The typical image of the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is one of suffering. Journalistic account after account introduces spectacular stories of devastation and loss. While perhaps dramatized, these tales are not false. Syrian refugee camps have forced hundreds of thousands of strangers to live together in austere, unequal and artificially constructed communities, which are subject to new national laws. To live in the camps is indeed to endure or have endured some form of suffering—but also to be part of a collective of survivors. As M. Cameron Hay puts it, suffering is “an assault that forces adaptation,” and it “is a problem that needs solutions—not necessarily long-term solutions, but ways for a sufferer to get through the everyday batterings that undermine his or her horizons.” [1. M. Cameron Hay, “Suffering in a Productive World: Chronic Illness, Visibility and the Space Beyond Agency,” American Ethnologist 37/2 (2010).] Refugees seek such solutions daily—finding work, making marriage or new family arrangements, and pursuing education or training—to alleviate present suffering in exile and to forestall future suffering, whether in Jordan or back in Syria.

The Jordanian government, and the non-governmental organizations to which it has outsourced the provision of humanitarian aid and services in refugee camps, also attempt to find solutions to refugee suffering. The aid regime in Jordan is a neoliberal formation—a political-economic arrangement wherein the role of government is minimal and private-sector actors are supposed to be the key problem solvers. In practice, however, neoliberalism winds up putting the responsibility for solving problems on the shoulders of those who have them. Neoliberalism is also often understood as a moral endeavor in which market-oriented, idealized and entrepreneurial individuals hold out the “best” and most effective hope for resilience. In the case of Syrian refugees, the Jordanian government has largely limited its activities to regulating camp access and deploying police. [2. Sarah Tobin and Madeline Otis Campbell, “Becoming a Professional Refugee: New Subjectivities and New Social Organization in the Neoliberalization of the Syrian Refugee Experience in Jordan,” American Ethnologist (under review); Denis Sullivan and Sarah Tobin, “Security and Resilience Among Syrian Refugees in Jordan,” Middle East Report Online, October 14, 2014.] Hundreds of NGOs operate in camps throughout Jordan. Chief among these sites is Zaatari, the second largest refugee camp in the world, and home to nearly one sixth of the Syrian refugees in Jordan, with a regular population of 80,000-100,000. Neoliberal governance of the Syrian refugees has resulted in both the privatization of the refugee experience and attempts at cultivating new moral subjects and, indeed, the “ideal refugee.”

As part of the neoliberal framework, NGOs working with Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan have tried to inculcate certain “proper” or “ideal” understandings of women and work, youth, and early marriage, or the marriage of teenage girls. In each of these cases, the NGO guidelines for the “appropriate” understanding differ from those anticipated by Syrian refugees—and the outcomes are unexpected as well.

NGOs in Zaatari

Over 200 NGOs are currently working on Syrian refugee response and relief in the Middle East. [3. The list is available here.] A large number of these organizations are present in Zaatari. The NGOs are local, national and international. They provide a dizzying array of services, from schooling and training—vocational or otherwise—to food aid, first aid or health care, and water and sanitation.

Entering Zaatari, one cannot help but be struck by the bustle of activity. As Jordanian officials check papers for permission to enter, children on bicycles or pushing wheelbarrows roll by. Women and men carrying large bags of goods presumably for sale or trade walk by, as do Jordanian and Syrian NGO staffers in colored vests. Cars and trucks emblazoned with NGO logos drive by. Ask a refugee where an NGO is located, and the likely response is, “Check at base camp.” Base camp is the colloquial name given to the administrative offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as most of the NGOs. These offices sit in the northwest section of Zaatari, closest to the main entrance and exit. Every morning hundreds of Jordanian and foreign staffers arrive at base camp by bus, truck or car to commence their duties. Many NGOs will then bring the foreign staff to the centers they occupy throughout the camp. All NGO staff reverse this process around 3 pm, when they come back to base camp and load up in buses, trucks and cars for return to Amman, Jordan’s capital.

Among the NGO staff interviewed, a common frustration was that they rarely engage with Syrian refugees themselves. Those staff whose offices are in base camp may encounter a few refugees there, but they are rarely if ever given permission to enter the camp. In fact, base camp maintains a “line of sight” barrier to such exposure in the form of chain-link fencing, barbed wire, and dark colored mesh and canvas. In 2014, Sarah was told by the UNHCR administration that this barrier was erected to keep the NGO staff safe. There had been complaints of children and others throwing rocks and trash at NGO workers within base camp. The physical separation between many NGO staff and Syrian refugees serves to limit interaction between the two groups.

