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By Benjamin Lutz

Artist rendition of the al-Wakrah Stadium, designed by the late Zaha Hadid. Source: Zaha Hadid Architects

On December 2, 2010, the global community was shocked at the announcement of the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup – Qatar. Its extremely hot temperatures make Qatar a surprising choice to host this international event, with many alluding to corruption from FIFA and Qatar. Furthermore, Qatar is the smallest country in terms of landmass to host this international event, another concern due to the huge crowd that comes to enjoy the World Cup. Apart from the logistics of hosting the World Cup, many more have condemned Qatar for the ghastly conditions that migrant laborers face as they build the twelve stadiums, as well as a new airport, roads, hotels, and other infrastructural changes to prepare for 2022, billed at over $140 billion. Well before the 2010 announcement, human rights groups advocated for a change to Qatar’s system for employing migrants. The name of the current system is kafala, a system forcing all migrants to be sponsored and subsequently tied to an employer. This employer controls housing, wages, travel, and the well being of each employee. The kafala system has been frequently described as modern day slavery due to its exploitative nature. Forced labor, unpaid work, confiscation of documents, and withholding food and water to the migrants are a few of the mechanisms of control the employers enact over the migrants under the kafala system.

Workers mainly from South and Southeast Asia travel to Qatar with the hope of a securing a job in order to send remittances back to their families, but the kafala system traps them under the purview of their employer. The 2022 World Cup announcement has seen a significant rise in migrant workers coming to Qatar, creating a larger humanitarian crisis for the living and working conditions of the laborers. Qatar has not changed its policy of the kafala system since it became host of the 2022 World Cup, even with the additional international scrutiny towards its government. If Qatar does not change its policy before 2022, an estimated 4,000 migrant workers will die, making this event the deadliest in sporting history.

Qatar does not view the kafala system as harmful or exploitative. It continues using it because it is an efficient way to have cheap labor in many economic sectors of their country, especially construction. Consequentially, Qatar has a lopsided population; only about 10% of the population is made up of Qatari citizens. The other 90% are expatriate migrant workers with temporary residency status, which accounts for 94% of the workforce in Qatar. Overall, the living and working conditions for migrant laborers are deplorable, and with the announcement of the 2022 World Cup, the situation has only worsened, contrary to Qatar’s claims that it has altered its laws to accommodate the wishes of the international community.

In preparation for global sporting events, migrant workers are frequently exploited through stealing of wages, excessively long working hours, potentially deadly working and living conditions, and the restriction of free movement. Qatar’s unquenchable ambition to dazzle the world with modern stadiums and infrastructure leads to an increase in migrant workers, succumbing them to systemized exploitation under the kafala system. The conditions to house the migrants working on these new projects are filthy, cramped, and dangerous, and even without the pressure of the World Cup, hundreds of workers die each year from work accidents. In perspective, one death in preparation for a sporting event is a tremendous disappointment for the host country; according to some sources, 1,200 migrant workers in Qatar have already died as a part of the 2022 World Cup preparation. This figure is presumed to be much higher, although the Qatari government is adamant that no workers have died in the various construction projects. Without pressure from FIFA, Qatar is under no pressure to alter its policy. In terms of World Cup logistics, FIFA has been extremely proactive to enable Qatar to host the World Cup, especially taking the unprecedented step of moving the tournament from summer to winter. FIFA’s overall lack of a direct response to the violations occurring in Qatar, allows the kafala system to continue to thrive and exploit thousands of vulnerable migrant workers each year.

Death toll up until March 6, 2013. Source: Huffington Post UK
Death toll up until March 6, 2013. Source: Huffington Post UK

With the 2022 World Cup preparation currently ongoing, now is the time to advocate for a policy change to labor laws in Qatar. The 2022 World Cup is six years away, and with no immediate plans to relocate to a country with less human rights violations, more migrant laborers will travel to Qatar to construct the infrastructure needed to host this large event. However, the number of deaths from the December 2, 2010, announcement until today is growing, highlighting the fact that international sporting events have a higher cost than just the financial burden. Minimum wages, transparency, an increase in both the quantity and quality of labor inspectors, and free movement are all rights granted to migrant workers. Qatar must stop exploiting these vulnerable populations simply to make a profit, regardless of their status as the host of the 2022 World Cup. The kafala system is not only in Qatar, and these recommendations must be duplicated to any other country violating the rights of migrant laborers. Hopefully, the 2022 World Cup will not be “built on the bones” of 4,000 vulnerable people.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Contingent of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army of China. Source:

Last Wednesday, China issued its first policy paper on the Arab world. The document outlines China’s blueprint for strengthening cooperation between China and the Arab states. The release of this policy paper comes just a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the Middle East. Xi is scheduled to visit Egypt from January 20 to 22, as well Iran and Saudi Arabia subsequently. The last time a Chinese president visited the Middle East was in 2006, when then President Hu Jintao visited Saudi Arabia.

