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Waking up every morning here in Amman, Jordan is a surreal experience. Sun shines brightly through my window, it’s peaceful and silent and then raucous birdsong brings me back—reminding me with a tightness in my chest that the world is now a different place. To combat the spread of COVID-19, we were on complete lockdown across the country from March 21 to 25. Thankfully, the total ban on leaving homes eased up on March 25 and people are now allowed to go out, but solely on foot, to access neighborhood markets. For a very long four days, however, there was no leaving the house at all, anytime, for anything. We know of many families with barely any food to subsist on, much less any money to purchase food as markets reopen.

People buy food after Jordan announced it would relax the curfew to allow people to go on foot to buy groceries in neighborhood shops, amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, Amman. March 25, 2020. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

The tendency to turn inward to care for one’s family is coupled for me and my colleagues at Collateral Repair Project (CRP) with an urgent need to increase our efforts to help our wider community—the many refugees and vulnerable people in East Amman. Since 2006, CRP has been serving over 4,000 of Amman’s most vulnerable families through an emergency assistance program and two vibrant community centers that offer a wide variety of activities where people learn new skills, build community and heal from trauma. We have over 40 staff and 55 volunteers, interns and community leaders.

But it hasn’t been easy to do much at all given the severe limits on movement. We were especially concerned when the total curfew directive landed a few days before our planned food voucher distributions to just over 300 Sudanese, Somali, Yemeni and other minority refugees. With all shops and banks closing, we knew that monthly food supplies for hundreds of families would be nearly or totally gone. This fear was confirmed by the many scared and desperate phone calls we received during that time.

In 2019, CRP provided 1,000 families with food vouchers every month, but in January 2020, due to lack of funds, we had to decrease our voucher program to serve 500 families monthly. Families receiving vouchers pick them up at our centers and then use them at the grocery store in their neighborhood for the staples and fresh vegetables they need throughout the month. The amount depends on family size, with an average family of five receiving a voucher worth $56. Most of the families who receive vouchers suffer from severe food insecurity and rely on CRP for the entirety of their food supplies. A needs assessment that CRP conducted in 2017 revealed that malnutrition and food insecurity is the top issue among Sudanese and Somali communities in Amman, so food vouchers are especially critical for these groups.

Helping these families is like a small band-aid over the huge and growing injury of living in Jordan as a refugee.
We are unable to print the vouchers with our offices closed, however, and social distancing discourages any scenario where CRP staff could hand out vouchers. Our longstanding relationships with local markets in Amman enabled us to begin providing monthly credit, instead of vouchers, for our most vulnerable families now that people are allowed to access small groceries from 10 am until the daily 6 pm curfew siren. Nearly two-thirds of our food voucher families are able to walk to their local market, and those unable to do so receive food package deliveries from our partner markets.

Helping these families is like a small band-aid over the huge and growing injury of living in Jordan as a refugee. The COVID-19 pandemic will only exacerbate an already very precarious situation for Jordan’s refugees, not only making it more difficult for families unable to take care of their basic needs, but also greatly increasing the vulnerability of others whose source of income will disappear. Our biggest concerns now are emergency basic needs and family protection, as families under pressure in close quarters are vulnerable to increased violence against women and children.

As the Syrian refugee crisis evolved into a permanent situation over the past few years, donor countries around the world moved completely away from funding relief efforts for refugees in Jordan in favor of a focus on economic empowerment.
Collateral Repair Project, along with other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are working quickly to move back into emergency relief work. As the Syrian refugee crisis evolved into a permanent situation over the past few years, donor countries around the world moved completely away from funding relief efforts for refugees in Jordan in favor of a focus on economic empowerment. These donor countries provide the bulk of refugee humanitarian relief and development funds that make their way to international organizations working on the ground, and their shift away from relief efforts means that there are not funds immediately available to mount a nimble and timely emergency aid response. Under present circumstances, economic empowerment programs for refugees are superfluous at best and job skills training certainly not possible for quite some time to come.

Rather, we see basic needs growing exponentially in the populations we serve under a funding situation that has completely abandoned refugee humanitarian relief in Jordan. CRP is one of the few international organizations still offering emergency assistance to refugees and yet we had to cut our program by 50 percent in January 2020 due to these funding trends. We rely on individual donors to keep that program running, but even finding funds to operate the program at 50 percent is now threatened by the demands of our new global crisis.

In the immediate term, we are banding together with other international organizations to advocate that NGOs serving refugees be included in the Jordanian government’s COVID-19 response plan. At present, the government is notably transparent and proactive in communicating with the public by providing daily updates and a comprehensive approach to combating the spread of the virus. Efforts to aid, and expand aid, to poor Jordanians identified through the National Aid Fund are ongoing, yet refugee provision has not been addressed. International organizations like CRP, and others with national reach, have an invaluable role to play. With car movement locally and across governorates strictly prohibited without a permit and with no approvals yet to operate relief efforts, getting the go-ahead from the government to undertake and vastly expand relief efforts is an immediate goal.

In the immediate term, we are banding together with other international organizations to advocate that NGOs serving refugees be included in the Jordanian government’s COVID-19 response plan.

With the full country-wide lockdown eased, we have seen a lot of crowding at markets during the past week, which raises another concern. The neighborhood of Hashemi Shamali, where the majority of the people CRP serves lives, has become a COVID-19 hotspot and one part of the neighborhood remains on complete lockdown. We are worried about virus spread in the whole area and a larger lockdown since fear and panic are keeping people from exercising proper distancing. Our staff is working hard to raise awareness in our community about the dire necessity of distancing in public and to conduct daily phone call outreach to check on people and provide support.

There have been a number of bright spots during this lockdown period, though. Our two community centers run over 60 programs to help refugees and Jordanians build community, learn skills and become resilient. And while the centers have been closed for a few weeks now, it’s been wonderful to see the huge participation in our online classes, which people access via their phones. People in our popular art class now spend triple the amount of time learning drawing techniques online from their Iraqi volunteer teacher, and class size has doubled as students have invited their friends to join. Parent groups are popping up for discussion and support of one another and their preschool and elementary school children. Our staff, who are mainly refugees themselves, and our community leaders continue to connect and be there for one another as they’ve always done.

The care for one another we have throughout our community buoys me as we continue to navigate this critical and challenging situation. I continue to concentrate on how we can get food on people’s tables and give families the support they need, all the while hoping that we don’t have to make further cuts in the coming weeks.

How to cite this article:

Amanda Lane "Voices from the Middle East: Providing Urgent Aid to Refugees in Amman, Jordan," Middle East Report Online, April 08, 2020.
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