As a result, Syrian refugees are left to navigate the wide array of NGOs largely on their own, relying on extended family networks and connections for information and access. Refugees are thus required to work hard not only to manage their everyday survival and sustenance, but also to calculate their daily schedules in accordance with those of unseen administrators. On a given day in Zaatari, a refugee will go to the World Food Program for the daily bread distribution, then to one of the stores that will accept food coupons for perishable goods such as milk and eggs, and return home to cook breakfast. Following breakfast, the same refugee may send a kindergartener to a Save the Children center for school, while sending an older child to a different UNHCR-run elementary school at another end of the camp. During school hours, parents may attend educational or vocational trainings of their own at any number of NGOs around the camp. They might be interested in learning English, for example, but find that English lessons are only offered two days per week from one NGO and three days per week from another, which also teaches a highly desirable computer class in the same time slot. All the while, refugees may pursue informal projects—from sewing to tutoring—to bring in some additional cash. Refugees do all of the above while attending to the maintenance of their housing structures with UNHCR, medical care from one of the many different clinics or hospitals in the camp, and distribution of other resources—such as water—which comes from yet another NGO. Syrian refugees must manage not only the type of aid provision they seek and the location for distribution, but also the schedule of the offerings around the camp.

Managing aid provision schedules has become a form of unpaid labor for Syrian refugees. As with the irregular work schedules of the poor in the United States, [4. Lonnie Golden, Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, April 2015).] the irregular “work schedule” of aid provision requires a massive investment of time and energy in order to avoid further insecurity and suffering. This investment sets the stage for the moral “work” of NGOs in creating ideal refugees and future citizens, whether in Jordan, Europe or back in Syria.

Women and Work

NGOs have become part of the Zaatari aid landscape by hiring refugees in so-called Cash for Work programs. Through these programs, camp residents “volunteer” for NGOs, receiving a standard stipend determined by whether the work is deemed highly skilled, skilled or unskilled. For highly skilled professionals the pay rate is two Jordanian dinars per hour or $2.82. For skilled laborers the pay is 1.5 Jordanian dinars ($2.11) per hour. For unskilled laborers the rate is one Jordanian dinar per hour or $1.41. Each “volunteer” may work for six hours per day.

According to a top UNHCR camp administrator who spoke to Madeline, “Cash for Work is an absolutely vital part of the overall humanitarian assistance to refugees in the camp. It is so important that our goal is for Cash for Work to reach every household in Zaatari.” [5. This interview was conducted on December 17, 2015 by Madeline and her co-researcher on a separate project, Dana Janbek.] Cash for Work is, therefore, an integral piece of the camp economy. The UNHCR and its NGO partners understand Cash for Work as “vital” because it supplements cash assistance to camp refugees and, as crucially, it cultivates a sense of “self-reliance” and “ownership” among Zaatari residents. As they place responsibility for the development of the individual on the shoulders of the individuals themselves, Cash for Work programs represent a new formation of neoliberal governance in humanitarian crises.

The very language of the program is revealing. Technically, the program name is “Cash for Work,” but when Sarah asked a Jordanian NGO worker in Zaatari about the program, the worker was confused. Sarah asked her, “What is the name of the program in Arabic for ‘Cash for Work’? The program where Syrians inside the camp work for NGOs?” She responded, “There is no ‘cash for work’ program. Syrians are not allowed to work in Jordan.” Sarah pushed back, “No, I mean the program where Syrians go to the NGO and work for six hours per day, making one or two dinars per hour.” The worker replied, “Oh! You mean the ‘volunteer program!’” The conversation had been in Arabic, but she said the words “volunteer program” in English.

Whether the Cash for Work program is considered officially “work” depends on where one sits vis-à-vis camp administration. While high-ranking UNHCR officials discussed Cash for Work as that, Jordanian employees of NGOs and administrators discussed the program as a “volunteer” effort.

Whether one considers Cash for Work really work or not, the program’s rhetoric and aims, both explicit and implicit, are vital. NGO programs often include references to “gender equality” and “women’s empowerment,” as well as training for women to both enter and progress in the work force inside the refugee camp, largely due to restrictions on employment outside. (In March, however, the Jordanian government announced that the legal employment of Syrian refugees was permitted. [6. US News & World Report, March 4, 2016.]) The hope is that the skills and training received better the conditions of women enough that even if their employment does not improve their domestic and neighborhood situations do. Such skills are deemed “life-long” with the potential benefit extending beyond the camp.