The combination of these two “firsts” for China with regard to the Middle East is a definite sign of increasing Chinese engagement with the region. The central driving force of this trend lies in China’s burgeoning energy needs: its demand for oil has consistently surpassed domestic oil production since 1993 and has been steadily growing ever since. Given its ample oil reserves and relative proximity to China, the Middle East has become the largest source of crude oil imports for the country. In 2014, the region as a whole supplied China with 3.2 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for 52% of its total oil imports.

Not surprisingly, Chinese interest in the Middle East’s energy resources forms the bedrock of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations. In fact, China’s Arab Policy Paper cites a “1+2+3” cooperation framework, with energy cooperation as the core—the “1” in the framework. It is only with a secured energy supply that China can then facilitate the “2” and “3” of the framework: “infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two wings,” and the “three high and new tech fields of nuclear energy, space satellite and new energy as the three breakthroughs.”

The “1+2+3” cooperation framework ties in with China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road” (“Belt and Road”) projects, which were also mentioned in the policy paper. This “Belt and Road” initiative effectively envisions a modern-day reincarnation of China’s past overland and maritime trade routes, with “a series of transcontinental railroads, pipelines, ports, airports, and other infrastructure projects” slated to connect China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. To bring this idea into fruition, China has provided massive financing to countries along the “Belt and Road” for various infrastructure projects.

If successful, the economic benefits to China and the regions that the “Belt and Road” passes will be immense. Chinese firms will have easier access to key markets and commodities, while the Chinese-financed infrastructure can provide a huge stimulant for the economies of the developing countries in those regions.

Indeed, the engagement of China with the Middle East has largely been in the realm of economics. China has always focused on improving trade and investment ties with the Middle East, while refraining from being a major stakeholder in the region’s political entanglements. In this regard, China’s new Arab Policy Paper represents more of a continuity of, rather than a departure from, prevailing trends in Chinese-Middle Eastern relations. The fact that the section on “Investment and Trade Cooperation” in the policy paper is around twice as long as the other sections is especially telling.

Nevertheless, economic processes do not occur in a vacuum. China definitely needs to consider other policy aspects in its relation with the Middle East, i.e. politics, security, social development, and culture—all of which are also mentioned in the Arab Policy Paper. Of these, the most crucial now are probably politics and security, since they can have direct impacts on Chinese economic involvement in the Middle East.

The escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran recently, in light of Iranians protesters ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran on 2 January after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, should be a worrying development for China. After all, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are major suppliers of crude oil to China and their regional conflict will definitely threaten its energy security.

At the same time, the Saudi-Iranian conflict has complicated international efforts to address the ongoing civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These sectarian disputes in the Middle East can have spillover effects for China’s own conflict with Uighur separatists, who are fighting for the independence of the predominantly Uighur region of Xinjiang from China. Given that the Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, they may be susceptible to extremist Sunni ideology emanating from the conflicts in the Middle East.

In fact, just last month, the Islamic State released a four-minute song in Mandarin that called upon Muslims in China to take up arms and join its fight against non-Muslims. Moreover, in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, named China as one of the countries in which “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized” and called upon his fighters to attack those countries.

Hence, whether it likes it or not, China is now drawn into the quagmire of conflicts in the Middle East. It has to chart its growing economic ambitions in the region alongside real political and security threats. Just last year, the Islamic State executed Fan Jinghui, who is the first known Chinese national to be killed by the group. In response, the Chinese government committed itself to “enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with the international community.”

That said, whether China will move from the sidelines to become an active participant in the fight against the Islamic State is still an open question. Many experts doubt that China will depart from its “decades-old policy of nonintervention” by providing direct Chinese military support to combat the Islamic State. Yet, if its strategy in combating terrorism in the African continent is any example, China will probably choose to pursue its own anti-terrorism strategy: a reliance on “financial aid and capacity building support for regional militaries” over direct military intervention. In other words, China prefers to help the affected states to fight their own battles against terrorist groups through the provision of economic resources and technical expertise, rather than increasing its military presence in the region.

On the whole, as China becomes more cognizant of the political and security threats facing its economic interests in the Middle East, it will have to recalibrate the nature of its engagement in the region. As the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry and the threat of the Islamic State intensify, China cannot afford to maintain the status quo. After all, its economic interests are at stake. Nevertheless, it is still unlikely to pursue an activist foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East for now. Rather than depart from its noninterventionist policy, it probably will choose to capitalize on what it does best: marshaling its enormous economic resources to effect gradual change. Perhaps, China’s answer to the varied problems of the Middle East is not a turn to political-military activism, but an increased economic assertiveness.

