A reality check from Jordan

Our CEO, Joséphine Goube, returns to the camps around Amman to see for herself the daily reality of refugees living there. Read on to discover what lessons she learned…

The heart and soul of Techfugees is collaboration, building global networks of people each doing their bit. That means I often have to put on different hats, one of which involves sitting on the board of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

This has a number of benefits, like getting to meet this amazing, highly driven team and catch up with their achievements. I also get to advise on integrating technology with their work. The NRC is keen to take a more data-driven and tech-led approach, but this needs to be tempered with caution to avoid the data of vulnerable people being exploited.

Back to Amman

Not only that but each year I get to take a trip to meet those working on the ground to carry out this good work, alongside those who benefit from it. This year I found myself in Amman, Jordan, getting a better understanding of how they carry on their different programmes in the country as well as deliver programmes in Syria. 

Visit of NRC schools and youth workshops, Zaatari Camp, Jordan. Credits NRC, March 2019

The NRC is the biggest international NGO currently working in Jordan, so trips like this help me understand the constraints of working on that scale. These are lessons I can then take back to the boardroom but also I can take back in my work at Techfugees when approaching collaborations with big INGOs.

Issues like the politicization of aid become an issue at this level. It’s harder to stay flexible and intervene based on human-centered principles when your funding gets locked up in bureaucracy & accounting standards.

Likewise, that mentality can encumber the way we allocate funding. When a donor wants their money to go on one issue, but another more pressing emergency arises, it can be hard to pivot through the red tape.

Of course, these are good problems to have. It’s right that large aid organizations should have the proper oversight, but it can be hard to see that when you’re in the thick of things. The more I go on the ground, the more I get to admire the restless work and patience of humanitarian workers.

Skills for tomorrow

Visiting the camps near the Syrian border, I met kids who had been born there and were now six years old. Their whole lives had been spent in a state of transience, waiting for the next phase which never came.

Class being delivered, with an Idea box in the background. Picture from Iphone.

For these children, there’s enormous need to equip them with the skills to thrive in the outside world, once their lifelong ordeal is finally over. They do receive an education in the camps, along with training in skills like sewing and carpentry, but it’s vital, in my opinion, we go beyond that.

Organizations like Libraries Without Borders, for example, provide an IT box to migrant camps, which I saw in use here. These contain a wealth of resources which kids can use to develop their digital skills. 

Initiatives like this are vital, they ensure that young people don’t find themselves becoming refugees both in this world and the digital world, effectively becoming refugees twice over.

Earning vital trust

This was made clear when I met with refugees in the urban areas of Amman. Most viewed their phones as emotional lifelines, connections to their loved ones and the latest news about their situation. Just like the rest of us, these devices are essential in a digitized environment.

Of all the stories I heard, one is particularly relevant here. A woman I met was wary of using the services on offer to allocate essentials like bread and sanitary products. These services were digitized to optimize distribution, but due to health issues, she’d escaped from her last camp.

Iris scans, Zaatari Camp, Jordan. Credits NRC, March 2019

To her, these digital services were synonymous with being identified, tracked, and punished for escaping. For years, she’d been supporting her four children on the black market and the very fringe economies of society.

The NRC was able to persuade this woman to engage with the authorities, and far from being punished, she was registered legally in Jordan. That means her kids could get registered as well, giving them access to healthcare, school, and travel papers.

It’s critical that we build systems to serve these people, not cages to trap them. By building only what they need, and with them, we build trust and empower them to engage with the process. Getting donors to see the disparity between grand strategy and the reality of the field is a key challenge.

A case for the human

Throughout my trip, I kept coming back to the same stories. Refugees getting over the trauma of being uprooted, only to deal with the trauma of confinement in camps, the lack of agency and control over their own destinies.

While these camps are supposed to be temporary, the case of those young people who have been here all their lives reminds me that the definition of ‘temporary’ is up for debate.

Sewing workshop for young people, Zaatari Camp, Jordan. Credits NRC, March 2019

This is why Techfugees’ human-centric ethos is needed now more than ever. The lessons I can now take back to the NRC boardroom help form a strategy that puts refugees on a level pegging with natives when it comes to skills to compete in a diverse job market.

And, when the nightmare is over and it’s time to go home, these children can rebuild their countries with the skills they picked up here. But whether they return bearing goodwill from their time in our care or trauma, fear and mistrust of the West? That’s up to us.

This post was produced by the team at Sookio.

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