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How Jordan Makes Local Governments Work in the Midst of the World’s Largest Refugee Crisis

Published 05/24/2016 by Global Communities

How Jordan Makes Local Governments Work in the Midst of the World’s Largest Refugee Crisis

An influx of Syrians has strained city services but has fostered cooperation to meet the needs of a dramatically increased population.
By Erin Leonardson

This story originally appeared in USAID Frontlines.
Throughout the uprisings of the Arab Spring, while sharing borders with nations in conflict and with no small number of internal challenges, Jordan has continued to enjoy peace, offering refuge to over 1 million Syrians, Iraqis and others fleeing conflict.

But this legendary hospitality lies at the heart of a new problem: Jordan’s welcome of refugees—more than 636,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—has strained public services and exacerbated existing challenges, including already scarce resources like water and energy.
There’s no better illustration than in Um Al Jamal, in northern Jordan. A significant portion of the Za’atari refugee camp, the largest in Jordan, sits within the municipality, which is one of the identified “poverty pockets” in Jordan. In the five years since the Syrian crisis began, Um Al Jamal’s population has doubled—and that does not include refugees inside the official camp.

Farhan Al Gneis, a resident of a minority tribe village of Um Al Jamal that was unrepresented on the municipal council for a decade, is campaigning for a seat this fall.
Although the poorest refugees settle in camps like Za’atari, the majority of Syrian refugees—81 percent—live in Jordanian communities.

Tensions in host communities rise as refugees place additional burdens on municipal services that were already strained before the crisis. Trash piles up, water prices rise, rent doubles or triples and infrastructure cracks and crumbles under increased use.

A local health center that previously saw 50 patients per day might struggle to see 400, its equipment breaking down from age. Schools overfill, with more children seeking a place than there are chairs.
USAID/Jordan’s Community Engagement Project (CEP) works in host communities, including Um Al Jamal, to strengthen community cohesion and resilience in response to the influx of Syrian refugees.
The project has enabled strained host municipalities to provide services like street lighting, garbage trucks and roads. It has rehabilitated community centers and equipped health clinics. But, most importantly, the project has provided citizens and local governments with a process through which they can collaboratively identify and prioritize their needs, and participate cooperatively in solutions.

“USAID/Jordan is dedicated to responding to the diverse needs of communities who host Syrian refugees,” said USAID/Jordan Mission Director Jim Barnhart. “One important area we address is how host communities can remain resilient following rapid increases in population. Influxes of vulnerable people exacerbate existing challenges in host communities, increasing the demand for scarce resources, creating tension and reducing social cohesion.”
The project’s process is straightforward. It begins with a door-to-door household survey to determine what residents see as their community’s greatest stressors. Results are announced at a community-wide meeting, where attendees prioritize problems and elect a team of men and women—elders, youth, majority and minority tribal members, and other representatives from the municipality.

The team designs and implements projects to help address their main concerns and, at the same time, begins to establish critical, sustainable lines of communication between residents and local officials. Projects are funded cooperatively by contributions from the community, municipality, partnerships with local private businesses and USAID.

In Um Al Jamal, one of the community’s greatest stressors was a decade-long struggle in the neighborhoods of Aqeb and Saideeyeh.

Citizens of both, who belong to different tribes and have to travel 10 kilometers to reach the municipality center, said they felt marginalized and ignored. For more than 10 years, they had asked the municipality to open a closer administrative office that would serve their needs.

Members of the Um Al Jamal Community Engagement Project team pose for a photo before signing a project agreement with the municipality.

An administrative office can issue business licenses, distribute documentation to refugees to extend their stay in the kingdom, receive and track grievances, and coordinate municipal services like lighting units, electricity and water delivery. Most importantly, every administrative office is represented by a seat on the municipal council. For the first time, the minority tribe citizens of Aqeb and Saideeyeh will be able to directly elect a representative in the next elections, eliminating their greatest grievance with the government.

“We did not think it could happen,” said community member and CEP youth participant Subeih Mohammad Al Masa’eed. “We felt that because there were previous unmet demands regarding this issue, because we had fears of the governmental processes, and because the two areas were not on common ground in terms of the location of the office, that it could not be established.”

Through the project, Aqeb and Saideeyeh citizens learned Um Al Jamal leaders were not unwilling to establish an administrative office—they simply could not identify or afford a building. Then an elder on the CEP team, Salamah Al Gunis, offered—at no cost—a space in a building he owned. The municipality agreed to budget for the office’s expenses, citizens volunteered to set up the office, and USAID outfitted the space with equipment.
Farhan Al Gneis participated in the CEP and now plans to run for the municipal council. “The residents need someone to represent them and voice the stressors and challenges they’re facing to the municipality,” he said. “What encouraged me to do this is my participation with USAID CEP. It gave me hope.”
The establishment of the office has empowered citizens of the neighborhoods. “We have a greater representation in the municipality,” says youth participant Subeih Mohommad Al-Masa’eed. “People used to think that their rights were lost since they are part of another area.”

Added Ibrahim Rakan Srour, director of the new office: “The cooperative spirit and interaction with the local community are the best parts. We work as a team seeking common interests.”

Abdullah Al Sharif, a Syrian refugee and owner of Ya Mal Al Sham restaurant in Sarhan, Jordan, was the victim of two robberies at his business before the municipality installed street lighting in cooperation with a USAID-supported project.

The project is also addressing more recent concerns. Sarhan, also located in northern Jordan, is another of the country’s “poverty pockets,” and has absorbed 12,000 refugees over five years—25 percent of its current population. There, program participants prioritized street lighting as their top municipal stressor. Sarhan citizens partnered with the municipality to determine the number of lights necessary and map the locations of their placement.

Proper street lighting reduces automobile accidents and petty crime, increases citizens’—especially women’s—ability to move within the community at night, and deters feral dogs, which have increased substantially in northern Jordan as they flee the noise of conflict in Syria.
One beneficiary of the project was Abdullah Al Sharif, a Syrian refugee. After fleeing to Jordan, he opened a restaurant in Sarhan.

“The streets here were very dark at night, making it difficult for my customers—particularly women—to come after sunset and buy meals from my restaurant due to local traditions and fear of harassment by young boys hanging out around the streets,” said Al Sharif. “The lack of lighting was a big issue, even bigger than the lack of customers.”
His restaurant was robbed twice, along with other businesses. After multiple robberies, local shop owners signed a petition to the municipality requesting lighting. But due to lack of resources, the municipality was unable to meet the request.

“Our efforts eventually paid off with the support of USAID CEP, who responded to all of our needs. Since the lights were installed, our sales have increased by 40 percent,” said Al Sharif, who is now able to keep his restaurant open much later. “We even expanded our restaurant, and for that we are truly thankful.”