refugees.

For example, thousands of refugee children are missing out on years of education due to poverty, displacement, and mental instability that forces them to fall behind their peers. Many aren’t going to school at all, and those who do struggle. How can we expect that these children will become successful, happy and leading forces in their communities if they don’t have access to basic rights?

A bright and beautiful future for any society begins with the well being of it’s people. In helping refugees recover and flourish in their time of need, we are also setting up a brighter future for Jordan, Syria, Iraq and their neighbors. Just as instability begets instability, prosperity in one region can mean prosperity for the whole world round. If we want stability in the Middle East, the best way to achieve it is to listen to and invest in the people, not drones or weapons. A country’s prosperity doesn’t have to be zero sum—we can all benefit from helping refugees.

Jordan has taken in a significant amount of refugees, not only from Syria and Iraq in recent years, but from Palestine and Lebanon in past times of conflict. But government and NGO aid in the country can only support so much—for aiding the approximately 1.4 million refugees living in Jordan is no easy task. Only 620,000 are officially registered with the UNHCR (June of 2015 according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), which means many can easily fall through the cracks without more attention. More global support, from citizens and their countries, can help bear the strain on resources

The more we stand up to the issue, the louder we are saying that this is not ok this is not normal. We don’t have to save the world with one donation but by picking a cause to support, be it education, immunization, or food and shelter, we can contribute to the future of children, families, communities and nations.

If you are committed to helping refugees in Jordan, click out "Take Action" button at the top of our page and get involved with us! Our crowdfunding campaign is currently live, and we are working hard to make our app a reality for Jordan's refugees!


Transforming Refugee Registration


The on-going Syrian refugee crisis is unprecedented both in its size and in the burden it has placed on the humanitarian system. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has struggled to respond to this massive degree of displacement. The UNHCR registration system cannot keep up with the number of migrants, causing lags in the process and leaving thousands of refugees stuck in a sort of “registration limbo,” unable to receive the help they need. Introduction of a digital solution into this system could revolutionize refugee registration, making it faster and more efficient, and thus giving more people of concern access to UNHCR services.


Before a refugee can receive any form of humanitarian assistance from the UNCHR, he/she must be registered, in order to document his/her needs, to identify the protection that he/she may require, and to provide him/her with proper identification documents. As one UNHCR worker put it, “Registration means help.” It is the first step on the way to getting aid.


The UNHCR registration process is split into two phases, both of which occur once the migrant in question has arrived at his/her destination. In the first phase, either the refugee or a UNHCR representative will fill out a registration form to gather basic information, such as name, age, family size, etc. The second phase requires that each migrant be photographed and interviewed. Both family interviews and individual interviews must be conducted. UNHCR representatives collect more in-depth information during these conversations, including details of the migrant’s personal, educational and professional background. The data collected during both stages must then be verified and approved, either by the UNHCR or by the government.


The sheer number of refugees fleeing Syria for host countries in the Middle East and Europe in recent years has presented the UNHCR with an overwhelming challenge. Despite attempts to conquer this problem, from adding registration centers to adopting biometric identifiers such as retina scans, the UNHCR cannot keep pace with the waves of new applicants. One UNHCR worker estimated that at a given time, about one- hundred- to- two- hundred thousand Syrian refugees may be waiting for completed registration.


European software company SAP is working on a project to expedite this process. This app would allow migrants with smart phones (a surprisingly large percentage) to complete initial registration forms prior to their arrival. The app focuses exclusively on Germany, one of the most common destinations within Europe. While this has the potential to prove incredibly useful to migrants heading to Germany, the app’s geographical limitation makes it irrelevant to most Syrian refugees. However, if this idea were expanded to encompass a variety of host countries, it could be truly groundbreaking. Someone, whether it be SAP, another company, an NGO, or even the UNHCR itself, could produce a similar that app would allow migrants to choose from a list of destinations. Their forms could then be routed to the appropriate offices. They could even receive useful tips to better prepare them on arrival, such as the location of UNHCR registration centers in the host country. Each migrant would then arrive at his/her destination ready to embark upon the second phase of the registration process.