The trade-centric nature of China’s new Arab Policy Paper, as seen earlier, may be one indication of this continuity. If there is to be any change in the status quo of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations in light of President Xi’s upcoming visit to the Middle East, my take will be the following: while it is no longer tenable for China to remain “business as usual” with regard to the Middle East, the only change we might see in the near future may simply be “more business.”

By Kate West

More often than not, disability rights and issues of accessibility for persons with disabilities (PWDs) are excluded from conversations on peacebuilding and peacekeeping in the Middle East. Perhaps this is because it is a less conventional “frame” through which to view the concept of peacebuilding; nevertheless, these are critical issues to consider if we are to facilitate lasting, sustainable models of peace and development. Efforts to mainstream issues pertaining to people with disability are relatively recent (World Institute on Disability 2014).

Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens comprise 20.7% of the total population of the country; of this number, nearly a quarter (25%) lives with a moderate to severe disability (Jerusalem Post 2013). That’s 425,000 individuals who often lack the knowledge, resources, and legal recourse to advocate for themselves.

Although PWDs in every country face challenges, disability in the Arab world is particularly problematic. This is because for the most part, these societies have not yet moved beyond the medical definition of disability to embrace a social one. Whereas the medical definition perceives disability as a problem to be fixed, the social model understands disability as a neutral condition. In this model, disabled individuals are designated by their physical and or mental difference, but this difference is neither a positive nor negative; it is simply distinct. While the medical model designates “normalization” of the disabled as a remedy, the social model advocates changes in the interaction between the individual and society.

Despite nominal improvements in Middle Eastern governments’ policies toward disabled individuals, social and institutional barriers still largely deny them fair and compassionate treatment. This is where grassroots civil society organizations (CSOs) have come to play a critical role for the Arab society in Israel. Exclusion for one is exclusion for all, and perhaps it is persons with disabilities living in Israel’s Arab communities that understand this best. This is why Arab CSOs lobby at the local and national levels to ensure that Israel, a signatory on the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is enforcing the Convention to the fullest extent in employment, education, and the social sphere.

While it is not a common approach, framing disability rights as human rights, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine, has succeeded in building a broad coalition of stakeholders, invested in civil society sustainability, peacebuilding, and cross-cultural community collaboration.

According to the Center for Disability Studies (2010), approximately 16% of all disabilities are war and conflict related. In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, such disabilities can be made more difficult by increasingly complicated and rapidly changing political circumstances. In the West Bank, road closures, the subsequent restriction of movement of people and goods, tensions with Jewish settlements, and the continued presence of the separation wall along the Israeli/Palestinian are all cited by CSO Diakonia as contributors to a decline in the quality of daily life for residents (2013). When used as leverage for facilitating dialogue between actors on both sides of the Green Line, however, disability advocacy can be used to increase peacebuilding efficacy and authenticity.

The benefit of using disability advocacy in such a way is that disability itself is universal; regardless of how narrowly or widely an individual chooses to define the term, disability touches every community and country in the world. When disability rights are promoted and respected, these conversations can facilitate space for broader dialogue about human rights in general. Social inclusion and accessibility are issues that all sides—Israeli, Palestinian, and international bodies mediating the Conflict—can get behind.

If peacebuilding is defined as a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through reconciliation, institution building, and political as well as economic transformation (Alliance for Peacebuilding 2013), then disability advocacy is a more effective, inclusive model for peacebuilding.

A principal reason for the continued conflict in Israel/Palestine is social inequity. Usually, however, social inequity is defined in strict terms: Jewish and Arab. Organizations and governments, by overlooking disability rights as a building block for peace negotiations, are missing out on a golden opportunity to facilitate dialogue and increase cooperation. Social equity must mean equity for all—Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, persons with disabilities and those without. In the currency of peacebuilding, disability advocacy has buying power.

Historically, disability is an issue that has been relegated to the margins, not just in the Middle East, but globally. However, it is this very marginalization in peacebuilding spheres that creates an opportunity for robust human rights work to be undertaken with minimal threat of the issue becoming politically charged. It is this marginalization that can pave the way to a durable peace by introducing social inclusion and addressing social exclusion.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will by no means be solved through disability advocacy alone, it can nevertheless serve as an important and innovative tool to promote cross-border communication and collaboration, and to facilitate meaningful relationships with a broad spectrum of government and non-government actors in pursuit of equity and access for all.

By Kate Moran

A Syrian refugee and her newborn baby at a clinic in Ramtha, Jordan." Photo Credit: UK Department for International Development (DFID), 2013.

Google the words “Middle East” or” “refugees,” and you’ll find no shortage of articles bemoaning the current humanitarian crisis that has seemingly engulfed almost every country in the region. Many of these articles focus on important health-related issues: food security, sexual violence, and the civil conflicts that prevent aid from reaching vulnerable populations. Indeed, there are a great many organizations operating in the Middle East, all seeking to mitigate these problems. Yet, rarely are money or attention directed to one of the region’s greatest crises: the unavailability of, and lack of access to, mental health care.

