Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
An organization based in Amman, Jordan, takes a psychological approach to aiding Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
The Syrian war has brought about an exodus of epic proportions. Almost five million Syrians—more than a fifth of the country’s pre-war population—have fled, mainly to neighboring states such as Jordan, which hosts more than half a million of them. The vast majority do not live in rural refugee camps: Nearly 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are urban, with almost 30 percent of that group living in the capital city, Amman. Jordan also hosts around 60,000 Iraqi asylum seekers, 90 percent of whom live in Amman.
In 2016, as the global refugee crisis persisted, with repercussions for the United States, Canada, and other countries, a small aid organization in Amman dubbed the Collateral Repair Project (CRP) continued its work helping thousands who have fled to Jordan’s capital. CRP offers a template for aiding refugees in that it fills both material and psychological needs. Such an approach to the whole person will be crucial going forward as the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere show no sign of letting up.
CityLab recently spoke with CRP’s executive director, Amanda Lane, about the services the organization offers, the particular needs of urban refugees, and what lessons other cities can learn from CRP’s work.
Why and how was the project founded?
Two American women were outraged and saddened by the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of them had gone to Iraq and spoken with civilians whose homes had been destroyed and who had lost family members in the bombings, and she began to raise money in the U.S. to help them. When there was a big influx of Iraqi refugees into Jordan in 2006, they set up shop in Amman. They facilitated microloans for women and families, and supplied people with food and other necessities. The co-founders have moved on, and I came in 2014. We now serve other nationalities, especially Syrian refugees.
Who approaches you for help?
The people we typically support are those who have gone to other organizations, such as Save the Children or CARE, and have put their names on a long waiting list. Because refugees are largely forbidden to work in Jordan, they are often really desperate—they may be down to their last $30 and have a rent payment due and four children to feed. Because we’re a small organization, we’re nimble. We can go to their apartment and assess what they need, and we can immediately support them with food vouchers.
Aside from necessities such as food and housing, what programs do you offer?
The vast majority of our funds go to basic needs, and we offer English and computer classes. But at the same time, almost everyone using our services has suffered some form of trauma and is dealing with issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. With the small budget we have, we can’t hire therapists, so we started a yoga class for men and one for women. We had a fair amount of skepticism, thinking that they might find it weird or just not a good fit. We were stunned at the positive reception, especially among the men.
That’s been the case with our psychosocial programming in general. Women refugees get to Amman and they go into problem-solving mode, caring for the children and trying to secure services. Men, because they’re unable to work, feel helpless and stressed about not providing for their families. So we needed to find ways to lower that stress.
We also started a men’s support group. We asked some of the men in our community who are managing stress fairly well to meet with men who are struggling to talk about anger management and other emotional issues. There are some ground rules, such as refraining from giving advice. People are there just to listen and share.
What are urban refugees’ particular needs, as opposed to those in camps?
If you live in a camp, you have health care and food, and your children are given everything they need to go to school, such as books and supplies. That’s not the case if you live in a city.
Urban refugees are also often stressed because they feel like they have a label on their back, identifying them as different from the host population. To alleviate that feeling, we encourage Jordanians to attend our classes, and I’m planning events that I hope will attract people from the neighborhood, such as dinners and family movie nights.
What do you anticipate for the future, with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq still raging?
The piece that nags at me all the time is the livelihood issue. There are opportunities for Syrians to begin working in very small numbers in Jordan. I’m thinking about ways to make people employable, so that if they are in Amman long-term, which is looking more and more likely, they will have skills such as carpentry or barbering.
What advice would you give other cities with refugee populations from the Middle East or elsewhere?
Psychosocial assistance is very important. And it doesn’t have to be therapy. Self-care through practices like yoga and meditation is effective. Also, we’ve realized that community is what makes our organization special. We have Iraqis whose hometowns have devolved into a sectarian nightmare. You walk in to our center and you see a living room with sofas and a place to make tea—a place for people just to hang out. And they’re there, and they’re of different religions, backgrounds, political persuasions, and nationalities. They are grateful to have that opportunity, to begin to have diverse friendships that they haven’t been able to have for years. When people begin making those connections, they understand each other, because they’ve been through similar experiences. This has a great emotional value for them. That’s something that other organizations can replicate.