Azraq camp, Jordan
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Jordan Journal: Debra O’Neill’s Mission Notes

"We can truly empower women if we focus not on their vulnerabilities, but on their strengths."

On her recent mission to Jordan for the Leading Women Fund (LWF), Australia for UNHCR Strategic Development Director Debra O’Neill witnessed the ongoing hardship Syrian refugees face in Jordan. However, her journal entries also capture the opportunities, successes and innovations refugee women are embracing with support from LWF members.

Day 1


First up, we have a meeting with UNHCR’s Representative to Jordan for a briefing on the situation for Syrian refugees. The conflict in Syria isn’t classified as a humanitarian emergency anymore; it’s a protracted situation. UNHCR is therefore focusing on helping Syrian refugees living in Jordan to become self-sufficient. We learn about some of the challenges refugees are facing, such as the rising cost of living, but also some of the opportunities, such as Syrians now having the right to work in some sectors in Jordan.


We walk next door to visit the UNHCR Registration Centre. While very few new refugees are arriving, refugees and asylum seekers have to renew their asylum seeker certificate on an annual basis. A registration renewal interview provides an important opportunity for refugees to update their family data, such as births, deaths and marriages. Holding a valid asylum seeker certificate with up-to-date information ensures refugees are able to access UNHCR’s protection and services. Refugees receive an SMS when they are scheduled for a face-to-face registration renewal interview with UNHCR.

Local staff show us how they’re using biometric scanning in the registration process. With this technology, a refugee can access their cash assistance with the iris scanner at any Cairo Bank ATM in Amman. Cash assistance was first trialled in Jordan – a very innovative country.

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We travel to the Al Nuzha Community Support Centre and meet with female refugees who are enrolled in a range of classes – sewing, cooking, plumbing, community gardening, English and much more. There is a sense of solidarity, as women who were isolated and struggling alone at home come together at the Centre to learn.

We meet a woman called Radia, a mother of five, who first came to the centre seeking psychological support for her daughter. She was then selected for cooking training and now she’s a trainer herself. She promotes her business on Facebook and caters for buffets.


We drive to an outer neighbourhood of Amman and meet with Malak and her mother at their apartment, which they rent with cash assistance. Cash assistance means that Malak and her mum can afford their rent and gives them more dignity and security.
Malak has many skills. In Syria, she was an art teacher. She showed us some of her mosaics and beaded accessories, which she is trying to sell to support herself and her 88-year-old mum.

Last year, Malak shared messages with an LWF donor, Nicola, using the Connecting Worlds app. When Malak said Nicola helped lift her up during a period of terrible hardship, I was even more motivated to continue expanding the Leading Women Fund. It really has an impact on refugee women – knowing that someone on the other side of the world is thinking about you. That you’re not alone.

Read more about Malak in Janine’s reflections


Last stop of the day. We visit Tribalogy, a craft shop that sells refugee-made products. The purses the LWF members receive when they join the Fund are made here by refugee women from Syria and other countries.

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Day 2


It takes 1 hour 45 minutes to travel from Amman to Azraq camp.


We attend a briefing with the Azraq camp management team. Azraq opened in 2014 when Za’atari, the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, started to become too crowded. Refugees live in a “caravan” and receive food, water, medical care and education. Opportunities are very limited. There are just two scholarships available for tertiary education. If you decide to leave the camp and live in the city, it’s a big risk as you can’t return. You might get cash assistance in Amman, but you might not – there are 11,000 people on the wait list.


We tour the camp. There are four villages, 15 schools, a hospital, primary health care centres, two supermarkets and 250 shops. UNHCR works with 29 other humanitarian organisations to run what is essentially a small town. It’s extremely collaborative, efficient and purpose-driven.

We stop by a sweet shop and pick up some treats. Syrians are fantastic cooks and are also well known for their sweets and biscuits.


We visit greenhouses where refugees have started hydroponic farming businesses. Jordan is the second most water-scarce country in the world, so hydroponic farming helps conserve this precious resource while also helping refugees support their families.

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We visit High Point – the site of a solar plant, funded by the IKEA Foundation, which provides 85 per cent of the camp’s electricity needs. Azraq’s solar plant is the first of its kind in a refugee setting. Just amazing.


We start our trip back to Amman. In the car, I reflect on the scale and complexity of the refugee situation here. It’s inspiring to see how UNHCR is encouraging refugees to achieve their potential and stand on their own two feet so they don’t fall back into poverty.

LWF really is changing lives. Our support helps to inspire refugee women and keep them looking toward the future. Thought it might not feel like much, helping one woman makes a massive difference. We can truly empower women if we focus not on their vulnerabilities, but on their strengths.

Find out more about joining the Leading Women Fund


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Jordan Journal: Debra O’Neill’s Mission Notes

"We can truly empower women if we focus not on their vulnerabilities, but on their strengths."

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The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.

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