Perhaps the reason for this lacuna is because mental health is one of the more difficult medical concepts to pin down; opinions vary widely on what the very definition of mental health is, much less how to treat it. Moreover, mental health encompasses a huge range of conditions, some of which appear minor and others that are severe enough to cause significant disruptions to daily life.
Perhaps it is because mental health isn’t as “glamorous” an issue as combatting sexual violence against women and girls in refugee and internally displaced populations. Or maybe it is because the global community doesn’t know where to start—how do we improve the mental health of vulnerable populations if the underlying causes are so vast and seemingly beyond our control?

Make no mistake: mental health is the greatest unchecked public health issue in the Middle East today. The rates of depression and anxiety for the region are greater than anywhere else in the world. We know what’s causing these alarmingly high rates of mental illness: years—and in some cases, decades—of political and social unrest; a seemingly never-ending cycle of economic booms and busts, worsened by global markets; and steady and increasing ‘brain drain’ of doctors and other medical professionals to the West.

Currently, for every million Iraqi citizens, there are only four psychiatrists to service them. In Al-Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp, 32% of all refugees receiving support to prevent and deal with mental health illnesses are children. Yet, in 2013 there were only 34 psychiatrists and 24 psychologists—for the entire camp. It’s clear that the level of need is disproportionately greater than the ability of the Jordanian authorities and NGOs operating in Al-Zaatari to deal with it.

So how do we convince the global community—not just NGOs and governments, but individuals—to invest in mental health care in the Middle East? Simply, we must connect the dots between this care and the broader forces causing mental health conditions in the first place. The soaring rates of depression and anxiety in the region are inextricably tied to the broader social and political milieu in which they exist. These conditions cannot be understood without framing them in the context of civil war, sectarian conflict, political occupation, economic unrest, and rising religious extremism.
These issues, some of which have existed for decades, are the underlying causes of the Middle East’s mental health crisis; many continue to worsen as relations between states, as well as within states, deteriorate even further. Thus, we cannot be advocates for change in the region without understanding the broader forces at play and working to find sustainable social and political solutions. Without recognizing the role of quality mental health care in the overall health of a population and taking steps to ensure access to this care, the underlying issues causing the problems cannot be reconciled. While this might seem like a circular argument, it’s necessary to address the two issues—both the underlying cause (instability) and the symptoms (mental illness) in tandem with one another, so as to maximize long-term impact.

Although there are many other problems in the region that must be addressed, the critical need for mental health care, and a commitment by both local actors and the international community to provide for this care, cannot be overlooked. There must be an investment—rhetorically as well as financially—in both mental health care and creating spaces within existing initiatives to broaden services in this regard.

So when we talk about health in the Middle East, we should talk about food security. We should talk about sexual violence, gender equity, and economic empowerment. Without simultaneously talking about and addressing mental health, however, the region’s vulnerable populations will continue to suffer. They will never move beyond the refugee camps to create new lives for themselves, and the Middle East will never move beyond its endless cycle of instability. Poor mental health unquestionably dampens an individual’s full potential. Without the availability of and access to mental health care, the future generations of the Middle East will not flourish, but languish.

“Discussing Life in Afghanistan” A Psychologist and Department of Defense civilian deployed to Afghanistan as members of the Human Terrain System interview local residents in April 2009. Source: U.S. Army/Flickr.

In 2005, Montgomery McFate, a former defense consultant for the Rand Corporation, and Andrea Jackson, the Director of Research and Training at the Lincoln Group, published a paper entitled: “An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs.” In it, they outlined the goals, needs, and cost for the development of a “specialized organization within the Department of Defense to produce, collect, and centralize cultural knowledge, which will have the utility for policy development and military operations.” The article in Military Review was published at a time when policy makers recognized the need to have cultural knowledge of their enemy, especially during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It went on to suggest the establishment of regional combatant commanders (RCC) and regional offices to supplement teams on the ground and to maintain close relationships with local forces and possible other sources of intelligence.  From this paper, the Human Terrain System (HTS), a United States Army, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) support unit costing $726 million, was born.

Units in HTS, known as Human Training Teams (HTT), were supposed to deploy people with social-science backgrounds, such as anthropologists and linguists, to provide military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population in the area. In 2007, the program was critiqued by the American Anthropological Association, which called the collaboration of social scientists and combat units “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise,” as there existed a moral conflict between studying, for example, Iraqis, and advising troops who might end up killing them. However, the criticisms did not stop there; taxpayers were upset, as were military personnel, who felt that there already existed units that carried out the same function and that HTS was draining resources away from other priorities. The program also came under close scrutiny in 2009, when Staff Sergeant Paula Lloyd, a member of HTT in Afghanistan, was doused with petrol and set alight by a local Afghan. Her death went unreported, despite it being the third researcher with HTT to die on that deployment.

