Zaatari Refugee Camp – Jordan

“Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.” – Kofi Annan


Children of ZaatariOf the 2 million Syrian refugees, who have escaped conflict in their home nation, 1 million are children. According to the UNHCR, refugees in what it terms “protracted situations” can expect an average camp residency of 17 years. One would hope that this would not be the case in the Syrian crisis but what is certain is that many of the families and children currently residing in camp will be there for a number of years. This is in addition to the nearly 5 million people who have been displaced within Syria itself. These numbers are set to increase in the event of an escalation in conflict or one that spreads into neighbouring countries. And this is the tip of the iceberg, there are many other refugee camps in different parts of the world with a total population of some 10.5 million people that are of concern to the UNHCR. On average, 850 children are born every day in the worlds refugee camps. So it’s not hard to join the dots here, there are an awful lot of children spending a large part of their lives growing up in these camps.


I’ve been interested in what happens in regards to education provision for child refugees since a chance meeting with a friend from my entertainment industry days, Alek Wek, British supermodel, former refugee and goodwill ambassador for UNHCR when she attended last years WISE Summit to help launch the Educate A Child initiative.


kids in zaatariThe provision of education in the form of schooling within refugee camps is not only an on-going investment in the children’s future well-being but also provides a sense of normalcy in otherwise challenging conditions. Statistically children who are attending school within camps are less likely to be taken into military service and are less at risk of sexual abuse, violence, crime and disease. Few people would deny that basic schooling is a humanitarian right like water, shelter, food, security and sanitation. Yet education programmes for child refugees has longer term political significance as well as immediate humanitarian consequences. Education pushes humanitarian action beyond an endeavour to save lives to a project that also shapes futures. Therein lies a tension of what kind of education is provided, what is taught and what is its purpose.


School in ZaatariThe fact is that I am not yet in a position to answer the thousand or more questions that I have about education provision in refugee camps but my journey began in Jordan where on successful approval of visiting passes I and the Learning {RE}imagined team were granted permission to visit the refugee camp in Zaatari which lies on Jordan’s border with Syria.


The camp is the now the 2nd largest refugee camp in the world with a population approaching 150,000. It opened just over a year ago with just 100 families so the rapid growth and expansion has been intense. With many thousands more expected to arrive in Jordan a new camp for a similar capacity to Zaatari is being prepared in Azraq. This interactive article from BBC News presents some startling statistics for Zaatari


After receiving our permissions we travelled 90 minutes out of Ammam towards the Syrian border. Arriving at the camp we were ushered through several checkpoints where our paperwork and passports were verified before arriving at the administrative and police compound for an interview with the site commander who would have the final say on whether we could access the camp. Explaining our mission we were granted approval and provided with a guide who would take us to points of interest and to meet families on the camp.


mother & child zaatariArriving in the afternoon it was too late to visit the schools whilst they were in session but it was possible to see from the buildings and inside that there had been considerable effort from organisations such as Unicef with supporting nations to provide a good schooling infrastructure. Although that said, given the rapid expansion of Zaatari it has been reported that two-thirds of the 30,000 child population eligible for school do not have a place. We learned during our visits to schools in Ammam that some Jordanian schools are operating double shifts to accommodate child refugees into their schools. As one might imagine, having a rapid influx of people with a similar population to the UK city of Norwich or the US city of Knoxville joining your country presents an enormous challenge on resources.


Considering the challenges presented the camp is well-organised and we are welcomed by the majority of those whom we meet who are often willing to tell us their stories. Children are especially happy to see us and stop us to ask questions, play or have us take their photograph. There are “high streets” where entrepreneurial refugees have set up shops and trading posts for those who have money so an economy of sorts operates within the camp. The main street has been jokingly called the “Champs Elysee” athough as you’d expect it’s somewhat different from its Parisian counterpart.


Whilst at first impression there is a festival like feel to the camp that idea is quickly eroded when one considers the reasons why people are here in the first place and uncertainty of what they might return to.  Rather than a temporary safe-haven for many this will become a permanent settlement and whilst we arrived on a hot summers day it will soon be winter when it is cold – it snows in Jordan. Life can also be harsh with the biggest challenge being security. Gangs are now operating in the camp and violent attacks are becoming more frequents particularly against women. It’s a staggering challenge for the Jordanian government and the UNHCR that one can only respect them for taking on. I have no doubt that they will be successful but it will take time, resources and, inevitably, things won’t always go to plan. 


tired child zaatariI was unprepared for the size and scale of the camp. It is absolutely enormous and leaves you in disbelief and then utter shock at the consequences of human conflict. I have the utmost respect for the spirit and welcoming kindness that many of the people living at the camp showed me. 