During a recent visit to the camp, Sarah interviewed two NGO workers who employed women (and men) in Cash for Work programs. The mandate of the NGO was the driving ideological factor behind the programs offered and their technical components. The mandate is for the education and protection, as well as the “mainstreaming,” of youth. In an effort to bring in as many workers as possible, “youth” became defined as anyone between the ages of 15 and 32. The programs offered 144 hours of classroom instruction and 168 hours of training in subjects falling into four main categories: information technology skills (including secretarial work); life skills (including math and reading, resumé writing and interview techniques); technical skills; and soft skills (such as sewing and hairdressing). Technical skills were not available to women, as they included air conditioning and electrical maintenance, welding, and plumbing. In classes the students might be exposed to technical words in English they did not use in Syria. For example, the English word for computer mouse is used widely in Jordan, but this NGO indicated that the Syrians used an Arabic word.

The primary challenge of this Cash for Work program, the NGO workers said, was that the training should prepare Syrians to engage in the work force beyond the camp’s boundaries. Yet regulations preventing them from doing so meant the only “market” in which they could work would be that of the camp, thereby providing highly desirable and inexpensive labor for the NGOs back in the Cash for Work program. The NGO workers were clear that the Syrian refugee women, in particular, were very well equipped to compete in the Jordanian work force, or to be “mainstreamed.” They had not only been trained in the skill sets necessary for employment in Jordan, but also socialized into methods of comportment that by their very names promise to “enhance” and “enrich” one’s life.

The Cash for Work programs push burdens onto the shoulders of women, disproportionately to men, by creating and enabling a “second shift” or “double burden” for women. In addition to their roles as mothers and primary household caregivers, women are also now highly sought after for necessary, cheap labor in the NGOs. The preference for women in the NGOs combined with their primary child care duties can also mean that men, who would likely have served as the breadwinners in Syria, struggle to find a meaningful place both inside and outside the home. Women were frequently overburdened while men sought some forms of economic inclusion.


One of the challenges of situations of extreme vulnerability (particularly under neoliberal formations) is that youth often become used for non-“youthful” ends such as child labor. They may be tasked with transporting goods, possibly through smuggling, caring for younger siblings or neighbor children, or serving as representatives of the nuclear family in either an official or unofficial capacity.

While visiting the Cyber City camp for Palestinian refugees from Syria, Sarah sat in on a parenting class given by Save the Children. Two Jordanian Save the Children staff members and two Syrian female Cash for Work “volunteers” conducted the class. There were about 15 women in attendance, ranging in age from 14 or 15 to 50. The class was called “Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting,” and it followed a curriculum designed by developmental psychologist Joan E. Durrant. According to the Save the Children website, the aims of the curriculum are to encourage parents to use “positive discipline,” whose principles and methods, it is presumed, many parents do not understand. The idea is to teach parents how to set goals, create a positive home environment, understand how children think and feel, and solve problems under stress. The website goes on to explain that the curriculum includes hands-on exercises. The curriculum is designed for parents of children of all ages as well as other professionals and educators who work with parents and children.

The particular class Sarah attended went through a series of phases of brain development among children. The earliest phase included newborns and toddlers. The next phases consisted of children between the ages of 2 and 5; the ages of 5 and 7; the ages of 7 and 10; and so on. But once the lesson moved to the brain development of youth aged 14-16, there was heated debate. The Save the Children staff indicated that these teens are “still youth,” in accordance with the curriculum and an objective claim of scientific “truth.” The Syrian refugees, on the other hand, advocated strongly that this positioning was wrong. Several middle-aged refugees insisted, with the agreement of the other refugee women, that Syrians between the ages of 14 and 16 are no longer “youth.” Rather, they argued, they are often serving as full adult members of their families. They are responsible for managing the household, for laboring for outside wages, and for representing the family in an official capacity with NGOs and the Jordanian government.

Save the Children staff turned back to the science of brain development featured in the curriculum. By all accounts, they emphasized, the children’s brains had not developed and therefore they were still considered young persons. At this point one of the Syrian refugees said, “My son is a man. His father is dead. His uncles are dead. His brothers are dead. He is the only one left. How can you say that he is still young? He has experienced the world of an adult in the body of a 14-year old.” The Save the Children staff then decided to close this line of conversation.

One Jordanian Save the Children staffer later told Sarah that the official curriculum, which was presumed also to be the Jordanian perspective, and the experiences and outlooks of the refugees were very different. The differences were described as “cultural.” This staff member said, “The refugees need to learn this information in order to make their lives better here.” In a later conversation another Save the Children staffer indicated that these “cultural differences” had also emerged when the curriculum turned to domestic violence. The staffer claimed that the refugees felt that domestic violence, particularly directed at children, was the only means by which the children would heed their parents’ admonitions. The Jordanian staff member expressed shock and frustration that the debates for the Syrians centered on acceptable “degrees of violence” rather than the acceptability of violence itself.