The need to thoroughly understand our enemies and associates is something that has been recognized for a long time. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” And the need still exists today; General Odierno, the 38th Chief of Staff of the Army and former Commander General, United States Forces – Iraq, acknowledged its necessity during the war. While in Iraq, he recruited Emma Sky, a non-military British expert on the Middle East and who had lived in Kirkuk and dealt with the Iraqi-Kurdistan disputes after the Fall of Saddam and the war, to be his political advisor.

In late June of this year, the press got word that HTS had been terminated quietly in September 2014, as “there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater.” But why was there such a long delay in announcing the end of the program? Many believe that HTS had the potential to change humanitarian missions and reconstruction efforts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even praised the program and its “alternative thinking” that was key to success for a military that has a reputation of being heavy handed, something that was only emphasized around the world. Secretary Gates expressed how HTS led to less violence, citing a commander in Afghanistan who had worked with Human Terrain Teams and, as a result, had to carry out 60% fewer armed strikes.

So what does the military do now that HTS has been terminated? Major Adam Martin doesn’t believe HTS’s termination left any void for his operations. His fellow soldiers are from diverse backgrounds and are trained in the same way and can, therefore, carry out the same functions as HTS personnel did; he works with reserve soldiers who are anthropologists, state troopers, civil engineers, and environmental engineers to name a few. Maj. Martin has been with Civil Affairs since 2010 and is the HQ Company Commander for the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade based in Philadelphia. His unit is part of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) (USACAPOC(A)) which was founded in 1985, is comprised of mostly U.S. Army Reserve soldiers and which is meant to carry out five functions: civil information management, population resource control, support to civil administration, foreign humanitarian assistance and nation assistance. I met Maj. Martin when I worked at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy this year in New York where he was visiting to research how to engage youth in post-conflict areas through creative arts programs, such as the dance and music classes the Academy ran.

He too thinks that understanding your enemy is vital, as you cannot do your job (in this field) without understanding the culture. He added that this applies more to Civil Affairs soldiers who are “expected to understand and to know a lot more than anybody else.” For example, when examining the next Area of Operations (AO), he explained how there are two systems the unit uses to assess various factors: PMESCII – political, military, economic, social, cultural, informational and infrastructure – and ASCOPE – areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people and events. Every minute detail, such as the location of power plants and natural resources, are plotted, analyzed and discussed.

U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.
U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.

Despite being civilians, HTS personnel wore uniform when deployed, like those in Civil Affairs. Wearing uniform might seem imposing and threatening but Maj. Martin assured that it “can be helpful as it opens doors. There is credibility.” He even mentioned that local interpreters would also wear military uniform but would be covered, as they would not want to be seen, as this may endanger their families – something that the army would try and prevent at all costs. Maj. Martin did explain that Civil Affairs does differ from HTS in its operations, which include advising on infrastructure development projects, water distribution centers, and school and bridge refurbishment – known as Engineering Civil Action Programs or ENCAP – such as those he carried out in the Philippines. Moreover, Civil Affairs personnel can carry out a wide range of programs: Veterinarian Civil Action Programs (VETCAP), Educational Civil Action Programs (EDCAP), and Medical Civil Action Programs (MEDCAP) – Maj. Martin disclosed that through this last set of programs, he has had to carry out circumcision operations with a local doctor.

Understanding our enemies and foreign populations beyond what their military capabilities are, where they could be deployed, what history says and what their tactics are can only tell us so much. It is vital to comprehend and to follow cultural practices to add credibility to the incoming force and to not aggravate what is likely to be an already complex, volatile environment. The United States has, unfortunately, only emphasized its controversial approach to reconstruction efforts in recent history. The Human Terrain System was established to help with this. Although marred in controversy, the program also received much praise so it does not seem to make sense that its termination was abrupt, hushed and muted. However, there is no rush for the country to consider finding and funding another similar program for it seems as if there already exists a unit to help military forces without the assistance of HTS.

Civil Affairs appears to overlap with HTS in many aspects but surpasses it in its capacity with regard to personnel and operations, which beckons the questions: did we really need the Human Terrain System? What would have happened if it were never established?

By Kate Moran

Syrian Kurdish refugees entering Turkey. Source: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO).

It has been a little over a month since the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, it’s estimated that over one million Syrians have sought asylum in Turkey. Most of them were part of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have streamed across Syria’s northern border with the country, inundating once-sleepy Turkish towns like Reyhanli. Refugee camps like Suruç, Turkey’s largest, with 35,000 residents, are bursting at the seams. More than half of Syrian refugees worldwide are under the age of 18, and thus many of Turkey’s Syrian refugee population are of school age. According to NPR, the education crisis is fueling an epidemic of early marriage, child labor and poor prospects.

