Amman, Jordan — Smiles spread from ear to ear as the school-age girls called for the attention of their friends. For several hours, they frolicked on the playsets in the Zara Youth Park, a quiet greenspace set in a comfortable Amman neighborhood.
For two days in August, Iraqi boys and girls shared the playground with their Jordanian neighbors in a Mercy Corps-sponsored activity designed to help Iraqi children to their new home and to defuse tensions between refugees and their host communities.
"If you take children out of a situation and put them in a different, brighter one, there is a mental release, even for just one day," said Mahmoud, who directed the day's events on behalf of Mercy Corps' partner agency, the Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development/Queen Zein Al-Sharaf Institute for Development (JOHUD/ZENID). Most of the Iraqi children, he noted, had witnessed violence and suffered from severe psychological stress.
Activities like the one at Zara Youth Park are part of larger Mercy Corps effort — aided by Jordan's largest nonprofit — to prepare 4,000 Iraqi kids to either attend Jordanian schools or to master academic and life skills through a non-formal educational curriculum.
An influx of refugees
As many as one million Iraqis are believed to have fled across the border to Jordan, part of what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls the Middle East's biggest displacement crisis in nearly 60 years. Without legal residency, adults are unable to work, children have inconsistent access to education, and whole families face the constant strain of poverty, isolation and fear. As a result, many rarely leave their homes, and children have few opportunities for positive interaction with their friends.
Although Jordan recently began to allow Iraqi children to register for school regardless of residency status, several factors dampen Iraqi attendance, including fear among Iraqi families of drawing attention to their illegal residency status; intolerance of Iraqi children in schools; and overcrowded and poorly functioning schools in the poorer areas of Amman, where most vulnerable Iraqis are clustered.
In July, Mercy Corps launched a program to improve the welfare of the most vulnerable Iraqi school-age children in partnership JOHUD/ZENID, an experienced provider of formal and informal educational offerings. Funding for the project comes from the U.S. State Department. The work involves academic and psychosocial assessments, counseling, recreation activities, parental-engagement initiatives and a non-formal education program using a curriculum designed by Questscope, a British NGO, that's provided an alternative to Jordanian school drop-outs since 2004.
Both partners currently work with the Ministry of Education to link their non-formal educational programs to certified grade-level certificates and the overall educational goals of Jordan.
A day in the park
Organizing safe places for Iraqi and Jordanian children to play and fraternize is an important component. On August 1 and 2, roughly three dozen Iraqi and Jordanian children — boys on the first day, girls on the second — were given the opportunity to interact and play together in a constructive environment. A morning in the park, followed by a picnic lunch and more play at a children's entertainment center in a nearby mall seemed to set everyone at ease.
"I like to play in the area near my house," said one 10-year old Iraqi boy, "but I don't go out because the children in the neighborhood don't like me and my brother Akram. I don't know why."
No tension existed at the August event; two Jordanian boys said they hoped it would happen again. "I like the Iraqi children and I think they are more behaved than some of the Jordanian kids that I know," said one 14-year-old. "We had a good time today and I would like to see some of the kids again soon."
One girl, Saba, said with a shy smile that she hadn't been to school in two years. Her father was kidnapped in Iraq, and was returned only after his captors were paid ransom. "I am very happy today… this is the best day in a long time," she said. "It's pretty here, and it's so nice just to be playing together. I'm very happy."