In September 2023, a group of dedicated reproductive rights champions went to Jordan to visit UNFPA’s programs for Syrian refugees on the ground, including a comprehensive health center in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and UNFPA clinics in the Zaatari and Azraq Refugee Camps. We witnessed the stark reality of life in a refugee camp: cramped living spaces, severe restrictions on movement, ever-mounting economic pressures and decreasing resources, and little hope of leaving the camps any time soon.
But we also met incredible women and girls who had built their own communities and who were living life on their own terms. They advocated for themselves and the resources they needed to lead empowered lives. They dream of becoming doctors, artists, and teachers – and of a future where they can go home.
Keep reading to experience Jordan right along with us:
Day 1 – Welcome to Jordan
We landed in Amman late in the afternoon on Saturday and attended a welcome dinner. For many of us, it was our first meeting, and we seized the great opportunity to hear from reproductive rights champions from all walks of life. But after a long day of travel and a big day of meetings on the horizon, it was off to bed.
Day 2 – Sweileh Center, Amman, Jordan
Jordan is a predominantly Muslim country, so weekends are observed on Friday and Saturday to account for the holy day in Islam. That meant that Sunday was the beginning of the week and the beginning of our visits to UNFPA’s programs. We started off at the Sweileh Center, which the Institute for Family Health, a UNFPA implementing partner, runs.
The Sweileh Center serves both Jordanians and urban refugees. Jordan has the second-highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with 4.2 million total refugees. 1.3 million of these people are Syrian refugees, but only about half, 670,000, have registered. Registration is important because it grants refugees access to resources like health care, education, cash assistance and more. Those who are unregistered are living in cities and towns across Jordan. However, due to restrictions around which jobs Syrians can hold in Jordan, it is very difficult for Syrian refugees to support themselves. In fact, according to a UN report, 83% of urban Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line. This is what makes the Sweileh Center so important – care here is completely free.
The center is truly comprehensive. Many refugees enter the health care systems when they become pregnant, and designers have smartly crafted the Sweileh Center to maximize this first meeting.
When a woman comes to the center for prenatal care, the clinic takes her children to a childcare center within, allowing her to attend her appointment without distractions. She receives nutrition counseling to prevent anemia and support a healthy pregnancy. She learns about the signs of domestic violence and where she can turn to for help if she needs to leave a dangerous situation. Her children are able to receive their immunizations, along with hearing and vision tests and hearing aids or glasses if needed. Teenage girls can go to sessions on topics like child marriage prevention and menstruation, while their moms can attend sessions on economic empowerment and can build community at art classes.
When women discover all that the Sweileh Center has to offer, they often come back over and over again – meaning these women, and their families, are healthier. But, one challenge the Sweileh Center has come up against are funding cuts. Last year, the center had to close its testing center, meaning women who need blood work or other diagnostic tests must go to another clinic or hospital for results. For many refugees, going to an outside clinic is prohibitively expensive and means further treatment is out of reach.
Day 3 – Zaatari Refugee Camp
Zaatari is the largest refugee camp for the world’s largest refugee crisis. War has displaced more than 14 million Syrians. 6.8 million of these people have displaced themselves within Syria, and around 5.5 million Syrians live in 5 surrounding countries: Jordan, Turkiye, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. There are also about 850,000 Syrian refugees living in Germany.
Today, Zaatari is home to 83,000 Syrians. Half of these residents are children. The camp has been open since the beginning of the war and the government of Jordan has welcomed Syrian refugees to stay as long as they need. However, there are no plans to further integrate Syrian refugees into Jordanian society, meaning refugees in the camp will likely stay there until it is finally safe to return home to Syria. In the decade since the war began, an entire generation of Syrians has been born in Zaatari that have never set foot on Syrian soil.
In fact, part of what makes Zaatari so special is that, thanks to your support for UNFPA’s lifesaving work, more than 17,000 babies have been born safely in Zaatari, all without a single woman dying from pregnancy or childbirth complications. This truly remarkable feat results from the comprehensive UNFPA reproductive and maternal health clinics, a system that actively tracks and educates women on prenatal care, education sessions that provide accessible information on reproductive health and rights, and a referral network that directs patients to well-equipped hospitals outside of the camp to manage complications when they arise.
Finally, we visited UNFPA’s youth center in Zaatari. There, girls, and boys, can attend all sorts of recreational activities, like art classes, dance classes, gymnastics, and more.
Day 4 – Azraq Refugee Camp and Meeting Her Royal Highness Princess Basma
Azraq Refugee Camp is more remote than Zaatari. Located close to the border with Saudi Arabia, the camp is about 1.5 hours away from Amman and totally surrounded by desert. As you can see, Azraq is more spacious and planned out than Zaatari. It is organized into villages, each hosting about 8,000 refugees. We visited Village 5 in Azraq, which can be thought of as a camp within a refugee camp, as it is almost completely cut off from the rest of Azraq. Village 5 hosts Syrian refugees coming from ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and refugees who pose a security risk to Jordan. Azraq is also located close to a military base.
Azraq was built to house Syrian refugees when Zaatari reached capacity in 2014. Initially, 36,000 refugees came here, but today, due to births in the camp, the population has increased to 42,000 residents. The fertility rate in Azraq is very high, with about 80-110 babies being born in the camp each month.
Thanks in part to its location in the desert, Azraq is the first refugee camp in the world to be totally powered by renewable energy in the form of solar panels. Azraq receives fewer resources than Zaatari, so initiatives to reduce costs, increase the camp’s sustainability, and improve the quality of life for its growing population are extremely important.
Thank you so much to our delegates for coming to Jordan and witnessing the difference we are making in women and girls’ lives everyday thanks to the generous contributions of our supporters and the tremendous work of our staff on the ground. You can support our lifesaving work in Jordan and around the world by making a donation today.