World Refugee Day: Standing Together

With its long and proud history of taking in the displaced and dispossessed, Jordan has more reason than most to mark World Refugee Day on June 20.

World Refugee Day once again gives us the opportunity to reflect on the vital role Jordan has played down the decades as a safe haven for so many of the region’s traumatized and displaced.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled into Jordan since their country began to violently fall apart in 2011. On the whole, they’ve been made welcome. But the challenge remains of how to integrate them better to mitigate the strain their arrival has had on Jordan’s social and economic fabric.

For an idea of how best to move forward, Venture is publishing the following insightful article from UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and author of The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini.

Khaled Hosseini

I recently took my twelve year-old daughter to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. I paid nearly $60 for tickets, popcorn, sodas, and snacks –it would have cost $120 if my wife and son had joined us. One hundred and twenty dollars for a couple of hours of 3D superhero mayhem. About the price of a pair of sneakers.

But for a family of Syrian refugees in Jordan? That is the difference between having a home and living on the streets, the difference between your kids going to school and having to send them out to work. It’s the difference between just about coping and holding the family together, and having to resort to dangerous survival strategies like early marriage, prostitution, even, in extremis, returning to Syria. Can we be surprised that sometimes the knock-on effect of such high risk decisions leads to the even higher risk decision that some Syrian families are forced to make, by undertaking the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to seek safety in Europe?

hus 1Two days before I took my daughter to the movies, I sat with a Syrian refugee named Hassan, the 75-year-old patriarch of a family of 15. Two years ago, Hassan and his clan uncoiled themselves from their roots near Daraa, Syria, and moved to the basement of a dilapidated building in the Jordanian city of Madaba. Like 85 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Hassan’s family chose to live in an urban environment, a setting more familiar to them than the artificial setting of a camp, despite the services provided in camps, and despite the fact that urban life for refugees can often prove an undignified, enormously daunting task.

Indeed, the UNHCR estimates that two-thirds of Syrian non-camp refugees live below Jordan’s poverty line, and one-out-of-six below the abject poverty line. Hassan, a spirited man with a creased but winsome face, told me his family savings have long evaporated. Like the overwhelming majority of Syrians in Jordan, he has no work permit and thus little income with which to pay rent, by far the biggest expense for refugees in Jordan.

“How do you survive?” I wondered aloud, and Hassan pointed to his young daughter-in-law, Fatima, a mother of eight children, whose husband—Hassan’s eldest son—was detained in Syria four years ago and has since disappeared without a trace.

Ironically, Fatima’s loss is also the family’s lifeline, because it has qualified her for the UNHCR’s cash assistance program, which targets the most vulnerable Syrian refugees living in Jordanian cities. Through this program, she monthly receives $170 that the family uses to help pay rent, buy food and school supplies for Fatima’s children. Fatima and her family are one of 21,000 Syrian families who would likely be homeless if not for this innovative and highly effective program.

The question of cash versus in-kind donation is an old debate in the humanitarian world. A donor’s impulse to send shoes or blankets is an understandable one. But the reality is all items are a representation of monetary value. Items have a price tag and they often get sold in order to serve a priority need. Cash, I learned through speaking to Hassan and other refugees, gives refugees freedom of choice and restores a sense of dignity, enabling them to make their own decisions to best meet their families’ specific needs.

It’s also a much speedier method of assistance. Unlike items that have to be shipped, received, secured, warehoused, and distributed through special centers, a process that can take weeks or even months, cash reaches the intended recipient in a matter of days, if not hours. And there’s a huge cost saving with cash, too.

The UNHCR’s Lifeline Appeal program makes a convincing case for direct monetary assistance being far more cost effective than in-kind donations.  In Jordan, out of every $100 that the UNHCR receives, almost $98 is delivered to the families that need it. That’s almost impossible to achieve with in-kind assistance. In Jordan, the cash assistance program also eliminates the potential for fraud, as it uses no ATM cards or PIN codes, which can be lost or stolen. I accompanied Fatima to a nearby bank, where I watched her withdraw cash from an ATM machine that uses state-of-the-art iris scanning biometric technology, ensuring that only she can receive the donated cash.

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Research shows that refugees like Fatima use 98 percent of cash assistance on basic needs, mostly on rent, but also food, health, and children’s needs. Cash also helps the local economy, and enables refugees to better integrate into their host community. Since it’s a less visible form of aid than in-kind assistance, there’s less stigma attached to it; no long queues at public distribution centers, and no vouchers in supermarkets. It can help lessen some of the tensions created by the enormous strain that has been put on the local economy, infrastructure, and society since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis.

I asked Hassan how his family would cope without the monthly cash assistance. He smiled, then sighed, as if from a deep well of weariness. “Well, God is here,” he said.

That was answer enough for me.


For more info on Khaled’s visit to Jordan please visit:

For more info on UNHCR’s cash assistance program please visit: