FEATURE | 19 Jun 2020

From inner to outer peace

Supporting Syrian refugees as agents for peace

Placeholder Image: Dagmar Nolden / Berghof Foundation

Our experience working with displaced Syrians in Jordan shows that under the right conditions, refugees can act as agents of constructive social change.


The dusty roads of Azraq and Za’atari camp are empty. Even the “Champs Elysée”, Za’atari’s usually bustling market street, seems deserted. Like the rest of Jordan’s 10 million people, the nearly 120,000 Syrians living in the two refugee camps have been on lockdown since 21 March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Jordan currently hosts up to 1.3 million refugees from the nine-year conflict in neighbouring Syria. About 654,000 of them had officially registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, by the end of 2019. Next to the tens of thousands of refugees from other countries including Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia, Syrians constitute the largest population in Jordan. The kingdom hosts the second highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with over 80 percent living in urban areas.

The Jordan Compact”, a new holistic approach between the Kingdom of Jordan and the international community to constructively deal with the large number of refugees from Syria, allowed Jordan to make significant steps to improve the situation for Syrian refugees before the COVID-19 pandemic. Syrians received access to work permits and could register home-based businesses with Jordanian authorities. In parallel, the quality of education for Syrian children increased.

The spread of coronavirus reversed some of those improvements. For instance, about a third of Jordan’s refugee population has lost their jobs in the informal sector. Living in close proximity, distancing rules seem unworkable for the inhabitants of Azraq and Za’atari camp, where hygiene and sanitation levels are low. That is why UNHCR expanded sanitation and health centres, and the camps’ schools switched to virtual home schooling.

While COVID-19 poses a huge threat to the lives of millions of displaced people all around the world and goes hand in hand with a severe increase in racism and xenophobia, the perception of (forced) migration as a threat to societal and state security dominates the public and political discourse beyond the pandemic, in particular in the Global North.

Refugees as agents for peace

The common portrayal of refugees as passive receivers of aid or even as threat or burden undermines not only their confidence and self-effectiveness, but seriously limits their capacities to contribute to constructive social change and global peacebuilding.

Working with refugees in our project “Nonviolent Education in Jordan”, we could witness how seldom refugees’ wisdom and experiences were seriously taken into consideration when social change was discussed, and how their creative and constructive engagement was systematically undermined. We also gained insights into possible developments that emerge in a more conducive environment:

"At first, I was shy, and I thought that violence has no solution and peace doesn’t exist. […] After some time, I began to accept the ideas and techniques we learned [in the training] and started to use them on my own. I then discovered how useful they are and how much impact they had on me and on others. They made me relax and feel at ease. Therefore, I started to use them at work and at home. [… ] I concluded that the training is very useful for my surrounding and me, and that peace and violence are in all of us, and every human being gets to choose to either spread peace or violence. I choose spreading peace by applying what I learned in the future."

– Participant, Berghof Foundation Qualification Course “Building Peace from the Inside Out”, Azraq Camp

[T]he training is very useful for my surrounding and me, and that peace and violence are in all of us, and every human being gets to choose to either spread peace or violence. I choose spreading peace by applying what I learned in the future.Participant, Berghof Foundation Course, Azraq Camp

The course participant’s testimony as well as research show that under the right conditions, refugees can act as agents of constructive social change. Peace Education offers great possibilities to create such conditions and to design context- and target-group-specific formats that strengthen refugees’ resilience and agency to contribute to building peace. We believe it is time to start activities and a dialogue with displaced persons, in which they – while being entitled to receive services – also retain their agency.

5 guiding notions for conflict-sensitive refugee work

From our work with Syrian refugees in Jordan and supported by background research, we distilled these guiding notions to support the development of (Peace Education) programmes that foster refugees’ capacities for peace:

  1. Encourage agency as you enter into direct dialogue with participants/refugees and make sure their needs are taken serious.
  2. Dedicate time, space and resources to work actively on trusting relationships, to foster cooperation among participants and to create a safe and supportive learning environment. Extend this collaborative approach towards partners on all levels, including donors.
  3. Combine classical peace education approaches with methods from interactive theatre, trauma pedagogy, bodywork, and mindfulness to promote social emotional learning and personal development supportive of peace and conflict transformation competencies.
  4. Apply a holistic understanding of peace by working on personal and contextual understanding of peace and dedicating time towards (re-) building inner peace.
  5. Address direct and indirect violence in a context-, conflict- and trauma-sensitive manner. This also includes discussion on structural violence, which can create strong dilemmas when working in particularly violent structures.

Find out more in our recent publication “Strengthening refugees as agents for peace: Reflecting on the implementation of peace education formats in Jordanian refugee camps”. While derived from our experience in the Jordanian context, the publication holds valuable insights for practitioners working in other regions or contexts. If you want to learn more about the methods we used during the courses in Azraq and Za’atari , please take a look at the training manuals Strengthening resilience – building peace from within or Fostering civic and nonviolent education in Jordan.

The publications and project activities mentioned in this article were realised with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office and in cooperation with our partner Relief International Jordan.

Besides our work in Jordan, we also conducted a project on conflict-sensitive refugee assistance in Germany.

Media contact

Florian Lüdtke
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