I can honestly say that my visit to Zaatari was life-changing. It has made me question a lot of things about the human condition, our society, the media, our global leadership and myself. It has given me a much needed shove to consider what I do next with my life but in the meantime my hopes and wishes are with those who have been displaced.


Additional pictures from Zaatari and Learning {RE}imagined maybe be viewed via our personal Instagram channels – Graham Brown-Martin, Newsha TavakolianRaphael Yaghobzadeh


Jordan Education Initiative

Rana MadaniI knew that I was going to get along with Rana Madani, the Deputy CEO of the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), when we initially spoke on Skype whilst I was in London scoping out the visit to Jordan. She wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t coming to Jordan to make comparisons with westernised implementations of technology in schools and that I would understand the context in which the JEI were working.


As it turned out Rana had nothing to worry about and our visit was one of the most enlightening yet with genuinely forward thinking and well implemented digital strategies that were entirely relevant to the context and cultural aspects of the nation. The passion for positive change and improvement of the Jordanian education system was palpable amongst Rana and the JEI team as well as all of the teaching staff, principals and learners whom we met.


The JEI was established as a public-private partnership involving both local as well as international partners aiming to improve education in Jordan through effective use of ICT that would create a model of education reform for other countries particularly in the Arab world. The initiative was launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2003 at the Dead Sea attracting 17 global corporations, 17 Jordanian businesses and 11 governmental and NGOs working together with the Jordanian government and with the support of their Majesties King Abdullah and Queen Rania.


Rana explained that the whole idea was to bring innovative ideas to change the education system in Jordan that ran in parallel with two other programmes running at the same time, the Education Reform for Knowledge Economy (ERFKE) programme and the roll-out of national broadband that was initiated by the Ministry of ICT. Involving local businesses in the JEI was an intrinsic aspect of the initiative to ensure local knowledge as well as enterprise creation.


The work from 2003-2007 resulted in 3 main pillars, the first being infrastructure to enable a number of “Discovery Schools” to pilot working practices that embedded digital platforms where 100 schools were chosen in Ammam, the capital city of Jordan, to discover what worked and what didn’t. The concept from the start was to learn important lessons about implementation so that successful practices could be scaled up to all of the schools in Jordan. Rana emphasised that it was not the mandate of JEI to roll out to every school in Jordan which would be the function of Jordan’s Ministry of Education. The role of JEI has been to act as an innovation lab or think tank that explores, tests and evidences new ideas for learning for the Ministry to inform their education reform process.


class in jordanThe 100 Discovery Schools were chosen in Ammam based around their location to the data centre and broadband provision at that time. That said there are 2 distinct areas of Ammam being the more affluent districts in the west of Ammam and more densely populated, more socially diverse districts to the east. Upon our visits this seemed somewhat similar to the split between West and East London in the UK perhaps comparing the Borough of Kensington with Newham or Hampstead with Peckham. This was an important aspect of the initiative to judge impact within different social conditions. In practice most of the schools were in the east in areas more in need of change in their education provision with the result that the 100 schools (55 boys schools, 45 girls schools, across primary and secondary) were a good representation of what was happening in Jordan as a whole. 


Wireless and broadband connectivity was a core aspect of the JEI programme and whilst prior to JEI technology was being used in schools in the form of computer labs etc., it was JEI who were pioneering the use of digital platforms across the curriculum and within each classroom and each student. The focus was to explore how digital and connected technologies could be integrated within the curricula and not limited to a computer lab where ICT was a subject in itself. Thus 1:1 access for each student and ability to access wireless networks wherever they are within the school was key.


