I chat with several articulate young women about how high school is going. They tell me that classes don’t always interest them, their families can’t help much with homework, and the exams that they have to take to get into university are very difficult.
My conversation with these ambitious students could be taking place anywhere, but for the lack of reliable electricity and the tiny size and low roof of the temporary house in which we stand.
In fact, the crowded conditions and desert surroundings make clear that I am at Za'atari, the largest camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and among the largest such camps in the world.
I recently visited Za'atari as the academic director of i-platform, a non-governmental organization (NGO) devoted to innovative approaches to global governance challenges.
My short time in the camp amid not only human misery but also youth aspiration underscored the key role that action to improve displaced Syrians’ lives can play in addressing instability in the Middle East in the coming years.
An unprecedented crisis
As the UN noted on June 18, the refugee crisis today – both in the Middle East and worldwide – is unprecedented in its number and its linkage to different intersecting conflicts.
Sixty million people have been uprooted from their normal lives. They need a concerted global effort to address their misery.
The Syrian situation caused by a civil war involving the brutal Assad government, various rebel groups and the Islamic State (ISIS) has contributed the single largest group of displaced people to the current crisis.
Americans rightly worry about ISIS, as they have about al-Qaeda. Yet, combatting Middle East violent Islamism is not just a military project. The causes and the effects of long-term conflict in the Middle East run deep, and have the potential to engender yet more conflict.
Western colonialism has been reproduced as Arab authoritarianism. Violent authoritarian states have bred violent reactions. Western overthrow of Middle Eastern governments in Iran and Iraq provoked anti-Western violent responses. Popular movements or uprisings have transformed to renewed authoritarianism (Egypt) or horrific civil war (Syria, Libya, Yemen). And this is just a part of the terrible story that is engulfing the world in conflict and insecurity.
In the heady days of the Arab anti-authoritarian uprisings of 2011, many Syrians hoped their repressive leader Bashar al-Assad could be dislodged in similar fashion to his peers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
But Assad’s will and resources, and political and military problems coordinating rebel forces, led to a full-scale civil war that has torn apart the country, displaced over 7.5 million Syrians internally and created nearly 4 million refugees located mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.
Even if the conflict in Syria were to end today, this would be an extreme humanitarian challenge.
And Syria is far from any sort of peace.
The violence problem
One of the major underlying causes of violence in the Middle East is disillusioned, undervalued and underemployed young people.
Approximately 1.6 of Syria’s 4 million refugees are children. They have few prospects for meaningful social engagement or work. So how to make sure they are not left to fuel conflicts that Western countries have been unable to avert with their military or other global influences?
My recent tour of the Za'atari camp inspired hope that there are strategies to address this seemingly limitless human crisis.
Administrators and Jordanian officials have worked together to improve basic order, sanitary facilities and morale in the camp, particularly after the camp’s initial problems upon opening in mid-2012.
The camp now includes a resident-run string of businesses selling clothes, cosmetics and most other items camp members need that is known as the Champs Elysees. International and local managers, working in tandem, have made a disaster at least tolerable in the short run.
The training solution
Most impressive is the program to provide hundreds of young people with specific vocational training in skills like making clothes, hair-styling and electronics repair that they can use to provide services for their fellow residents.
An enthusiastic teacher showed off beautiful student art and a functional car built from rusty scraps, really impressing my colleagues with the industriousness and hope that NGO workers nurture in these young Syrians.
But there are tens of thousands of young Za'atari residents. Most get no training. And more long-term training might threaten young Jordanians’ own capacity to find work – youth unemployment in Jordan is high, at almost 34%.
The fruitful efforts of Za'atari camp workers and residents are still limited in scope and impact. The young people are cut off from better training opportunities.
Needed now is sustained, multinational, multifaceted policy conversation around strategies on how to turn these challenged young people from victims to possible preventers of Middle Eastern conflict.
Researchers and relief organizations are beginning to analyze how refugee conflict survivors can contribute to peace-building and to other political efforts in war-torn areas.
It was easy for me to imagine the young people I met in Za'atari, who want to study law, literature or engineering, if nurtured, as not merely witnesses to an awful moment in history, but conduits for learning from their experiences.
Some of this can be very simple. More funding and technical assistance, for instance, would prevent the daily power outages that hinder some Syrians at Za'atari from studying for the Jordanian college entrance exams.
Beyond basic development
Other policy conversations will be harder.
When the European Union held a summit in April after over 1,000 refugees drowned off the coast of Italy, the piecemeal solutions that were offered suggest difficult debates among member states.
Western countries tend to see refugees as ideological risks or competitors for scarce jobs. Is this inevitable? What alliances between global NGOs and possible asylum or funding countries can smooth the passage of displaced people out of camps?
Questions like these have no easy answers and run up against a wide range of nationalistic and other insecurities.
That 95% of Syria’s refugees are in other Middle Eastern countries mirrors a broader pattern that wealthier countries do far less than less-developed nations to host refugees. Yet studies show that migrants generally benefit economies.
The young Syrians in Za'atari see daily how much non-Syrians working in the camp have done for them, and evince little hostility to outsiders.
The refugees I encountered, many of whom were highly successful in their countries, want to have a degree of control and initiative in their own decisions, and the prospects to be useful, rather than being seen as victims.
With what we have learned about the unpredictability and costs of military action, a concerted effort to invest more into helping more of these people contribute to global society does not seem like a particularly risky investment.