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The Orthodox Initiative is a non-governmental organization based in Amman, Jordan addressing the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan. Founded in August of 2011, the Orthodox Initiative is headed by His Beatitude Theophilos III, the Rum Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. The work of the Orthodox Initiative strives to assist the most vulnerable populations in Jordan and does so by providing direct assistance to Syrian refugees and Jordanians living in poverty.
In Spring of 2011, violence broke out in neighboring Syria. The uncertainty encouraged families to resettle in safer countries, and Jordan was the first choice for many. Over the last two years, the violence has escalated to a full-on civil war, destroying the stability of the country and threatening Syrian men, women, and children. To date, there are over 2.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN, and almost 600,000 of them are living in Jordan. The number is staggering when we recognize that Jordan’s total population is just over 6 million people.
Approximately 40% of the Syrian refugees are school-aged children. They have been uprooted in the middle of their education. Many of these children are forced to work in agriculture because of the extreme poverty they have been thrust into as refugees. If these students are left to idle we will be responsible for creating a lost generation of children. Refugees have scattered around the country but northern Jordan still holds the greatest concentration of Syrian refugees. According to Jordan’s Ministry of Planning, “There is an urgent need to add, equip and furnish new classrooms in the northern governorates (i.e. Irbid, Mafraq, and Ajloon).” Our concern is shared by the Jordanian government, which recently requested continued international support for child rights and education.
Much attention is spent on addressing the needs of refugees in Za’atari camp but few organizations think beyond the camp. While life inside the camp may not be easy, refugees have the basic support of an aid infrastructure, with access to food, education, and health clinics. The same cannot be said for Syrian refugees who must live outside of the camps. Three communities in particular have recently come to our attention: Ajloun, Maru and Northern Shuneh. Although these locations are desperate for assistance they have so far been overlooked by international organizations wishing to work only in the refugee camps.
The Orthodox Initiative approach is two-fold: providing emergency direct assistance while also expanding the educational opportunities for Syrian refugees. The Orthodox Initiative is highlighting these three communities because of their vulnerability; Ajloun, Maru and Northern Shuneh are suffering from the neglect of the greater community while experiencing devastating and rapid changes. The following priorities reflect the needs expressed by leaders in these communities.
Ajloun Orthodox School
From 1900 until 1990, the Orthodox Church in Ajloun had a vibrant school which taught students from every religious community. The school taught a co-educational model which ensured that students were socialized to respect each other regardless of gender or religious differences. In 1990, the building was deemed structurally unsound and closed for lack of renovation funds.
There is no doubt that the need for a new school is pressing. Father Reehani, much too humble to take credit for the growing Orthodox Church and its active youth group, explained that education must be revitalized in order to ensure that the Youth of Ajloun - Syrian refugees and Jordanian citizens alike - have access to bright futures in higher education and beyond.
The congregation has undertaken a campaign to build a new church to accommodate the growing community. This new structure will supplement the historic sanctuary that has served the Orthodox community for almost 150 years. The foundation of the building will be utilized as well: the space below the sanctuary will accommodate administrative offices and a multimedia hall for the school.
Father Reehani expressed that tending to the education of the community is just as important as his role as their spiritual leader. Providing competitive academics is essential to cultivating tolerance and open-mindedness as well as addressing preparation for both higher education and private-sector jobs.
Maru Community Center
Although the village is only about 10 minutes from the second-biggest city in Jordan few people have heard of it. What Maru lacks in notoriety it makes up for in passion. Although it is a tiny village, a group of dedicated individuals, led by the village Sheikh, have spearheaded the community’s Charity Society for almost 20 years. Back in 1996, the Jordanian government learned about this Charity Society and decided to support the Society by giving it a deed to 1/8th of an acre of government land.
Fast forward 18 years. The land looks roughly the same as it did then: empty. Some rocks, scrubby plants, but mainly an expanse, situated in the midst of an active village – school girls walking home after school, handymen working outside on their houses, women hanging the laundry. A town like this used to be sleepy, far from fast-paced life in the capital, traditional in its culture and pace of life. However, with up to 100 Syrians coming to the town daily, it is now directly impacted by current events. With the rising tide of refugees, Jordanian infrastructure is struggling to stay afloat. Schools are coping by reducing their services and early education has become non-existent, especially in smaller communities.
The Maru Charity Society has a plan to bring about a community renaissance. Building a modest community center on their half-dunam will become an office for the Society – replacing the tiny garage out of which they operate today – a meeting space for the community, a workshop for money-generating projects for the women of the community, a nursery for Syrian and Jordanian children ages 2-6, as well as a location for the community to address the needs of Syrian refugees. Each of these priorities is important, community leaders are most passionate about creating a safe space for their village’s children to play and learn, a place which will foster the Society’s values of tolerance and collaboration from a young age.
Tented Community in Northern Shuneh
Refugees living in Norther Shuneh have been given UNHCR tents but must pay rent for the land which their tents occupy, a difficult task when many members of this community are unemployed. UNICEF is working to provide education for the children of this community, although the system is informal, operating with volunteer teachers and makeshift school buildings. As a result, none of the children will receive proper certification and have few prospects for higher education or good jobs. It is clear that the need in Northern Shuneh is to immediately address the urgent situation facing 2,000 families by distributing food parcels, children’s clothing and household items.