Witness UNFPA’s Lifesaving Work in Jordan

The delegation at the Zaatari Refuge Camp.

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.

Learning from our colleagues about the services provided at the Sweileh Center and the challenges they’re facing to continue providing this care. 

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. 

A gynecologist at the Sweileh Center holding a one-month-old newborn she had just performed a check-up on. 
We visited a sex education class where girls were learning about menstruation. Menstruation is a taboo topic in Jordan and girls must use religious words to talk about their periods. This board covers some of the words girls can use to talk about their bodies and needs. Menstrual products can be difficult to acquire in Jordan, but they are freely available at the Sweileh Center. 
This is the vision clinic at the Sweileh Center. Children can come and have their eyes tested and receive glasses, if needed. The center offers this as one of many services.
This slide is part of the childcare center at the clinic. Women can leave their young kids at the childcare center while they attend appointments or educational sessions. 

Day 3 – Zaatari Refugee Camp

Views from the top of a water sanitation station run by UNICEF, which is the highest point in Zaatari. Zaatari is located about 12 miles from the border with Syria and grew organically when the Syrian Civil War first began. As a result, the caravans, what the refugees call their shelters, are quite dense in the oldest part of the camp. By contrast, Azraq was built to house Syrian refugees when Zaatari reached capacity and is much more planned out.

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.

Syrian refugees have truly made Zaatari their own. Perhaps the best examples of this is the Shams-Elysee, which is a play the words ash-Sham, which is a name of Syria and also Damascus, the capital city of Syria, and the Champs-Élysées, a famous street in Paris that is home to many luxury retail stores. This image courtesy of Jordi Matas/UNHCR. 
We first visited UNFPA’s Reproductive Health Clinic where we met Selima, 33, with her 1-day-old son Mustafa with their midwife. Selima had given birth the night before and told us she was “relieved” that the birth went well and “exhausted.” Mustafa is her sixth. Selima’s youngest three children were born in Zaatari. Large families are not uncommon in Jordan’s refugee camps. In Zaatari, women have 4.4 children on average, and in Azraq, women have an average of 6.7 children. Culturally, large families are seen as a sign of strength in Syria. But, women always have the right to decide the best family size for themselves. There is a family planning clinic within the larger reproductive health clinic where women who want to prevent pregnancy like Selima can access the contraceptive method of her choice. IUDs are among the most popular forms of birth control in the camp, and recently, UNFPA trained staff on the arm implant. 
A lego map of Zaatari camp: the flags on the map indicate centers supported by various UN agencies and NGOs. 
Next, we visited UNFPA’s women and girls’ safe space and walked into a class on electrical maintenance. 1 in 3 households in Zaatari are headed by women, and, in Zaatari, it’s socially unacceptable for men to enter women’s caravans, even for maintenance requests. So, as a solution, UNFPA educated women on how to maintain their own electricity within their homes. 
This 1.5 year-old girl is the daughter of Ranya, a girl we met who was attending UNFPA’s class on electrical maintenance. At just 17 years-old, Ranya is solely responsible for this girl and another 3 year-old daughter. She divorced her husband after he became abusive towards her. She comes to the UNFPA safe space for educational classes, but also for childcare, counseling sessions, and to build community with other women in the camp. 
The women and girls’ safe space also has a soccer field where women and girls can exercise. It’s not acceptable for women and girls to exercise in public, so having a space just for them is crucial. In the time that we met with the girls, we saw them play soccer, basketball, and musical chairs. We also saw a separate room used for zumba and yoga classes. 
Then, we went to UNFPA’s Adolescent Girls Empowerment Center. Each year, 24 girls are elected to run the center and tailor programming to girls’ needs. We saw recreational activities like hula-hooping, board games, arts and crafts, ping pong and more. The center also has a child care center, so girls who are responsible for their younger siblings can still enjoy free time with friends. UNFPA offers educational classes on topics like menstruation, child marriage, ending violence against women, and human development. 
USA for UNFPA CEO Anu Surendran playing ping pong with a girl in UNFPA’s Adolescent Girls Empowerment Center. 
Girls showing off their crafts. 
Noor is a leader at the center. We first met her at an educational session on child marriage, and later ran into her at a UNFPA Youth Center where she was teaching literacy classes. Noor writes her own raps about freedom and women and girls’ rights in Arabic and even performed one for us. 
At UNFPA’s Adolescent Girls Empowerment Center, girls have the opportunity to participate in recreational activities like chess, hula-hooping, board games, arts and crafts, ping pong and more.
Hana, a girl in the same educational session as Noor, shared her experience as a person with disabilities in the camp with us. She explained, “I used to be so alone. I would stay at home, afraid of being made fun of or treated differently for my disability. But the girls in the center have been nothing but welcoming. They don’t treat me differently and they are my friends.”
The center even facilitates conversations on difficult or taboo topics between mothers and daughters, like in the photo above. One common topic is a girl’s desire to wait for marriage. The rate of child marriage in Jordan’s refugee camps is shockingly high at 79%. Child brides are much more likely to end their education early, to become young mothers, to survive abuse from their partners, and to live in poverty than their unmarried peers. 

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. 

Imran standing next to her art in the gallery space at the youth center. She explained that she draws inspiration from her sister and their dreams for when they leave the Zaatari. She explained, “I hope to be a dentist and an artist one day, but because of the financial situation in the camp, I don’t know if it’s possible.” 
Boys at the youth center performing acrobatic stunts
Sima, the girl seated at the table and facing the camera, was partaking in Noor’s literacy class. She performed a poem for us. 
The youth center also offers photography classes. In fact, some of the photos in this blog were taken by these young photographers!

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. 

We first visited UNFPA’s reproductive health clinic in Azraq. The clinic offers services like prenatal care, family planning counseling, regular check-ups, immunizations for children, and more. The clinic sees 30-50 patients a day. Similar to Zaatari, Azraq has an incredibly robust prenatal care plan and relies on the early detection of complications and referrals to better equipped clinics to prevent maternal injuries and death. However, because Azraq is so remote, women are more likely to die when emergencies do arise.
We met with a doctor at the clinic. While it’s unusual to have a man attend women patients, the doctor explained that having a male doctor has been helpful in persuading men in the camps to listen to their wives when their wives wish to use family planning. In Syrian culture, the decision of whether to use family planning is not viewed as only the women’s choice. Partners, in-laws, and other family members often have input, too. UNFPA is working to change this by making family planning accessible to women and by educating the community on family planning. 
UNFPA and IRC staff we met at Azraq Refugee Camp.
The same complex has classrooms where women can attend educational classes. In this one, similar to Zaatari, women are learning how to maintain the electricity in their caravans. However, because there is less space and funding for childcare, some women in Azraq have brought their children to the class.

In another part of the complex, women attend a class about the signs of violence and where to turn for help. The women shared their challenges, like limited job opportunities, feeling stuck in Village 5, not having any green space, and, due to funding shortages following COVID, no longer having access to recreational activities like zumba or beauty classes. 
Following our very sobering visit to Azraq, we met with Her Royal Highness (HRH) Princess Basma bint Talal and her daughter, Ms. Farah. HRH Princess Basma has chaired the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) since 1977 and works to improve the health and rights of women across Jordan. She is a longtime supporter of UNFPA’s work and is a UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with her in Jordan and are extremely grateful for her support and partnership to realize a brighter, more inclusive world for women in Jordan and around the world. 

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.

Dana Kirkegaard
Be there for women and girls, no matter what

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