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Civil society at heart of Syrian refugee response

Members of the Syria Woman Association at their office in Amman. The group is made up of Syrians who fled to Jordan in the 1980s, and are now heavily involved in helping the new wave of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Its members are reportedly linked to the M
(Heba Aly/IRIN)

Community-based organizations have arguably played the largest role in helping thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into neighbouring Jordan. Until recently, the response had been fairly ad-hoc, or as one aid worker put it, “a mess”, with various players on the ground and many Syrians simultaneously registering and getting assistance from various organizations.

But these civil society organizations are increasingly trying to coordinate, and despite the relative chaos, they have shone in recent months, especially as the first point of contact for many Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan.

“Community-based organizations are probably providing most of the assistance going to the Syrians,” one senior international aid worker said. “They should not be underestimated.

“But the government has very serious concerns about some of the groups working there and about what some of their objectives may be,” he added.

Here is a sample of the players on the ground at the forefront of the effort:

Civil society: There was a sizeable Syrian community in Jordan before the unrest, and it has been a starting point for many fleeing Syrians. They stay with family or friends in extra bedrooms or living rooms. Some Jordanian landlords have also been very generous, allowing Syrian refugees to stay for free. In the northern Jordanian border town of Remtha, a compound-turned transit facility donated by a Jordanian landlord temporarily houses Syrians who flee to Jordan illegally, until they can find a sponsor and a place to stay.

Muslim organizations: Many Syrians fled to Jordan after their government crushed a revolt by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the central town of Hama in 1982. Some of the children of that earlier wave of refugees formed the Syria Woman Organization in 2006 to help Syrians in need in Jordan. While their children run around in their office in the capital Amman, women in niqab register new Syrian arrivals and provide them with furniture, medicine, baby food and cash with which to rent apartments.

''The Muslim Brotherhood play a big role in aid, but it’s hidden''

Another active organization with links to the Brotherhood is the Islamic Charity Centre Society, which has also been registering refugees and distributing aid in border regions. “The Muslim Brotherhood play a big role in aid, but it’s hidden,” said one Syrian activist in Jordan.

Al-Kitab wal Sunnah Association is another active player. These organizations appear to have the greatest reach, and certainly more than the UN. (Some refugees fear registering with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, because they believe identifying themselves as having fled Syria will put them in danger if they try to return; UNHCR can currently only register refugees in Amman).

Syrian activists and diaspora: The Syrian diaspora has played a large role, sending everything from cash to containers of clothes from as far as the USA and Australia. Syrian activists in Jordan receive the items, but they are so busy smuggling aid into Syria that after the month-long shipping period, donations for refugees sometimes end up sitting in warehouses, waiting to be sorted and distributed.

The Gulf - The Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates has donated 6,000 food parcels, 1,000 hygiene kits, 1,000 heaters and 10,000 blankets. Societies from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have also done assessments and are planning to help. While Red Crescent aid has been coordinated through the Jordan Red Crescent and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, other assistance from the Gulf has been less organized. In one case, a Gulf country set up a tent and requested donations for Syrian refugees. What ended up in Jordan was a container of unsorted items, with slaughtered chickens mixed in with clothes, powdered milk, broken tea glasses and medication without an expiry date.

Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO) - Charged by the government to coordinate the aid response to refugees, JHCO is increasingly getting involved in the response. (Normally, it works externally more than internally, “under Royal guidance”). It is trying to create a master list of refugees registered with different organizations to avoid “double-dipping”. It is too early to tell how well they will play their new role, but they seem to have the respect of international agencies.

International community: Arguably late to join the effort in a significant way, the UN and other international aid agencies are now gearing up a larger response, not only in Jordan, but also in Turkey and Lebanon, with an US$84 million appeal. In Jordan, UNHCR is leading the charge, with strong involvement from other agencies like the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which has worked in Jordan for decades. UNHCR’s main goal is to build the capacity of JHCO to coordinate the community-based organizations. But the response plan lays out projects ranging from cash assistance for vulnerable families to psychosocial support for children. The international community is also taking steps to better understand and tap into the activities of the community-based organizations on the ground.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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