Syrians are now a majority in some border towns, like Reyhanli. Although the influx of refugees into Turkey has caused a significant degree of nationalist backlash, some locals are working to bring the country’s burgeoning Syrian population into the greater social fold. Marginalization, an issue faced by refugees everywhere, is especially prominent in Turkey, where a history of cultural heterogeneity and targeted nationalism has pervaded the public and political spheres for more than a century. But marginalization can be dangerous, not just for the marginalized, but also for those who perpetuate it. Like Arab countries in the region, such as Egypt, where high youth unemployment and low educational prospects have fueled social unrest, Turkey will soon have to contend with similar issues.

Refugees left to languish without education or mobility are a threat to both Turkey’s and the region’s stability. Youth unemployment is one of the most pressing threats facing the Middle East today. Unchecked, it has the potential to perpetuate regional instability, augment militant groups’ influence, and further entrench the Middle East in its vicious cycle of economic dysfunction. Rising youth populations makes finding a solution for the region’s economic woes even more critical. Without a sustainable educational model, however, economic prospects will only worsen.

To help close the educational gap, a prominent Turkish educator, Enver Yucel, has donated $10 million to establish an accredited university system where Syrians can take coursework in Arabic, English, and Turkish. Yucel believes that breaking the cycle of exploitation, marginalization, and social inequity begins with education. Investing in refugees’ education, Yucel believes, is an investment in Turkey’s future. It will equip them will the tools necessary to be fully integrated into the social and economic fabric of the country.

180,000 child refugees in Turkey receive school supplies through UNICEF’s No Lost Generation (NLG) initiative, which promotes non-discriminatory access to quality and relevant formal and non-formal education for both refugee and vulnerable host community children. However, the Turkish university system remains largely inaccessible to young Syrians, many of whom were college-bound before the outbreak of the war. Though a significant percentage of Syrian youth are educated, language barriers prevent most of them from pursuing higher education in Turkey, which would in turn, increase their job prospects.

Like Palestinians in Jordan, Syrians in Turkey have irrevocably changed the social, linguistic, and political fabric of the country.  Whether or not Turkey wants them there, many are there to stay. Even under the best circumstances, Syria will take years to recover from the conflict, and prospects for the country’s displaced youth will remain low. Because of this, many Syrians will seek to cultivate new lives for themselves in Turkey. Generations will be born and come of age in a new place, facing the challenge of conflicted identities. They will be both Syrian and Turkish, but perhaps neither fully one nor the other.

Educational initiatives like Enver Yucel’s aren’t just humanitarian; they’re nationalist. Although many Turks resent Syrians for putting undue economic pressure on the government to support them, and for taking jobs away from locals (a common complaint in any society with large refugee/immigrant populations), the full social and economic integration of the Syrian refugees is ultimately critical to Turkey’s well-being and stability. Without such integration, the Eurasian country that has long been perceived as an island of calm in a region of chaos may descend into similar patterns of sectarian violence, religious conflict, and political dysfunction experienced by the rest of the Middle East.

By James Abate

Alia and Basma, both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. Source: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

A formalized educational system within a nation is necessary not only to cultivate productive citizens but also to provide a structured system for children to realize how the world around them functions. The molding of children into educated adults by way of schooling is severely hindered, however, for refugees displaced by war or genocide.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the Syrian Civil War as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” Almost half of the causalities of the conflict are children, and millions of refugees continue to flee into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. UNHCR reports that Lebanon, a country with a population of only around 4 million, houses 1.2 documented refugees within its borders. That number swells to an estimated 2 million when taking unregistered refugees into consideration. Within Jordan, 700,000 refugees have been granted asylum, with that number projected to increase to around 1 million by the end of 2015.

Education in the region provides refugees an indisputable opportunity for advancement far beyond mere survival. However, for the 400,000 Syrian children and young adults who are registered in Lebanon’s education system, proper education is a luxury; many of young refugees believe their dreams of attending school are a lost cause. The UN reports that, as of March, “in Lebanon, there are more school-age refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools” and of those refugees only 30% of them are receiving a proper education. While the Lebanese Ministry of Education has traditionally covered all costs for the various stages or cycles of education, the country is facing a massive crisis trying to accommodate this dramatic increase in enrollment.

