The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A World Problem
By Dana Janbek
Over the past five years, the entire world has watched with mixed feelings as protests shook two-thirds of the 22 Arab countries. Since the onset of the conflict in Syria in March 2011, over 200,000 people have been killed; half of that country's population has been displaced, internally and externally. More than 600,000 of those refugees have made their way to Jordan, my birthplace. As a native of the region and a communication scholar, I am naturally interested in what daily life is like for those refugees, specifically in the role Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) play, if any.
In addition to being from Jordan, I also have a personal connection to Syrians. My late maternal grandparents were born and raised in Syria in the early 1900s. And while growing up in Jordan, I traveled to Syria many times.
My 2013 research trip to Syrian refugee camps began at a communication conference in Ireland, where I met my future research partner, Professor Melissa Wall from California State University, Northridge. We were both presenting papers. Melissa's latest scholarly interest is in Syrian citizen journalism. Like me, she is interested in the refugee crisis. Over the next few months, I recruited two more American academics who had lived in the region to join us on a research trip to Jordan.
Through my research over the past two years, I've visited Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, met with Jordanian government officials, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives, non-profit organizations and, most importantly, with Syrian refugees themselves.
In my focus on ICTs, I found that most families owned a cellphone despite not having anything close to a steady income. Access to communication technologies was a priority for them. Cellphones helped refugees reclaim some power over their otherwise powerless situation in Jordan. They typically used their phones to learn about family and friends in Syria, to verify information from official news sources, to access donations from humanitarian aid organizations and to share what life is like in the camp and in Amman, Jordan's capital city. And, when they could afford it, to reminisce over pre-war times. Often, the refugees encouraged their relatives in Syria to try and cross the border to Jordan.
I met families from different walks of life: engineers, business owners, nurses and teachers. These refugees have witnessed horrific acts and have been in situations that you and I cannot imagine. Families have been shattered, and childhoods interrupted; most refugees have left loved ones behind. All have gone from being producers of knowledge and goods to being reliant on UNHCR and the 50+ organizations that work hard to provide them with food, shelter and safety.
During one of my trips I spent most of my time in Zaatari camp, home to over 80,000 refugees, considered Jordan's fourth-largest city. It is also the camp that receives the most media attention, as celebrities tend to visit it. Zaatari is surrounded by barbed wire, broken into districts and spread over three square miles.
By early 2014 in the camp, tents were replaced by wheel-less caravans, one-room structures where multi-generational families live and sleep. Kitchens and bathrooms are communal which creates a challenge, especially for women and girls needing to use them at night. Some get around this by creating their own unsanitary space inside the caravan to relieve themselves. It is common at Zaatari for men to pick up and move a caravan from one location to another to be closer to other family members.
Water is scarce inside and outside the camp. Most of the country has desert-like conditions and suffers from a water shortage. In the camp there are schools, mosques and a shopping street better known as the "Champs Élysées." There, refugees can purchase groceries, shop for a pet, buy a wedding dress, even visit a salon. Despite being prisoners to these confining camp conditions, life goes on. Many of the families we met asked if they could return to the United States with us (although they made it clear that they would prefer to go with Melissa to California than with me to Massachusetts)!
As the enormous humanitarian crisis continues to evolve in Syria, similar scenarios are unfolding in nearby Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt-countries hosting an unprecedented 3.9 million Syrian refugees. Each of these host countries is suffering a serious funding gap that has worrying implications for stability in the region. In just a few years, the population of Jordan has increased by 10%. This percentage is equivalent to the entire population of Canada moving to the United States. The Syrian displacement has stressed the region's already-strained school, health and economic systems.
The challenges are real, severe and continue to grow. The refugee crisis is not merely a Syrian or a Jordanian problem; it is a world problem.
My meetings with Syrians often ended with them saying, "Inshallah (by God's will) we will go back home soon." Many Syrians have been refugees for almost four years, and the truth is that they will not be going home for years to come. The Syrian and larger refugee crises will get much worse before they get better, as the number of refugees and casualties continues to grow. When the war eventually ends, many Syrians will have no home or job to return to. Syria now has billions of dollars' worth of damage, and experts predict that it will take decades to rebuild the economy.
While public and private donations have been coming into the region-with the United States the largest donor to the cause-much more needs to be done by the major international players starting with resettlement programs. Donations are barely addressing the short-term needs of the refugees. Long-term solutions are in order.
I write this article for Leaves in March of 2015 from Amman, as I prepare to meet with more Syrian refugee families. With no political solution on the horizon, a more practical one should be on the table for these families, especially for those who wish to rebuild their lives. Refugees should have the option to leave the horrors they witnessed behind and look forward to new beginnings. They deserve a second chance in life.
Dana Janbek, PhD, is an assistant professor of Public Relations at Lasell College, the co-author of Global Terrorism and New Media: The Post-Al Qaeda Generation and a recognized authority on the use of communication technology by Syrian refugees. If you are interested in learning more about her research and her experiences, Dr. Janbek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.