A digital solution that would allow refugees to begin application for UNHCR registration while on the road would alleviate much of the stress on the system. Of course not all migrants have access to smart phones, phone chargers, or Internet, but enough do to make this a worthwhile enterprise. Registrations could be processed much more quickly, leaving fewer migrants around the world stuck in “registration limbo.” Refugees could receive much- needed aid sooner, giving them a better chance of survival and of success in their new home.

The Long-Term Concern of Refugee Mental Health

BY Taylor Resteghini

While much of the humanitarian efforts throughout Europe and the Middle East have been aimed at meeting immediate needs for millions of displaced persons, there is a recognizable need that poses an even greater threat to the well being of refugees: mental health.

The refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq have traumatic reasons for leaving their home countries. Many have witnessed or been subjected to violence, murder and social upheaval. Further trauma comes from having to make long and hazardous journeys to safety. Refugees also struggle with being uprooted from their homes and separated from family members.Once they have reached safer shores, refugees face a process of resettlement that also brings stress and uncertainty. Obstacles such as delayed asylum application processes, inability to work and lack of support systems place further pressure on refugee mental health.

The UNHCR notes that the number of refugees suffering from malnutrition or infectious diseases is very low but psychological issues remain deeply concerning. International Medical Corps conducted a study across refugee populations in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The results found that 54 percent of those surveyed were struggling with a mental, neurological or substance use problem. According to the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center, the most common mental health conditions associated with refugee populations include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

These conditions cause great distress, particularly for young people. A 2014 report from Unicef cited a survey that found a third of Syrian children at the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan displayed unusually aggressive behavior and engaged in self-harm. Other reports have highlighted nightmares, constant weeping and inability to engage with other children as consequences of their trauma. The report warned that without help, these children were at risk of drifting into crime, addiction and violence, and that some were already joining criminal gangs.

However, services for chronic diseases and refugee mental health are insufficient, due to a lack of funding and absence of standardized treatment. In addition, cultural context and language barriers have made it difficult for organizations and physicians to carry out effective and standardized treatments. Mental health services are relatively expensive and many host countries in the Middle East lack sufficient qualified mental health professionals to reach every refugee. Additionally, building a relationship with a mental health physician or psychologist is a long-term process. Refugees are not guaranteed to be in any place for a long time, making it difficult to develop therapeutic relationships and keep up with treatments.

Despite the lack of mental health services for refugees, some organizations, and even refugees themselves, are taking on the challenge. Project Amal ou Salam, meaning Project Hope and Peace, helps support schools and workshops for refugee children throughout Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. The organization uses “music, art, sports, photography and team-building activities to teach the kids about trust and unity and help them deal with the trauma they have sustained.”

Another such effort, Syria Bright Future, is run by Dr. Mohammad Abo-Hilal, a Syrian psychiatrist. His organization focuses on helping Syrian refugees in Jordan, particularly children. Dr. Abo-Hilal’s youngest clients learn to visualize a safe space, use relaxation techniques and confront bad experiences by drawing them. In this way, he hopes to provide children with a space to vent their experiences, but more importantly to express their dreams for the future. The evidence that such techniques can reliably reduce symptoms of traumatic stress is still unclear, Dr. Abo-Hilal said, many children have learned to cope with some of their stress. However, Dr. Abo-Hilal laments that his services have not done enough, “All that we did, maybe we cover 10,000 or 20,000 children-- but there are millions out there waiting for this help.”

Many of the people who have fled Syria are lawyers, doctors and psychologists-- people who could help address the gap in services for displaced Syrians. However in many host nations in the Middle East, work permits for refugees are unavailable or forbid them to work in certain white-collar sectors, like medicine. In order to find work in Jordan, Syrian doctors work illegally under the cover of Jordanian doctors, often for lesser pay and longer hours. The risk of doing this is high: violations can result in three-year jail sentences, or worse, deportation back to Syria.