Apart from the sheer magnitude of students now being placed into the Lebanese educational system, various linguistic, cultural, and curricular barriers continued to prevent Syrian children from receiving this necessary experience. In Syria, the curriculum for students is taught completely in Arabic, while in Lebanon many subjects are taught in French or English. Consequentially, Syrian children placed into this system face a massive language barrier. At the same time, teachers in the Lebanese schools are forced to delay curriculum to work on the basics of English or French with these students. Many Lebanese families have begun to pull their children out of the public school system in favor of private schools, despite the debilitating economic circumstances. Beyond just “soft” barriers, Syrian children have been known facing violence such as bullying and harassment within their schools. According to one Syrian mother, “her child, Mazin, was ‘humiliated and beaten’ at a Lebanese public school.”

Whether or not we blame the failing Lebanese educational system or the various NGOs and non-profits such as UNICEF and UNHCR who provide funding for refugee education, we must recognize the gravity of this lack of education for Syrian children in order to move forward. Not only does the lack of a formalized educational experience eliminates any semblance of normality or structure in a refugee’s life, but the lack of knowledge and liberal learning for Syrian youth also represents something even more detrimental to Syria’s future. In addition to being plunged into one of the worst civil wars of the past 25 years, Syria has now lost a generation. This generation will not be able to continue on to shape the post-war region and will not be able to restructure their homeland. It is indeed quite frightening to wonder about the future of this nation knowing that those who should have been the ones to lead lack the education to do so.

By Patrick Lim

Za’atari Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan, the country’s fourth largest “city.” It is home to over 80,000 refugees. Its main road – the “Champs Elysees” – is visible in the center of the picture. Source: State Department.

March 15 marked the fifth year since the start of the Syrian Civil War, a war that has claimed over 220,000 people and displaced millions more. This crisis has resulted in the international aid’s inability to keep up with the growing demand on the ground, sparking criticism from aid agencies and requiring the countries involved to the rethink the actions they should take.

The effects of the war are evident throughout the region: Lebanon and Jordan have welcomed almost two million refugees. In Jordan, a survey of 40,000 refugees found that two-thirds were living below the poverty line and, in Lebanon, half of the Syrian refugee population are living in insecure dwellings. The resources of both countries are being pushed to the limit and it is not certain how many more refugees they can support and for how much longer.

Why is there a lack of aid?

It is not only because of increasing number of refugees, but also the lack of action of the international community. A report entitled “Failing Syria,” which was signed by more than twenty aid agencies including Oxfam and Save the Children, criticizes the actions of states and their failure to implement resolutions 2139, 2165, and 2191 from United Nations Security Council. Resolution 2139’s provisions included: protecting civilians, increased humanitarian access and a comprehensive approach “leading to a genuine political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” The report calls on all parties to ensure to “go beyond words and ensure that the resolutions are fully implemented.”

However, it is not only the lack of action on behalf of the international community, but also the difficulty of getting aid to the people that has not helped the situation.  According to the report, 4.8 million people reside in areas the United Nations define as “hard to reach.” For example, early March saw the arrival ofthe first aid convoy in Damascus in three months.

What should countries do?

Although it is crucial to meet the basic necessities of refugees now, it is equally as important to think of the future. There is not foreseeable end to the conflict and, as a result, refugee camps are starting to show signs of permanency despite the hopes of millions. Some fortunate families in Za’atari live in caravans, which demand concrete foundations. Furthermore, the main road of the camp is a bustling street with hundreds of shops. Azraq Camp has a well-stocked hospital and supermarket, and includes metal shelters for families.

Two trends should make countries think about distributing more aid to the urban populations. First, certain countries have made it more difficult for refugees to flee across their borders, citing national security reasons, especially with ISIS threatening to send fighters in disguise. As a result, many refugees may seek to escape without being officially registered, although this would deny them many benefits. These refugees would therefore settle in areas with access to benefits, such as cities, which is where the majority of Syrian refugees have settled in Jordan. Second, refugees have recently expressed a reluctance to live in the camps because of the rough conditions, despite having access to daily needs. Coupled with the lack of proper security in camps (Za’atari, for example, had many issues with uprisings and crime in its early days), these trends could cause the urban refugee population to swell even more, putting an ever greater strain on their already limited resources.

Countries must also find different avenues to distribute aid, with a special focus on Syria. Of the thirty-four border crossings in the country, only five are open for humanitarian convoys, nine are restricted, and the rest are closed.  Negotiating with the Syrian government to find more avenues into the country is an option that some countries are not willing to entertain. However, working with government officials, local law enforcement, or more local NGO representatives may open up more channels. This would certainly improve the present situation by limiting regional spillover while simultaneously bringing aid to the people rather than forcing them to flee to receive it.

Finally, Turkey has nearly 1.7 million Syrian refugees – the most of any country – and has spent $6 billion to help them, granting them access to free education and health care. Following Turkey’s lead, providing greater access to necessities and benefits is something more countries have undertaken and other should begin to explore. For example, the Netherlands welcomes thousands of Syrians every month; Canada and Germany are known for funding scholarships, even offering Permanent Residency to lucky recipients in some cases as well.