The 2nd pillar was the creation of digital content. Rana explained that simply introducing infrastructure and devices into the classroom would not mean that teachers would be ready to create their own content. This is a particular challenge when there have not been many resources in the Arabic language. There is plenty of material on the internet on all subjects, there are lesson plans galore but these are not in Arabic. So an important part of JEI’s work has been to create digital content rather than using content that has been made overseas and then simply translating and customising it. The idea has been to bootstrap a local industry of digital learning materials and content that can be used in the region. As part of the partnership with international corporations, for example Cisco, it would be the case that this partner would support digital content development by working with a local partner in Jordan such as Rubicon Studios.


child laptopThe 6 areas of digital development were around Maths, Arabic, Science, ICT, EFL and Civics (citizenship) deployed via the EduWave learning management system where every teacher, student and parent is provided with a login.


The 3rd pillar of activity was the professional development training of teachers that was initially provided by the projects commercial partners and content developers before a train the trainer approach was adopted to ensure local expertise that would provide ongoing CPD.


In 2007 USAID funded a comprehensive impact assessment to measure the impact of JEI. The study found that JEI was an effective catalyst in growing the work and activities under the partnership able to facilitate sharing of global expertise of innovation with local expertise of Jordanian schools, culture, values and needs. It also identified areas for improvement that lead to the next phase of JEI that would lead to an expanded team (between 2003-2007 there were just 7 people) and methods of monitoring and evaluation that would provide diagnostics to identify where improvements were occurring or where additional focus was required.


Capacity building and change management have become important activities within JEI where ongoing CPD for teachers has become vital but also CPD programmes and workshops that they have developed themselves rather than brought in. Rana tells me that relevance is everything, “if teachers can’t see the benefit of using technology they won’t use it” she explains.


I will report in more detail the activities, challenges and successes of the JEI in the Learning {RE}imagined book that will be accompanied with a filmed interview with Rana when it’s published in 2014.


Rolling forward to our visit JEI invited us to visit 3 schools. The Princess Rahma School, one their leading innovative schools in West Ammam, Shefaa Bint Awf School also in the West and described as a “mentor school” and finally Balqees School situated in East Ammam that featured a laptop per child approach.


Enthusiastic TeacherPrincess Rahma School is an elementary that was buzzing with activity and full of enthusiastic learners in every class we visited. In one 2nd grade class I witnessed one of the most energetic and enthusiastic teachers that I have encountered in a while practically jumping around the room engaging her young pupils in a geography lesson about the Arabic countries using a blended combination of her own physical theatre combined with a physical globe, poster map and driving an interactive white board in way that wasn’t exclusive to herself – frequently young pupils were encouraged to join in and use the board. A 4th grade science class about atomic structure where each child had their own Classmate laptop featured an acted out play by some of the students in costume explaining by showing the different characteristics of atomic particles. It was quite obvious that the children here were enjoying their lesson and learning by participation and doing. In another class a group of grade 6 children are debating (in English) the relative merits of using technology for learning, no doubt for our benefit but never-the-less very impressive, with well reasoned arguments although the motion for the use of technology was upheld!


Our visit to Sheefa Bint Awf School was equally inspiring. An IWB was used in one science class as a multi-touch collaborative surface by the students. I have often had my doubts about the benefits of IWB’s in classrooms but here the device was used skilfully by the teacher as a device for the students to use rather than to simply project Powerpoint slides in a preset lesson plan. In all cases there was an abundance of locally created Arabic content as had been described by Rana in our pre-visit conversations. Once again students were involved in a theatrical performance as part of a maths class discussing the concept of volume via play-acting involving a popcorn seller filling cones. This struck me as an engaging way to learn whilst at the same time students were creating their own digital content about the subject, digital animations using Oracle’s Alice, to share on the maths groups Facebook page.


Yes, that’s right every teacher and student is encouraged to use Facebook as a place to share learning. Indeed the Principal was very keen to show me the YouTube channel that she had created and maintains for the school.


Digital ContentI asked one of the students, a 13 year old, how she’s learned to create such interesting digital content. Well, she gave me the same look as my own 12 year old daughter does when I ask a dumb question, a look like I’m an idiot which, of course, I am 🙂


It was at this school where we also met the annual intake of interns that join JEI to spend an entire year mentoring and assisting schools that are participating in the JEI programme. Most of these interns are from an IT background and join the programme to both gain working experience whilst at the same time provide vital support and encouragement to the teaching faculty in the schools.


