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Laith Eskander (right), an Iraqi, talks to a Syrian man from Homs during a JRS family visit in Amman.
Amman, 17 May 2012  "When I see Syrian families I remember when we were first refugees… history repeats itself. We, Iraqis, felt scared to register with UNHCR [the UN refugee agency], and now we meet many Syrians in the same position", said JRS Jordan family visits coordinator, Laith Eskander.

JRS team members like Laith have found a novel method for responding to the large influx of Syrian refugees in Jordan: refugees helping refugees. The JRS team, predominantly Iraqi volunteers, accompanies and attends to Syrians, providing support and education services to refugees who continue to enter the country in the hundreds each day.

"I tell them my story; I was like you, scared to register with UNHCR and share my story with others, scared for my family members in Iraq and for myself here", Eskander continued.

In November 2011, the family-visits team, made up almost entirely of Iraqi volunteers, initiated contact with over 100 Syrian families, most fleeing from the city of Homs. The experiential wisdom that Iraqis shared with their Arab brothers and sisters allowed for a unique sense of solidarity forged between the team members and the Syrians.

Many newly-arrived Syrian refugees are from communities that have experienced disruption, both internally and externally, and have been uprooted from communities they have lived among their whole lives; the information-sharing and hospitality of Iraqis has given them a greater sense of confidence and peace in their new host community. This is particularly important in urban areas where it is all too easy for refugees to fall through the cracks and not receive any form of assistance.

Although Iraqi refugees still struggle to get by, they have acquired valuable knowledge of how to survive as foreigners in Jordanian society over the last few years. This type of information is invaluable and often only accessible via informal networks to which it takes time to gain access. Iraqis help Syrians overcome these challenges, particularly those which are directly related to their situation as displaced persons.

Moreover, Iraqis are in a position to empathise with Syrians. They understand what it means to be refugees, to have hopeful expectations of returning home soon, and that integrating into a host community has many of its own challenges.

The spirit of reciprocity between Iraqis and Syrians. This dynamic between Iraqis and Syrians enables refugees to play a crucial role in responding effectively to the emerging crisis in Jordan.

"We tried to help the many Iraqi refugees who lived among us in Syria…. Now we are suffering in a similar way as they did because of the many problems in our country", a Syrian man from Homs explained this spirit of reciprocity.

"The challenges for the JRS teams are many in this complex reality. They [JRS teams] are all overstretched, with limited resources, trying to meet the needs of many forcibly displaced persons in urban settings", said JRS International Director, Peter Balleis SJ, during a recent visit to the region.

Yet, with more than three years of experience serving refugees in Amman in particularly vulnerable circumstances, the JRS family visits team is equipped with the capacity to identify and attend to Syrians in Jordan.

During this period, JRS has built relationships with community-based organisations and local religious leaders which have led to contact with many newly-arrived refugees. Through this network, JRS is not only able to reach refugees quickly, but is also able to ensure efficient referrals to other agencies providing a range of other services.

More than 15,000 Syrians are registered with UNHCR in Jordan. However, it is estimated that vulnerable Syrians within Jordan number around 30,000 and rising. In Amman JRS is in contact with more than 150 families, and has distributed of food baskets and non-food items to more than 80 families. 

The JRS informal education project in east Amman, run by Jordanian and Iraqi volunteer teachers, has opened its doors to Syrians. Participants at the school benefit from instruction in English language and computers, while children and young people benefit from a safe environment to socialise.

The highest concentration of Syrian refugees in Jordan is along the northern border. The majority of these refugees are being hosted by local communities in Irbid, Mafraq, Ramtha and in surrounding towns. Currently, JRS accompanies these refugees through family visits and is preparing to expand programmes in order to meet their increasing needs.