The refugee crisis that has arisen because of the Syrian Civil War is being called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The world can neither continue to ignore this atrocity nor accommodate the present situation for much longer.  We, the international community, must help those in need and, more importantly, show that we have not given up on them and their future.

By Terrence Kim

In only a few months the Syrian conflict will mark its fourth anniversary, regrettably marking the continuing calamity that has distorted a once colorful and blossoming nation into the harrowed and war-stricken land that it is today. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that by the end of 2014, 6.5 of 22 million Syrians will be classified as internally displaced persons, while over 2.5 million will have fled Syria as refugees. This struggle has displaced millions of people, while claiming the lives of over 190,000. While international aid organizations invariably endeavor in the minimization of casualties, their equally meaningful objective is providing educational opportunities for Syria’s youth. As war rages on, efforts to educate and nurture the generations that will rebuild Syria must endure.

The Syrian conflict was never meant to last this long. It was supposed to be a minor inconvenience of which some government, or some deity, was to resolve so that shopkeepers could continue selling their teas and coffees and so that teachers could continue shaping their tullab (students) into the country’s future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and parents. Months turned into a year and a year turned into four. Parents, backed by confidence in their imminent return to Syria, had initially scoffed at the idea of matriculating their children into their host-country’s schools. This mindset is causing students to be out of school for so long that re-admittance into public education is no longer an option for many. International aid organizations, such as the U.N., have been campaigning continuing education efforts for students into either host-country schools or specialized programs for refugee and displaced children.

The United Nations, in partnership with international aid organizations like Save the Children and Mercy Corps, launched the No Lost Generation Initiative (NLGI) about one year ago in October 2014. No Lost Generation calls for a $1 billion investment in expanding access to learning, providing a protective environment, and broadening opportunities for children and adolescents in Syria and neighboring countries. According to a UNICEF report on the war’s impact of the conflict in Syria, almost all of Syria’s children were enrolled in school and 5% of the country’s annual GDP was spent on public education before the war; with the conflict approaching four years, almost 3 million school-aged Syrian children are no longer in school.

For the children who remained in Syria, more than 18% of schools have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied by displaced people or military personnel. The lack of schools and perilous environment make getting to schools a difficult, off-putting struggle. And for the refugees who sought asylum outside of Syria, host governments are struggling to accommodate not only educational needs for children, but are also adjusting political and economic policies in dealing with rising costs of basic services, food, and rents.

So what has #NoLostGeneration accomplished a year into its inception? Note: the following reflects samples of rounded data gathered from No Lost Generation’s first year report.In Syria:

  • 440,000 more children in school over the last year than the previous year
  • 46% temporary learning spaces established inside Syria
  • 32 (of 4,200) damaged schools repaired
  • 1.5 million children in 14 governorates received school supplies
  • 350,000 students are engaged in school feeding programs
  • 550 teachers received psychosocial training
  • 70,000 children have received psychosocial support
  • 27,000 children have received life skills and vocational training, remedial secondary classes, and psychosocial support

Neighboring Countries:

–  489,000 student increase in formal and non-formal enrollment in schools
–  587,000 children have received psychosocial support
–  27,000 students are engaged in school feeding programs in Jordan and Iraq

Lebanon: ‘Reaching All Children with Education’ (RACE) committed to 413,000 Syrian students for the next three years by opening second shifts in public schools

  • Targets 630 high-risk Syrian and Lebanese children formerly associated with armed parties to the conflict
  • Psychosocial support
  • Activities on conflict resolution
  • <span “font-family:wingdings;mso-fareast-font-family:wingdings;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” wingdings”=””> Vocational training
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Access to health, legal, and protection services
  • Ministry of Social Affairs established decentralized national case management system which is the first tertiary-level child protection program in the country
  • 200,000 caregivers received psychosocial training
  • Doctors and nurses received training on clinical management of sexual violence

Jordan: public schools are operating on double shifts

  • Hygiene, recreation, psychosocial, and educational programs

Turkey: progress has been made in normalizing the status of Syrian refugee teachers

  • Strengthened capacity of local child protection actors
  • Child Protection in Emergency Training

No Lost Generation Initiative is an effort to not only rebuild childhoods, but to shape futures that will restore Syria into the bourgeoning nation it used to be. There are roughly 4.3 million children in Syria affected by the conflict and more than half of Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. The greatest victims of this conflict are indisputably the young and vulnerable who hold no say in any political agenda. These children are growing too old too soon. Innocence is lost as their lives are compelled into violence with Kalashnikovs forced into their hands to fight a war that is not their own. Political matters aside, the international community holds a fundamental responsibility to Syria’s vulnerable youth in promoting peace and providing aid through education initiatives. Education’s catalytic effect on children’s well-being and development may potentially be paving the path for peace, stability, and economic development.


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