Jordan field notes

I recently had a chance to spend two days with my colleagues in the Jordan office, who graciously agreed to host me following a regional meeting. This blog is meant to begin to repay them by telling the story of their work, while also helping me to make sense of what I’ve seen and heard, and to understand what it means for our work globally.

UNICEF’s work in Jordan has grown exponentially since the onset of the Syria crisis in 2011. Once a small strategic office focused on ensuring services reach the most disadvantaged children and families in a generally prospering and stable country, the programme now has a huge humanitarian component to help cope with the influx of Syrian refugees, nearly 630,000 at last count, 52% of them children. The refugees receive a generous welcome from Jordan’s government and people, but the situation is adding pressure on the country’s social services.

A key part of the crisis response supported by UNICEF is a Child Cash Grant*, provided monthly since the beginning of the year to the most disadvantaged Syrian refugee families who are living in Jordanian host communities. About 84% of refugees live in such communities; the rest are accommodated in refugee camps and aren’t part of this scheme. The impressive impact the grant its having on the most disadvantaged refugee children is crystal clear, thanks to the robust monitoring put in place by the Country Office; as detailed in their report: A Window of Hope: Post Distribution Monitoring Report. The report illustrates how Syrian refugee families are using the grant and what impact it has on children’s lives, using the categories used to determine poverty levels in Jordan (in which “abject poverty” is the most severe).


Source: UNICEF Jordan, A Window of Hope, UNICEF Child Cash Grant Programme in Jordan, Post-Distribution Monitoring Report; September 2015


The graph above shows the extent to which the UNICEF Child Cash Grant helped families to avoid or stop negative coping mechanisms. The sharpest decrease was in selling or redeeming food vouchers followed by borrowing, demonstrating the clear need families already had for funds to cover their basic needs.

We met with a family who receive the grant. Abdul and Kalsoom Rehman (names changed to protect their identity) have four children, three were at home today: Rafi, 14; Shaba, 9; and little Nafisa, 4. Their older brother Ahmed was in school. Shaba and Rafi were quiet but seemed confident and self-assured; it was easy to get a smile, as we did from Rafi when my colleague Jawad commented on his stylish haircut and lamented that he’d been unable to make his look so good. Nafisa though seemed melancholy, as if she somehow fully understood her family’s plight.

They welcomed us into a sparsely furnished, immaculate room – ushering us as their guests toward the couch, in keeping with Arab traditions of hospitality. They were quick to tell us that every stick of furniture we saw was provided by their Jordanian neighbours – all of their goods had stayed behind in Syria, and the families in their new neighbourhood, by no means a wealthy one, were doing what they could to help. Several times we politely turned down Kalsoom’s offer of coffee – we certainly didn’t want to put any additional strain on this family’s stretched resources.

A young woman's face as she gazes intently.
UNICEF Jordan/HerwigRahma dropped out of school. Her family could not afford the clothes, stationary and transportation. Rahma wants to go back to school soon: “I want to be a police officer…I like to have safety.”

Many parts of our conversation will stay with me for a long time: the story of their harrowing escape from Syria in 2012; the fact that the two other school-age children were not in class because their parents wanted to protect them for the bullying they face on their way to and from school. There were positive anecdotes too – in addition to the furniture, they related the generosity of the local family they didn’t even know and who took them in for their first few weeks in the country. Abdul told us with a smile how much Nafisa loved milk, and how when he bought her a carton after receiving the UNICEF grant, she’d asked him conspiratorially not to tell her siblings.

Like other registered refugees, the Rehmans receive a regular transfer from UNHCR, which supports some of their living costs; they also receive food vouchers from the World Food Programme, but the value has decreased. By law, Syrian refugees in Jordan are not allowed to work. This is the case in most countries, and while the reasons behind it are understandable, it makes self-sufficiency impossible; families must rely on the grants. Abdul used to drive his own taxi in his home town, and when they first arrived he worked in a factory for a while. He stopped when he understood it was illegal, “I don’t want to break the law, they treat us well here, and I want to protect my dignity.” He told us how he misses work and being able to provide for his family. He admitted, not proudly, that he does take little informal work here and there to make ends meet.

Abdul and Kalsoom explained that the cash grant arrived just in time. Their rent had recently increased – just as the food vouchers were reducing in value. Such rent increases are happening all over Amman, and perhaps elsewhere in the country, a reflection of increased demand for housing, which is placing pressure on poor Jordanian families and Syrian arrivals alike. For the Rehman family this perfect storm meant that they were faced with the challenge of how to feed the family – while staying within the bounds of the law. They had even started discussing joining the many families who have made the perilous journey over land and sea to Germany. Kalsoom’s parents and sister are there; thanks to an official refugee resettlement programme which had prioritised them since her sister is disabled. Kalsoom has applied for family reunification, but they are still awaiting word. Meanwhile, for now the family is staying put, trying to switch Shaba and Rafi to a school where they will feel safer, and at least for now just able to keep their bellies full, a roof over their heads, and maintain a modicum of hope for the future.

Their story is in line with that of other families: UNICEF’s monitoring found that 93% of respondents report spending the Child Cash Grant on at least one child-specific need. As the graph below shows, spending was for basics like clothes, shoes, medicine and school expenses.


It’s clear that the Child Cash Grant is meeting a strongly felt need, along with the services it helps families to access. The challenge of course, is how to keep it going. Who is responsible for sustainability? What can be done to maintain access to services? On my second day the UNICEF office convened a meeting with government, development and humanitarian partners to discuss just that – looking at minimum for links between emergency assistance and the social protection systems already in place in the country.

The good news is that all sorts of cooperation is already underway. Most of the partners providing support to Syrian refugees use a common method to assess family vulnerability to determine who needs help, and the same banking system to provide the aid; making it more cost efficient. The partners also provide support to Jordanian families, and there are good discussions underway on how to ensure that these use the established social service systems in the country. The Jordanian government provides services to the refugees – including health and education –with the support of the international community. However, with Syrian refugees constituting nearly 10% of Jordan’s population, and not permitted to work, how these services can be made sustainable is not yet clear. There was consensus in the room that it is a shared responsibility and that the whole world will need to do its part.

* UNICEF Jordan’s unconditional child cash grant programme is supported by the European Union through ECHO, the Netherlands, Canada through DFATD, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), Australia, and the U.S. (PRM), whose support is enabling UNICEF to reach over 55,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugee children in Jordan with this grant.


Alexandra Yuster is the Chief of Social Inclusion and Policy at UNICEF HQ.


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