In our research for Urban Refuge, we discovered just how dire the need is for long-term services and stability amongst refugees. While immediate needs, like food and shelter, are incredibly important, it is the long term needs that will help the millions of people coming from Syria, Iraq and other nations rebuild their lives . However, it seems that governments have be hesitant to give more assistance to refugees, in part because it would mean giving them more citizenship rights and permanency to their settlement in host communities.

Mental health care is requires more than just therapy. Living a happy, healthy life entails rights such as access to education, ability to work, and safe, permanent living situations-- all the things that refugees are lacking. Addressing the systemic issues that limit mental health care is a difficult task that requires a long-term shift in funding and policy. However, the costs of not addressing this issue are much higher. The children of Syria have the right to become happy, educated adults with fulfilling lives. The longer we ignore their well-being, the further we condemn them to lives of chaos and suffering.

Changing the fundamentals of the European debate about forced migration

BY Lisa Kadel

Looking at Europe during the past few years, it seems like the continent just can’t get past operating in crisis mode. The sovereign debt crisis, Ukraine, Brexit and the rise of nationalism and anti-EU sentiments are just some examples of the numerous struggles governments and societies are facing. It is not surprise that the most recent influx of refugees is seen as a crisis as well. In fact, “crisis” is one of the more positive terms used regularly to describe the current situation. A crisis can be managed, while expressions like “flood” or “wave” dehumanize refugees and imply inevitable destruction unless we build walls to keep them out.

On the other hand, many continue to advocate for compassionate policies for those fleeing conditions that most Europeans cannot even begin to imagine. But even the strongest commitments to welcoming refugees are overwhelmingly meant as acts of graciousness, and there is a clear distinction between givers and receivers: the selfless Europeans helping the pitiful refugees. Hardly anybody is thinking in terms of empowerment and the potential to bring positive change for both sides. Yet making these the basis of the debate leads to a picture very different from the one currently dominating the media and people’s minds.

This is not to say that hosting refugees does not incur costs on a society. In Europe, but much more in countries closer to regions of violent conflict, the influx of forced migrants puts a strain on budget and infrastructure. However, we need to change how we address these issues. Rather than focus on limiting immigration, we should adapt current policies to the new situation. This will allow us to create a situation in which the protection of the physical integrity and dignity of those seeking asylum is ensured, while costs are kept to a minimum or even, in the long term, off-set by gains.

Thinking in terms of empowering individuals and utilizing their potential leads to a vision of refugees who are legally working and earning enough to support their families. This enables them to control their own lives, contribute to society, and thus helps to maintain or regain a sense of dignity. Immigrants enjoy the same protections against exploitation as nationals.

Work also helps make personal connections between immigrants and natives, facilitating mutual understanding and thus the peaceful coexistence of cultures. This benefits both communities rather than alienating the different groups from one another. In addition, host countries would save the money that they are currently spending on feeding and housing refugees that are not allowed to work, and would even gain tax revenue. The additional workforce would support economic growth and off-set the imbalances in the social support system that an aging society creates.

Of course reality is complicated and fundamental change does not happen overnight. But with realistic expectations and open-mindedness, willingness to address the real roots of domestic problems that are commonly mistakenly blamed on immigrants, it is possible to adapt legal and economic frameworks to make change for the better.

Most refugees will stay in a host country for extended periods of time, maybe even forever. Europe, with its “guest workers” in the second half of the 20th century, has already experienced how assuming migrants will only stay temporarily  can lead to flawed integration. Refugees, as well as other immigrants, need to be allowed to maintain their cultural and religious identity. In accordance with the law, everybody should be able to follow whatever cultural practices they prefer. Integration does not mean assimilation, but requires efforts to understand each other from both sides. If the law does not reflect what a society defines as its non-negotiable “core values”, it can be changed. But expecting immigrants to adhere to extremely vague rules that nobody can specify is simply unfair. So is holding them to higher standards than the native population. Some immigrants will commit crimes, just as some natives do. But nationality or residence status should not determine how someone is judged for their actions, morally and legally.

