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Innovative Programs Help Syrian Refugees Face Uncertain Future

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It is hard to make sense of today. Maybe that is why they refer to the situation here in Jordan as "complex."

Baqaa is called a Camp -- it has been managed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for more than 60 years. More than anything it reminds me of a working class neighbourhood in Buenos Aires with narrow paved streets lined with three and four storey cinderblock buildings. It is a crowded place with cheap rents, so many of the Syrian refugees make their way here. This community started life as a refugee camp. I wonder if this is a glimpse into Za'atari's future.

The Makani Centre sits in front of one of the only green spaces in Baqaa. Makani Centres are UNICEF-support initiatives to expand learning opportunities for vulnerable children in Jordan. Here in Baqaa it is a hive of activity for those Syrian children who cannot go to school. Music lessons, pre-school classes, children learning their alphabet -- some seven-year-olds tried to teach me the Arabic letter that makes the sound "b" and roared with laughter at my bad pronunciation. An older group of children are talking about the perils of child labour. We stop to chat. "How many of you work?" They all shake their heads -- although none of them are in school either.

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Later that morning when we visit a family a few blocks away from the Centre, we see Mohamed, one of the boys from that class. His father was wounded in the war and cannot work, so Mohamed, who is 15, is working as a stock boy in a supermarket. Two of his younger brothers (there are five boys in the family) are working too.

Mohamed is a bright boy with a ready smile, but when we ask why he didn't tell us he was working when we were in the Makani Centre, he said it was because he was ashamed. That's crazy, I think. Of course he is working. He needs to and he wants to and that's how he can help his family. He gets two hours off every the day to attend life skills and remedial education classes at the Makani Centre. But I am upset that he said he felt ashamed to be working -- even as I wish he didn't have to.

More Syrian refugees live like Mohamed's family -- renting one or two rooms in a working class neighbourhood -- than live in the refugee camps like Za'atari. One of the towns with many refugees is Irbid. It is a bustling place, and UNICEF is helping two Makani Centres here.

The one we visit is bright and airy -- it is run in partnership with an NGO. Like the other Makani Centres it has remedial education so the Syrian children who have missed school can catch up and enroll in Jordanian schools. There is storytelling, too, and psycho-social support and life skills and it serves as a referral centre for children and families needing particular help. It is easy to see why the Government of Canada made funding the Makani Centres a focus of its Syria funding announcement in Ottawa in April.

These places -- and there are 225 of them around Jordan -- are remarkable places which give Syrian children the best chance at some kind of success in life. They provide that vital bridge to the formal education system which they need for their future (we are also working with the Ministry of Education to help increase the capacity of their schools) and they are safe spaces for children. I am proud of our UNICEF colleagues for this innovative program which has gone national.

The war in Syria has shattered their lives. They cannot go back; they do not know what the future will bring.

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But still, it is an uphill climb. Mahmood is in his 30s. He was a barber in Syria and now he works as a guard at the Makani Centre. He and his brothers came here with their families when the fighting got too intense. His father refused to leave Syria, but when he got ill, Mahmood's brothers went back to help him. Now, they cannot return to Jordan and Mahmood is caring for 14 people -- his nieces and nephews and sisters-in-law as well as his own small children. (One of his boys is wearing a t-shirt that says "Never Give Up.")

UNICEF has been helping one of his sisters-in-law with the cash transfer program for indigent families. It is a more modern system than any we have in Canada: she has a retina scan and once a month she goes to a bank where she has her eyes scanned and then she gets some money for her children. She doesn't need a registration card, which could get stolen or lost; her eyes are her registration.

But still, even with all the support we can give, I just don't know how this family makes ends meet. And it is not just them or the other families we have met here in Jordan. It is family after family after family. The war in Syria has shattered their lives. They cannot go back; they do not know what the future will bring. Here in Jordan, and in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and across Europe -- this is largest migration we've seen in 70 years.

Our response to this crisis will be critical to shaping the future for millions of children and their families.

We can harden our hearts and try to ignore the countless stories of uncertainty and suffering. We can be overwhelmed with grief -- heaven knows there is enough cause for that -- but that can lead to paralysis and stalemate. Neither of those will do, and so instead we are called to action.

I feel privileged to work with people who are undaunted by the challenge, people whose hearts and heads together give them the strength and wisdom to be creative and do all they can to ease the pain and find a way forward, for that is the only road to a better future, and that is the road we must take.

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