Our last visit was to Balquees School, located in the district of Jabal Al-kalaa on the eastern side of Ammam. The school is nestled between the dense conurbation of buildings that are perched on the side of a large hill. The school building is, in fact, a converted house, providing education for local children from less affluent homes. Despite its size and very small classrooms the school is bright and positive. This school isn’t one of JEI’s “Discovery Schools” but one of Jordan’s Madrasati’s (meaning “my school”) which is an initiative to repair and rebuild schools with community support to make them better places for learning.


The students at this school and others like it lack access to the kind of digital platforms for learning made possible by broadband internet and so JEI in collaboration with Qualcomm are supporting a pilot that provides every child in the school with a 3G connected laptop computer that they use both in the school and take home to their families.


TeachersDespite a reduction of space and resources there is nothing to suggest that the children in this school are receiving less of an education. The atmosphere is positive, the children clearing enjoying the freedom and access they have via their laptops supported by hard-working, commitment team of teachers. I ask a pupil what they plan to do when they are older and she tells me that she’s going to be a heart surgeon. There is a sense that anything is possible for these children regardless of background.


I came away from my 2 days with JEI genuinely impressed by the determination, ambition and the ongoing learning that is happening within the team and the participating schools. They have truly grasped the understanding that innovation is messy, that it is risky, that mistakes will be made and that you must have courage. 


In short, I believe that JEI has nurtured an environment that encourages innovation, a place where teachers can explore new ideas and new approaches without fear and that is something I think we can all learn from.




Jordan MapWe’re now in Jordan, officially know as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, an Arab kingdom in the Middle East. Geographically it’s on the East Bank of the River Jordan extending to Palestine bordering Saudi Arabia to the south and east, Iraq to the north-east, Syria to the north and Israel to the east where it shares control of the Dead Sea (which if time permits we hope to visit and take a float!).


Arriving at 4am, from Singapore via a stop over at Abu Dhabi, today was a bit of rest day and orientation where I’ve been introduced to the delights of Turkish coffee (delicious), Backgammon (which I haven’t played for years) and strawberry flavoured sheesha – all of which I could get used to. The people we’ve met here are amongst the friendliest we’ve met on our travels so far with a genuine pleasure that we are here. I was even welcomed on arrival at the airport by a local character who exclaimed “lovely jubbly” an expression of English origin which I haven’t heard in a long time.


We’re here to visit and learn about the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), a non-profit organisation established under Her Majesty Queen Rania, whose objective is to foster and maintain partnerships that launch multi-million dollar initiatives that have a strong impact on the modernisation of education within the nation that contribute to the development of the local private sector in ICT and professional development. Collaborative by nature the programme tracks within JEI concentrates on  Research and Innovation, Expansion and International Outreach.


The JEI was conceived at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2003, when the Governors of IT and Telecommunications agreed to sponsor an initiative for education reform in a developing country. Jordan was chosen as the pilot country and was challenged with developing a proposal “of significant scope and size” that would catalyze a process of change and create value that transcends its borders. The JEI was formally launched at the Extraordinary Meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea, Jordan in June 2003.


Relevant use of technology is at the centre of developments within the JEI programme as they implement Discovery Schools that serve as test beds to attract and pilot further innovations in education. After successful piloting JEI works through an expansion phase to scale up working models within the Jordanian education system. Innovations are intended to be shared with other nations as part of JEI’s international outreach programmes.


After 10 years since inception the Learning {RE}imagined team is here to learn what has been achieved.


Jordan has, of course, been in the international spotlight as a host country for Syrian refugees of which more than 500,000 of the 2 million have sought refuge in Jordan. This humanitarian crisis inevitably requires an enormous amount of resources to sustain where half of the refugee population are children of which two-thirds are now out of school. When one considers as Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen points out that education is an essential human capability that is integral to the overall well-being of a person this children are at significant risk. Education serves a variety of practical purposes in addition to gaining skills and knowledge for future endeavours. Children in schools are at a decreased risk for military recruitment, sexual violence, disease, crime and substance abuse. The structure of education provides a vital sense of normalcy for children living in refugee camps providing them with a break from the tedium of everyday life. In essence, society either pays now or pays later and it is my belief that these kids need a break when the world around them is shattered.


I’m looking forward to learning a great deal whilst I am in Jordan, I sense that some of it will be difficult for me as I will be as far out of my comfort zone as I have ever been but in a sense that is what this journey is about.


You can follow our live updates via Twitter and Instagram and I will report back here in the next few days.