In Jordan, Refugee Children Face a New Threat

 Tobias Burns

AMMAN, JORDAN — As students said goodbye to summer and headed back into classrooms last week in Jordan, international aid agencies warn that budget cuts and program reductions will adversely affect tens of thousands of children across the country, which has one of the highest concentrations of refugee children in the world.

"We're having to make some very difficult decisions about where to make compromises," says Robert Jenkins, the head of UNICEF's operations in Jordan. "The EU, Germany, the U.K., the U.S. and others have all decreased funding, and this will have an impact on many kids, some of them especially vulnerable to begin with."

The two UNICEF Jordan initiatives that will be hit hardest, Jenkins says, are the Hajati and Makani programs.

Hajati is a cash-for-education exchange, which grants students 20 Jordanian dinars a month, or about $28, to help with the cost of school. Administrators work with families to determine how that money should be spent, whether on transportation, educational materials or to make up for the household income lost by keeping a child in school. Last year, 55,000 families received Hajati funds, while 10,000 are set to receive them this year.

Makani is an after-school program that provides day care, homework help and child protection services. Of the more than 200 centers that were in operation in Jordan during the 2017 school year, less than half of those will be open again in 2018.

"We're seeing an increase in indicators of vulnerability," Jenkins says. "Higher early child marriage rates and anecdotal evidence of more child labor are concerning to us."

The cuts come at a tense time for Jordan, which experienced civil unrest in June sparked by proposed tax increases. The tax bill, part of austerity measures intended to ease its public debt and spur growth, eventually led to the resignation of Jordan's prime minister, Hani al-Mulki.

The country is under significant international pressure now, as well. The U.S. announced last week that it will cease all funding to the U.N.'s Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, a cut that could affect around 120,000 students in more than 170 Jordanian schools.

Reports that U.S. negotiators were seeking to line up a "confederation" between Palestinians and the government of Jordan were immediately rejected by Jordan's King Abdullah, who repeated Jordan's long-held position that the formation of a Palestinian state was a prerequisite for any resettlement deal with Palestinians.

Such an alliance "cannot be discussed and is not an issue up for discussion," Minister of State for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat told The Jordan Times.

Jordan, long known as a safe haven country within the Middle East, is already home to more than 2 million Palestinians refugees, about 1.4 million Syrian refugees and significant populations of displaced Iraqis, Circassians, Chechens and other groups who've been forced to move because of conflict. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told visiting U.S. officials last week that Jordan is now facing "huge burdens" and can't handle any more refugee communities.

Jordan has officially endorsed the voluntary return of Syrian refugees back to Syria, a move that the U.N. has pushed back on.

"The conditions are not conducive to that return," UNICEF's Jenkins says.

Jordanian educators are feeling the effects of those geopolitical forces on the ground. Suhair Abdul Rahim Hinno, principal of a public school in Amman that teaches girls from various ethnic backgrounds, says her enrollment has dropped this year by almost 15 percent.

"Last year, we had 150 students and this year it's 130," she says. "Our funding from the government is the same and we're offering the same programs. I'm not sure what has caused the drop."

As international public funding for refugees and children in Jordan wanes, however, many privately funded NGOs and aid groups are working to make up the gap.

"Our budget is obviously just a small fraction of what a government can provide," Lexi Shereshewsky, executive director of The Syria Fund, a nonprofit organization that assists Syrian refugees, said in a phone interview. "But we like to think that because we're smaller, we can be more adaptive to the needs of the communities that we serve. We're seeing the U.S. funding cuts, the cuts to the U.N. and UNICEF, and we're saying, 'OK, what can we do to help?'"

Jordan's convoluted bureaucracy, which is lamented in many parts of the country's society, doesn't make that an easy task. To get cleared to open a bank account for the Syria Fund, which receives international philanthropic funding and helps to run a school in Azraq, Jordan, program director Owais Omari had to visit a number of Jordan's lesser ministries in order to pay fees and signal his good intentions.

"Everybody needs to have their cut," he says, shaking his head, walking out of the Az-Zarqa district's two-room Ministry of Cooperation, which occupies a small, unceremonious flat in a large building on one of the district's main roads.

Undoubtedly, that work is appreciated in Azraq. The children who chase one another around the school's modest courtyard during recess are oblivious of the warplanes that fly over their heads and screech down to land at the coalition airbase that's beside the school. At times, the giggling of 6-year-olds can drown out the sonic booms of F-16s.

"I play and I make friends!" elementary school student Reem Mohamad shouts before scampering away into just such a crowd. "Arabic is my favorite subject!"

Parents are also appreciative of the Azraq School, although their gratitude has a more solemn character.

One parent at the school is Alaa Nasr al-Shoufi, 58, a Druse refugee of the Syrian civil war and a torture victim. He is missing nearly all his teeth and doesn't shy away from exposing his gray and white, poorly healed gums.

"This was my reward," he said during an interview, opening his mouth wider, displaying the mangled indentations that used to hold his incisors. "The officer told me to bend over and lick his boot, so I did that. Then he said he's going to reward my obedience. So he kicked out all of my teeth."

"I'm never going back," he added. "I'm happy to be here in Jordan. I'm happy that my son is in school here."

The harrowing stories of Jordan's Syrian refugees are more than enough motivation for the staff at the school to continue their work.

"These kids have seen some really terrible things," Asil Jabr, who's been teaching at the school for about a year, said. "Education programs are important. The kids need all the help they can get."

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