Immigrants are often used as scapegoats for all kinds of problems societies face, from failing social security systems and unemployment to gender inequality and gender-based violence. It is necessary to explore and address the real roots of these problems. Politicians need to withstand the temptation to capitalize on existing fears and prejudice to gain votes. While it is of course necessary to listen to constituents, there is a difference between listening to concerns seriously, and fueling hate and prejudice. The latter hurts not only those who are labelled as “the other”, but also society as a whole as it creates division, hinders integration, and diverts attention from the real causes of problems.

Moreover, legal frameworks need to be adapted and the economy must be enabled to absorb the additional workforce. Residential permits need to be issued for time periods long enough to make learning a new language and skills worthwhile for the refugees, and for employers to hire and train them. Innovation is needed to efficiently deal with more technical questions including recognition of foreign education, cost-efficient and quality language learning opportunities to large numbers of people, and systems to efficiently match people with jobs. To avoid an increase in unemployment and a race to the bottom in social standards, investment to create new jobs and improvement of social protection for workers, such as minimum wages and protection against dismissal, are key.

These are not simple tasks. They imply challenging the dominant mindset, which is never easy. Deep-rooted resentment among the population against immigration in general, especially from majority Muslim countries, must be overcome. But Europe, one of the richest regions in the world, without a doubt has the resources to make the innovations necessary in order to create a win-win situation. This is the time to make a choice between affirming liberalism and human rights and building a strong framework to face the future on the one hand, and failing people in need, looking the other way and negating the realities of globalization on the other.

The Ripple Effects of a Crisis: Water Shortage in Jordan

BY Sara Mejias

For the past year, much has been written about the Flint water crisis after high levels of lead were found in the town’s water system. Lead poisoning has been known to significantly hurt the development of children. The outcry has lead to much debate about lead poisoning all over America, especially in the context of economic inequality and race. 

In Jordan, another water crisis is bubbling—but it is one that has been going on for many years and shows no signs of stopping without intervention from the humanitarian and development community.

It is no secret that Jordan has a water shortage problem; in fact, Jordan’s 2008-2022 water strategy outlined the ways that the country was going to improve its water resource management. However, the plan did not predict the ongoing inflow of refugees from Syria. By December 2013, Jordan had already surpassed an 8 million increase in population, 9 years earlier than expected. 

Even before the Syrian refugee crisis, it was predicted that Jordan’s population would have only 90.5 cubic meters of water per person per year by 2025 if new measures were not taken. In comparison, an average person in America uses 9000 cubic meters of water per year. The World Bank recommends a 1000 cubic meters of water per person per year globally. In the wake of the increase in population, a new strategy and further funding is needed to increase water efficiency in Jordan. 

Increased investment in water-improvement projects can have positive effects that go beyond meeting a person’s basic water needs; it creates positive outcomes for host country relations, the government, and the environment according to publications on the water situation in Jordan, such as Mercy Corps’ “Tapped Out” report.

Increased water investment can alleviate tensions between Jordanians and Syrians. Once Jordanians start seeing improvement in the water system, they will be less likely to see Syrians as a burden to the country. 

Political stability will increase in Jordan with higher levels of water availability. Jordanians have been known to protest over the lack of water in households, especially during the summer months. 

The environment will be better preserved for the future. Tackling the water crisis in Jordan can lead to the preservation of water related ecosystems such as rivers in Jordan that are necessary to alleviate water scarcity. 

In the future, a country’s water shortage could even start impacting their international credit rating

Aleena Farishta writes in her 2014 master’s thesis “The Impact of Syrian Refugees on Jordan’s Water Resources and Water Management Planning” that “groundwater overdraft, pollution of freshwater sources, and the inability of the existing water infrastructure to cope with an additional 600,000 people were cited as major concerns for Jordan’s water sector.”

Since refugees have continued to increase in Jordan throughout the protracted refugee situation, it is important that long term solutions to the water crisis are taken seriously.

In light of the Flint water crisis, Americans are well aware of the necessity for clean, reliable water in a person’s life. However, with the Syrian refugee situation still underfunded, it is painfully obvious that not enough is being done to fund emergency aid, let alone long term investment.