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‘There are so many skills and talents among the Syrian refugee population. The challenge is knowing how we can better support these communities to help themselves.’

Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan © Olivier Delarue
Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan

Professor Alexander Betts, the RSC Director, recently returned from a stimulating field visit to Jordan as part of the recently formed UNHCR Innovation Circle or ‘iCircle’. There he met refugee families in Amman and in the sprawling Za’atari and Azraq camps, and saw and even tried on (more below!) a number of the support services available to them. The iCircle is a council of key UNHCR partners from the private sector, foundations and academia tasked with providing UNHCR Innovation with strategic guidance, technical expertise, advice on public–private partnerships, and identifying funds. Members include the RSC, Ikea Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, UPS, Hewlett Packard, Stanford University, Columbia University, the UN Foundation, and Stephanie & Hunter Hunt, amongst others. Together, it is hoped they will cultivate new ideas in the field of refugee assistance, both in emergency response and in protracted refugee situations.

Iris-recognition cashpoint machines at the Cairo Amman Bank, Jordan© Olivier DelarueIn Jordan the group was introduced to a range of innovative and entrepreneurial approaches by and for refugees. In Amman, for instance, they saw the UNHCR Helpline in action, which receives thousands of calls every day; iris-recognition cashpoint machines at the Cairo Amman Bank where refugees can obtain card-free access to funds (see left); and a tablet-based needs assessment. In Za’atari, they were shown 3D-printed prosthetic hands (see below); grey-water recycling urban gardens; and community art projects. In Azraq, UNHCR has designed a camp structure from scratch; the first fully designed camp in the world.

Alexander Betts trying a 3D-printed prosthetic hand, Za'atari Camp, Jordan© Olivier DelarueUNHCR Innovation’s vision focuses on unleashing and supporting the potential of refugees, and creating an enabling environment for innovation to increase effectiveness and impact. Recent RSC research on Refugee Economies undertaken in Uganda has demonstrated the great potential of refugees to engage economically and to innovate. Professor Betts is now exploring the possibility of taking this work and applying it to the Jordanian context:

It was an opportunity to explore whether the kind of work we have undertaken in Uganda might be usefully adapted to the Jordanian context. There is so much vibrant economic activity among the Syrian populations. It is widely recognised but remains under-researched and poorly understood.’


Pictures: © Olivier Delarue, UNHCR

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