Child labor is another area in which NGOs such as Save the Children, among others, have been working. In Zaatari, child labor is apparent everywhere. Children can be seen delivering goods in wheelbarrows from one store to another or to residences in tents or caravan mobile home units. Children can be seen sifting gravel for homemade concrete. Children can be seen clerking and cleaning up in stores. NGOs such as Save the Children strive to keep the children enrolled in one of the many schools in the camp such as those run by UNHCR, or alternatively, to provide an education and activity center that offers lessons, games and healthy snacks. The NGOs often discussed the idea that keeping children in schools is a primary means by which adolescence can be maintained, even protracted and extended, and the stages of childhood development preserved. “Preserving childhood” has become an explicit aim for many NGOs and their donors alike.

While neoliberal governance creates a space for the private sector to flourish, concomitant with it come demands that work in the private sector is subject to certain moral parameters. In this case the parameters are the exclusion of youth under the age of 18 from formal and regulated labor force participation. While at home the adolescents may be understood as fully functioning adults, according to NGO governance and subjectivity cultivation, the hardship of the refugee camp is not enough to waive the moral imperative.

Early Marriage

In the last few years, hundreds if not thousands of newspaper articles and NGO reports have been written highlighting what is perceived to be the “problem” of early marriage among Syrian refugees. These reports condemn such practices as they confront Western understandings of the proper age of marriage for girls, and the proper age gap between marriage partners. The stories that are the most graphic and revolting are those of girls aged 12, 13 or 14 who are married to a man over 50 or 60, particularly one from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. The stereotype accordingly plays up the idea of an elderly, but wealthy Gulf resident marrying a youthful, even “innocent” girl, and removing her from her natal family in the refugee camp for purposes of the family’s economic stability. Such accounts are understood as “child trafficking” or “modern-day slavery,” even a form of prostitution.

Over the course of the last 24 months of Sarah’s research into early marriage in the Syrian refugee camps, she has found that this stereotype rarely comes to fruition. Much more frequently reported are cases of girls aged 13, 14 or 15 who are betrothed to male relatives within the camp who are aged 17, 18 or 19. By most definitions, “early marriage” rests on the age of the female getting married, rather than the male. By these criteria, even a 15-year old Syrian marrying a 16-year old cousin would count.

In her own experiences, Sarah found that young women in these arrangements did not always portray themselves as victims without agency. From one visit, she wrote in her field notes:

I walked into the women’s clothing store on the Champs d’Elysees in Zaatari, and Lara greets me. She’s a 13-year old Syrian refugee from Dar‘a, and her happiness is overwhelming. “Welcome to the store!” She’s beaming and happy to talk to me, despite the fact that the Jordanian army escorts continue to yell at me, “Hurry up, Sarah! Don’t talk so long!” Lara and I make small talk about the store—how much the hijabs are and which abayas are more popular. Lara herself is wearing a tattered black abaya, one that she has outgrown in her early-teen growth spurt. Her head is covered with a dark pink hijab. Her clothing isn’t new, but it is clean, as are her feet, which is a strikingly noticeable feature in this immensely dusty place. Lara eagerly takes me from item to item, and slowly I realize she’s led me to the back of the store. “Lara,” I ask, “why are you so happy?” Quietly, and almost embarrassed to be feeling this joy in the midst of such sorrow, she answers, “I am able to do something good for myself here. I’m working at the store, which I love, but also…I’m getting married next week. And I really love him. He’s my neighbor here, and I wouldn’t have met him outside this place. He’s so handsome. It’s like a soap opera.

But arranged marriages of young cousins or new neighbors are troubling to many who work in NGO governance. First, they are deemed “illegal” as the age of consent for marriage in Jordan is 16 for the female, and marriages must be registered locally in accordance with Jordanian law. The more important problem for many NGOs is that early marriage represents an advancing adulthood and an end to innocent girlhood as well as the girl’s education. According to some NGO staff Sarah interviewed, young girls whose bodies may not be physically mature enough to deliver a child are getting married to more muscular and potentially angry, disenfranchised and violent young men, echoing the warnings about domestic violence and abuse.

Conversations Sarah had with NGO leaders and employees indicated that the concerns about early marriage were driven both by moral concern for the refugees and by a keen interest in obtaining donor funds. One employee of an NGO indicated that, while yes, it was true that early marriage was a problem for him from a moral perspective,

It’s also the case that when we talk about it donors respond. They really respond to this. It helps us get money for programs that really need some attention that we can’t otherwise raise money for. I mean, who is going to fund teacher training or empowerment programs for young boys? However, young boys do need attention also. But the West seems to be afraid of them, of the Syrian refugee youth. No one wants to fund programs for young men.

