Of the more than 5.6 million Syrians who escaped war in their country, more than one million found safety in Jordan, where they face many challenges. In the following interview, Protection Field Manager Amira Kalboneh explains how ICMC Jordan works to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees and hosting communities.
Amira Kalboneh has a long history of engaging with local communities. She started volunteering with community-based organizations when she was 16. In 2015, she co-founded an organization that helps vulnerable youth in Jordan and Palestine access university-level education. Amira Kalboneh joined the International Catholic Migration Commission team in Jordan as Protection Field Manager in 2017. We interviewed her to learn about her work and the situation of refugees in Jordan.
[ICMC] What does a Protection Field Manager do?
[Amira Kalboneh] As a Protection Field Manager, I am responsible for all the activities carried out to protect the population ICMC assists in the field, that is, Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians. I manage the projects and the staff carrying them out as well as the protection centers, which are safe areas for refugees and host community members alike where many of the activities take place.
Currently, ICMC has two protection centers in Jordan: one in Mafraq, which has been active for four years, and one in Irbid, which opened in April 2018; both are in the North of the country.
In the protection centers, we conduct an array of activities starting with awareness-raising sessions on what we call protection concerns. These sessions focus on, for instance, how to deal with emotions and trauma, relations with intimate partners, self-care, relations with members of the host community and positive parenting.
We also have a child-friendly safe space for children at risk. There, we conduct sessions tailored to the children’s needs, like feeling included in society, children’s rights, basic education activities and psychosocial support. But we also offer recreational activities like family entertainment, indoor and outdoor activities and sports.
We provide Arabic and English literacy courses for women and men as well as counseling services to help individuals cope with and recover from traumatic war-related experiences. We also offer activities tailored to children and youth, such as our recent PhotoVoice project.
What is the situation of refugees in Jordan? And what does ICMC do to respond to it?
Jordan is home to around 660,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and thousands more who are not registered. More than half of the refugee population is under 18 years old.
ICMC Jordan employs 120 staff in three offices: Amman (headquarters), Irbid and Mafraq (field offices). We respond to the needs of the Syrian refugee population and local Jordanians, with a focus on the most vulnerable among them. Since 2012, and through many projects, our programs have benefited over 55,000 people.
The needs of the refugee population in Jordan are as varied as the population itself. However, we have identified some key areas of concern and ICMC Jordan works mostly in these.
One of them is the difficulty of covering basic needs. Jordan is a relatively expensive country and unemployment is high. Refugees have difficulties finding a job because they face many restrictions; for example, work permits are given only for specific sectors and for a very limited number of hours. This means, in turn, that it is very difficult for refugees to cover even the most basic necessities such as rent. ICMC provides cash assistance to vulnerable families to help them cover these costs.
Another area in which we work is livelihoods We provide financial literacy workshops and vocational training through certified training centers for people to master a skill that they can use to generate income in a limited employment market.
And then, of course, there are protection needs. This area covers issues such as gender-based violence including child marriage, child protection issues including child labor, mental health and much more.
Child marriage and child labor are two growing protection concerns with which we deal in our protection centers. Child marriage affects many young Syrian girls. This has increased in Jordan because parents feel that their daughters will be safer if they are married.
And because there are so many restrictions on finding work for Syrians, child labor is widespread. Letting a child work may be easier than finding a job for an adult, even if they earn lower wages – especially since employers accept this practice.
Another area of our work is Many people lost their documents during displacement while many others may never have had them – this is true especially for birth and marriage certificates. Besides proving parental relationships, birth certificates prevent people from becoming stateless, while marriage documents protect the rights of the couple.
Some people who moved out of a camp to go to an urban area without following the proper procedure are unable to access basic services because they do not have an asylum-seeker’s certificate and a Jordan-government-issued identity card.
We work to assist the most vulnerable refugees in obtaining these essential legal and civil documents through legal counseling, cash transfer and accompaniment as well as referral for legal representation if needed.
What are the main challenges in your daily work?
There are many challenges every day, but the biggest one is that our ability to assist is limited. There are many cases in which for various reasons we cannot help, even though I would like to assist all the people I encounter. Of course, we cannot help everybody, but it is hard at times to understand and respect the limitations of our work.
Is there any specific case that you were unable to assist as you would have liked?
Yes, there was this young woman engaged to an older man. At first, she refused to get married, but after discussing with her parents, she changed her mind. For me, her marriage was a sort of failure; I felt that I had ‘lost’ her case.
However, the most important thing in our work is to provide people with the tools and knowledge to make informed decisions and we, of course, must respect all decisions, especially if they are not what we would have chosen. In this specific case, we remain close to the girl and are ready to assist in any possible way.
You mentioned earlier a PhotoVoice project involving children and youth. Can you tell us more about it?
The PhotoVoice project was a way to give a voice to young Syrian refugees who feel that no one listens to them. We wanted to build on their potential to become community leaders and bring about a peaceful transition.
We started providing around 50 children with a two-week workshop back in July 2017. The workshop’s sessions focused on basic camera techniques as well as creativity and self-expression via storytelling. Through this method, participants could discuss issues that were important to them, both at the personal and community level.
The main objective of the project is for the children’s voices to be heard, both in the local community in which they live and also in the wider international community. That is why the launch of the photo book that resulted took place in Geneva.
The first phase of the project was very successful, so we carried out a second phase in June 2018. This time, we had more than 150 participants and the topic was gender equality.
How did you identify the participants?
As part of our work with the communities, we do regular outreach assessments: we visit families to identify their needs and we gather a lot of data. So, on the one hand, we looked at our data and identified potential beneficiaries between the ages of 10 and 15, trying to balance ages and genders to obtain a mixed group.
On the other hand, we engaged the local NGOs and communities themselves. We presented the project and invited them to propose candidates. In addition to that, the project was openly publicized, so that potentially anyone who expressed an interest was welcome to join.
Is there any story that particularly struck you during the PhotoVoice project?
Yes, there was a participant who was around 16 years old and faced a lot of challenges in his life despite being so young. During the fighting in Syria he lost an eye after getting caught in an explosion. What was remarkable about this boy was his resilience and the strength of his spirit. Despite suffering so much, he remained positive about life and even felt that his injury had made him stronger. When he started participating in the photo voice workshop, he demonstrated enormous potential as a photographer and a storyteller and spread positivity through his photos. That was something unexpected that really struck me.
Why did you choose to work in the humanitarian field?
For me, being a humanitarian worker is a way to help and support people rebuild their lives and have a better future. It is not easy to be displaced from city to city in your country or to move from one country to another and being a refugee there. Suddenly you lose your home, maybe a member of your family or a friend, even your identity. People who are forced to go through these traumatic experiences need to find an open door and a safe space. I am passionate about this work because I can see improvements in the lives of some of the people I meet.