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Refugee youth need opportunities, education, and the chance for empowerment

Over the past two weeks, we have had the opportunity to hear firsthand from Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, two of the largest host countries in the Middle East/North African region.

March 2, 2018

By Leila Toplic (NLG Tech Task Force Lead) and Lindsey Kneuven (Head of Social Impact at Pluralsight)

Over the past two weeks, we have had the opportunity to hear firsthand from Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, two of the largest host countries in the Middle East/North African region. We spoke with the refugee and host-community youth  through Mercy Corps' partner Athar in Russeifa, Jordan; Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s program in Za’atari camp in Jordan, and at UNICEF’s Innovation Lab in Beirut, Lebanon. We spoke to young people like Omar, 23, a refugee from Syria, who is currently living in Jordan. We also heard from the No Lost Generation U.N. and NGO partner agencies and private sector companies at the NLG Tech Summit in Amman, Jordan.

In this post, our goal is to share a snapshot of what we heard specific to the needs of conflict-affected youth aged 15 to 24, and the opportunity for the private sector to support the humanitarian sector in meeting those needs.

Needs are real, and urgent.
For youth in the region, conflict has disrupted the time in their lives that is dedicated to learning and development. This time has been lost to displacement, including exposure to violence and trauma, and the burden of adult responsibilities. Millions of young people have been forced to drop out of school, work in difficult conditions to provide for their families, marry early, and abandon their hopes and dreams. Young people are very much aware that this is a loss that cannot be recovered.

Yet, we heard over and over again from young Syrian refugees that they are eager to get back on track. They are optimistic, creative, and hungry to learn. They are eager to contribute to their communities as future social entrepreneurs solving challenges in their communities as artists, business leaders, and innovators.

To make that possible, young people need:

  • Opportunities to grow to their full potential. This means access to education, especially skills training in in-demand and soft skills. Mentors and role models are urgently needed.
  • Access to meaningful livelihood opportunities. Many youth are working to support their families, so there is a real sense of urgency to acquire skills quickly and connect them to viable economic opportunities. Multi-year, formal education is not an option for most refugee youth.
  • Youth need to feel empowered to inspire and lead change. This includes both access to opportunities for meaningful engagement in their local communities and around the world. Leading change also means becoming a creator, not just a passive consumer – in Beirut, one of the young people said: “We don’t want to only to play with the games, we want to create them."
  • Finally, young people need ways to promote and protect their rights.

To meet these needs and design solutions that are viable, relevant, and sustainable, it’s very important to understand the context in which the youth live.

  • Arabic is the first and often the only language for the majority of conflict-affected youth in the region. Yet many of the online educational platforms and learning content are in English, which prevents most vulnerable youth from accessing learning opportunities.
  • Connectivity is a major issue both from a legal and infrastructural standpoint. Refugees in Za’atari camp don’t have consistent internet access. During our visit to the UNICEF Innovation Lab in Beirut, the internet was down for several hours at a time when young people could be learning and researching their projects online. And, when there is internet, it’s not always reliable or strong enough to stream educational videos.
  • Most refugees live outside of the camps and away from critical services, including access to health, education, and employment. Reaching urban refugees with programs like skills training requires coordination with community-based organizations (CBOs) and local governments.
  • Employment opportunities in the region are limited. According to the International Labor Organization, youth unemployment in the region rose to 30 percent in 2015, up almost 10 percent since 2009 (ILO, 2015). What’s more, employment options are limited to refugees, both legally and structurally, and many resort to low-paid employment in the informal economy.

    In both Jordan and Lebanon, Syrians refugees can work in three sectors. In Jordan, these sectors are agriculture, construction, and hospitality. In Lebanon, agriculture, construction, and sanitation. For the most part, job opportunities within these sectors are unskilled and focused on day labor; 40 percent of Syrians working in Jordan are working in construction. Entrepreneurship is not an easy option due to legal barriers related to Syrian refugees owning businesses, lack of seed funding and startup support, and the perception that entrepreneurship is a less viable option compared to a stable government job. Yet, entrepreneurship can turn refugees from job seekers to job creators (and employers) in their communities.

  • Digital literacy is low among the most vulnerable youth, which makes it difficult to make online learning platforms or content useful to them without onboarding and support from the humanitarian and CBOs on the ground. What’s more, these young people don’t have computers or connectivity at home, which prevents them from practicing newly acquired skills and learning outside of lab hours.
  • Cultural norms are strong and represent real barriers for young women and girls to access educational and economic opportunities. For example, in Za’atari camp, young women can’t use bikes as a way to transport themselves from their family compounds in the camp to NRC’s training center, curtailing their access to educational and skills-training opportunities.
  • Pace of change is accelerating, with in-demand skills changing frequently. This is less obvious for refugee youth on a daily basis, but it’s an important consideration when designing educational and skills-training programs for refugee youth.

So, how can we start solving these complex problems in real time? We have identified, in collaboration with youth and humanitarian organizations, concrete opportunities for the private sector to play a meaningful role in addressing the urgent and ongoing needs of conflict-affected youth. Stay tuned for the next post.

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