What such characterizations eliminated from the discussion is that occurrences of early marriage may be less coerced than the media and NGOs believe. Of the Syrian female adolescents Sarah interviewed who were engaged to be married, they anticipated that getting married earlier would help, not only to reduce burdens on their natal families, but also to secure their safety around the camp, protecting them from physical harm, including in spaces perceived to be high-risk in the camp such as bathrooms and showers. The females also indicated that marriage would give them a heightened sense of responsibility and agency in an otherwise debilitating environment. Many of them cited the disincentives for completing their high school education, including crowded schools and a lack of post-secondary educational prospects.

A complicating factor is that programming against early marriage is designed only for the Jordanian context. Journalistic and NGO reports rarely account for what the practices of the Syrians might have been before they arrived from Syria. Instead, they imprint local sensibilities and laws on the refugee population, at times challenging young women to choose between family and tradition, and what they hope or anticipate might be their futures. The lack of baseline data on the practices in Syria before the war makes early marriage subject to moral condemnation rather than empathetic consideration.

While Sarah was interviewing moneychangers in 2014, curious passersby would stop and contribute their thoughts on the discussion. At one point, a middle-aged woman stopped and asked if Sarah had been the researcher asking about early marriage. When Sarah replied that, yes, that was she, the woman gathered a few of her friends and family members together. Each described, in turn, how they had been married as teenagers in Syria. One was married at the age of 14, two at 15 and one at 16. They all spoke with pride at serving as mothers to many smart, productive and beautiful children. The woman who had gathered the women also brought her son. Beaming with pride, she said, “This is my son, Muhammad. He’s 16 and he’s the man of our house. He has taken over since his father died, and looked out for us. He’s getting married next week.” Muhammad smiled and added, “I’m really happy.”

In fact, early marriage was not uncommon in Syria before the crisis. According to UNICEF, 3 percent of Syrian girls were married by age 15 and 13 percent by age 18, although the practice may be more prevalent in rural areas such as the southern province of Dar‘a (the region many, if not most, of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are from). According to the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics, the marriage rate stood at 3 percent for girls under 15 and 18 percent for girls under 18, with Dar‘a as the governorate with the highest rate in pre-war Syria (5 percent) and—interestingly—a higher prevalence in urban areas (4 percent). According to the Jordanian government, between January and June 2014, 32 percent of registered marriages of Syrian refugees were of girls under 18. [7. New York Times, September 9, 2014.]

The displacement of Syrian refugees from their homes in Syria into a geographically and demographically uncertain terrain has had unintended consequences when it comes to the topic of early marriage. Many young girls find themselves surrounded by new neighbors and extended family members that they had not known in Syria. Such exposure is simultaneously understood as risky to one’s reputation and as physically hazardous. It also has provided a new opportunity for young girls to engage in social network formation of their own design, which may be resonant with the perceived age-appropriate experiences of their mothers and aunts.

Shifting the Burden

Each of these cases demonstrates that neoliberal governance by NGOs shifts burdens onto the shoulders of women and children, especially in situations of suffering and uncertainty. In fact, neoliberal governance further contributes to the suffering and the uncertainty by rendering Syrian refugees responsible for their own management and aid provision. The self-regulation, however, is understood as needing to occur within certain moral parameters.

These moral parameters do not formally or officially allow children to earn an income or marry young, even if they may want to. The stigma against child labor does not excuse youth from “work,” however. Youth are to “work” at being “good moral persons” by going to school and completing their high school education, even if doing so has seemingly few short- and long-term rewards.

Furthermore, these moral parameters create additional burdens on women’s time. Women are responsible for managing and structuring family schedules with the highly fragmented and disparate NGO system for aid distribution and governance. The women who engage in Cash for Work are subject to hundreds of hours of classes and training that are believed to best prepare them for their position as “good” and “moral” subjects both inside and outside the camp, even if the horizon for life after the camp is not yet clear.

From constructions of “youth,” particularly for boys and young men, to understandings of domestic violence and parenting, to commonly agreed-upon appropriate ages for marriage and suitable partners for girls and young women, the preexisting Syrian practices have largely been eliminated from the aims and objectives of NGO providers. NGOs here are not seeking to bring stability to the Syrian refugee experience by supporting efforts to reproduce Syrian life and lifestyles, but are making the moment of intervention for aid distribution one of disjuncture with the past and inculcation of new practices for the future.

How to cite this article:

Madeline Otis Campbell, Sarah Tobin "NGO Governance and Syrian Refugee “Subjects” in Jordan," Middle East Report 278 (Spring 2016).

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