AMMAN, Jordan – A newcomer to this city, Hag Ali was drowning in a sea of people.
A refugee from Darfur, Sudan, he initially landed in the Jordanian capital after a whirlwind 24 hours in which he was told he could flee his homeland and was placed on a plane to Amman.
Without family or friends for the very first time, the city consumed him. Despite being in the heart of a capital of 4 million, Ali says he had never felt more alone.
His neighbors were Jordanians and – from what he could tell from their accents – Syrians and Iraqis. Their eyes would meet while browsing the aisle at the corner grocery store, and they would nod to each other at the bus stop. But Ali could never strike up a conversation.
“Your entire human interactions were ‘hi’ and ‘bye,’ ” Ali says. “We never mixed, we never met, we were all separated behind closed doors.”
Four years later, Ali’s friends resemble the Arab League: Yemenis, Iraqis, Syrians, Jordanians. They laugh at inside jokes and share slang and special handshakes from their cultures.
“We got to know each other,” Ali says as he places his arm around Amar Asfour, a Syrian friend at a United Nations-run community center. “Once we knew each other, fear was replaced with friendship.”
The friendships were forged at the Nuzha Community Support Center, a pilot project in the Jordanian capital by the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) to break down barriers between refugees and forge a sense of community for those who have lost their own.
It is a basic human need often overlooked in refugee crises. Aid agencies, NGOs, and governments focus their efforts on providing shelter, medical assistance, food, clothing and protection for those uprooted by conflict. If the resources are available, subsequent assistance ideally includes education and jobs.
Yet for most refugees who have passed the initial phase of fleeing and are secure, organizations offer little to combat what they call the “silent killers:” waiting, boredom, hopelessness, frustration.
Not Defined By ‘Refugee’
There is little to help them regain their dignity, and, many say, their identity.
“We all had full lives with hopes and dreams before becoming refugees,” says Mohammed Qassem, who fled Sanaa, Yemen, to Jordan three years ago and has been appointed a volunteer at the Amman support center – his first full-time position since leaving Yemen. “‘Refugee’ does not define who we are, not 100 percent or even 50 percent, and this center helps us remember that.”
The initiative is timely for Jordan, a calm oasis at the geographical center of the crises raging in the Middle East that has become home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis, Yemenis, Sudanese and Somalis.
For most refugees who have passed the initial phase of fleeing and are secure, organizations offer little to combat what they call the “silent killers”: waiting, boredom, hopelessness, frustration.
The support center, officially opened in June, was born out of U.N. and JOHUD-led community support committees, informal networks in designated towns and neighborhoods across Jordan with significant refugee populations. Comprising the committees are U.N. staff, members of partner organizations, and Jordanian and refugee community representatives.
The community committees’ original purpose was to ease outreach to dispersed refugee populations, and familiarize aid agencies with the needs of refugees and host communities alike. But there was hunger for much more.
“We started asking refugees directly: you are at home, not practicing social skills, you are under stress, you are reliving trauma – how can we help you?” says Mohammed Khuran, a UNHCR community-based protection associate and a U.N. point person at the center.
The answer, the refugees said, was activities and a space to meet, to learn and to share. A place to feel part of a community again. After providing monthly activities for Jordanians and Syrians, the U.N., JOHUD and partners decided to open a permanent community center open to Jordanians and refugees of all backgrounds.
The center arranges each month of activities based on refugees’ requests and needs. One of the most common requests is education. With many refugees having had their education cut short, many see completing their degree as the path to rebuilding their lives.
The center offers courses in English, mathematics and Arabic. It also helps refugees apply for scholarships and enroll in online organizations, and links them with international organizations and governments that offer grants and scholarships to refugees.
The Nuzha Center, in the working-class Amman neighborhood of al-Nuzha, hosts an average of three activities each day with an average of 50 participants per activity, including movie nights, poetry slams, jobs-skills training and workshops on positive thinking.
The center also caters to people with disabilities and senior citizens, organizing field trips for two groups who are among the most vulnerable refugees and least likely to ever leave their homes.
Perhaps the most important service is self-empowerment. The center hires refugees as volunteers to organize events, invite members of their community, staff events and teach courses. Volunteers receive a stipend and benefits. The Nuzha Center has appointed 17 refugee volunteers, with plans to add three more this year.
Refugees such as Amitab Alysha, from Baghdad, who has a chance to share his expertise in software programming and I.T. to provide technical courses to fellow refugees.
“We all have experience and expertise to share,” Alysha says after teaching a course on opening and synchronizing Gmail accounts for 25 refugee women. “If we can’t share it professionally through licensed work, at least we can share it with each other. For the first time in a long while, we feel like we are worth something.”
But the biggest achievement has been breaking barriers.
In the run-up to Eid al-Fitr, the center had refugees and Jordanians bake traditional sweets to mark the Islamic holiday, with the refugees sharing recipes and introducing each other to their traditional dishes.
“When I first came to Jordan, people told me to be cautious of Jordanians, and I stayed to myself,” says Amar Asfour, who fled his hometown of Damascus to Jordan at the height of the Syrian war six years ago. “But after time, I learned Jordanians are warm and caring people, I have learned patience from the Sudanese, I have learned that Yemenis are very kind, Iraqis are loud and generous, and Somalis forge friendships for life.”
After the overwhelming response to the pilot project, the U.N. and its partners are looking to open up two additional community centers outside Amman and are exploring exporting it as a model elsewhere in the region.
“I have learned patience from the Sudanese, I have learned that Yemenis are very kind, Iraqis are loud and generous, and Somalis forge friendships for life.”
All agree that the true success is not in turnout, but when the activities end, when refugees and Jordanians stick around to meet and talk, and the times when scars show through the smiles and memories resurface.
As Ali discusses academic opportunities, his thoughts suddenly drift back to Darfur and to his uncle, who pushed for his nephew’s education and was brutally killed and mutilated by militias seven years ago. Tears mist in his eyes. His friends do not miss a beat and give him space to talk. It is a lingering pain they know all too well.
“When you see that your neighbors and friends have all experienced difficulties and trauma, it makes it easier for you to accept yours,” Ali says as he dabs his eyes. “That is a true community.”
This article was originally published by Christian Science Monitor and is reprinted with permission.