Viable Futures: Near and Long Term Prospects among Syrian Youth in Jordan
This ethnographic project investigates the perceptions Syrian youth in Jordan hold of their social, economic and political situation and examines when and how these perceptions inflect the abilities of Syrian youths to envision, plan for and act towards viability in a context of prolonged displacement.
The project advances knowledge on the role of the future for concrete planning and decision-making. Forging a viable future for oneself and one’s social network is related to the human capacity to aspire. We explore which kinds of futures young Syrians aspire to in the near and the long term and examine what such concerns carry over in concrete and everyday forms of prioritizing.
Since the inception of the war in Syria, Jordan has been a key hub for NGOs and policymakers working to assist Syrians and their Jordanian hosts in crafting durable solutions. The accumulated experiences from this work has produced a pool of knowledge on the structural, social and cultural constraints on employment and school enrollment that currently leave 78% of Syrian households living below the Jordanian poverty line (UNCHR 2020). Some headway has also been made in determining the effectiveness of various NGO and policy initiatives towards overcoming these obstacles (Lenner & Turner 2019).
While much ground has thus been gained, the Durable Solutions Platform (DSP), a research and policy body under three leading NGOs working with Syrians in Jordan, highlights that knowledge on the strategies preferred by Syrians and on the intersection between the perspectives of Syrians and of Jordanian employers is sorely needed (DSP 2020: 9-13). For instance, while NGOs and policymakers widely deem job retention the favoured outcome of livelihood programs, Syrians prefer connections over job retention because social networks allow them to navigate the Jordanian labour market with more flexibility. DSP concludes that understanding what Syrians and Jordanian employers prefer and why is key to designing programs and establishing the metrics on which to determine their success. Building on this, we suggest that insight into the temporal aspects of the strategies of Syrian youth is the ‘knowledge key’ that will allow NGOs and policymakers to design programs that are successful in both the short and the longer term. Aiding vulnerable youth in their own strategic efforts requires knowledge of the ways in which youth are able to plan and act towards both the near and the distant future.
The key aim of this project is to investigate the perceptions Syrian youth hold of their social, economic and political situation and to examine when and how these perceptions inflect the abilities of Syrian youths to envision, plan for and act towards viable futures. The contention of the project is thus that the actual work on establishing viable futures is dependent on what Syrian actors anticipate, expect, tremble and hope for.
An important component of the project is the integration of Syrian youth. We engage and train 36 Syrian research assistants from various socio-economic backgrounds. Together we undertake fieldwork and carry out interviews in both rural and urban settings. This serves a twofold purpose. First, Syrian youth receive capacity building courses in research methodology and data analysis - valuable tools for future job opportunities. Second, the collected data will allow the core research group to map differences in how perspectives on the future develop across rural and urban contexts in Jordan and to critically examine how this locally contextualized development of imaginations of the future inflect the concrete choices Syrian youth make in the present.
The project aims to establish a framework through which to understand the social, economic and political condition that enables Syrians to create viable futures. The work of developing such a framework will proceed in close dialogue with both NGOs working on the issue of Syrian youths in Jordan and the existing research program Archiving the Future, which investigates historical production among Syrians in exile in the Levant and Europe. The framework will subsequently assist NGOs and policymakers to intervene in the present in ways that allow Syrians to imagine and work towards their desired futures.
Focusing on rural livelihoods, work package one examines and analyses in detail the role of Syrian refugee youth in the Jordanian agricultural sector. Zooming in on a sector that offers particularly fortuitous opportunities for Syrians to legalize their employment (IRC 2018, Lenner & Turner 2019), WP1 examines how Syrian youth are getting employed in the agricultural sector in Jordan and investigates the future of sustainable livelihoods for Syrian refugees in this sector. The Durable Solutions Platform recommends for operational agencies to ”contextualize livelihoods definitions and understandings in order to develop appropriate measures for ”successes” in livelihood outcomes.” (DSP 2020: 13) By examining how Syrian youth have expectations to the seasonal success of work in the agricultural sector this WP examines the relation between long term planning and short term expectations of Syrian youth in the agricultural sector. It asks how vulnerable youth are able, if at all, to plan for ”the next season” and analyses the recurrence of the opportunity of work in the agricultural sector. To the overall investigation, WP1 contributes an analysis of the particular possibilities Syrians see in and work towards through agricultural employment.
WP responsible: Anders Hastrup
Focusing on aspirations for urban livelihoods, work package two examines the value youths ascribe to two forms of community integration, namely connections and rights. Connections (wasta) are well-known strategies towards viability across the MENA region and are used by nationals and migrants in equal measure (Chalcraft 2009). However, as work permits and business registration remain elusive in most sectors despite advances entailed by the Jordan Compact, Syrians in Jordan must calibrate the question of connections against the issue of accessing formal recognition and rights (IRC 2017a, Turner 2019). WP2 therefore investigates what kinds of employment urban poor Syrian youth seek out in the short and longer term and examines when and how connections and legal recognition respectively (can) play a significant role in these plans. Are connections and rights short term tactics or long term strategies? How do youths maneuver connections and rights to be able to plan and act beyond immediate concerns? To the overall investigation, WP2 contributes insights on the temporal significance for livelihoods Syrian youth attribute to various forms of community integration.
WP responsible: Birgitte Stampe Holst
Work package three examines the relationship between educational choices and the value Syrians associate with being smart. Epitomized in the colloquial term shartar, this notion highlights the importance Syrians ascribe to making the right decisions and playing one’s cards in the best possible manner (Bourdieu 1977). In the vernacular understanding being smart, shartar, is distinguished from a more classical idea of being bright and knowledgeable most frequently expressed by the term dhaki. WP3 examines how education is conceived as conducive or limiting to smartness. It interrogates the meaning and role education is ascribed in relation to other ways in which Syrian youth plan and think about being smart about the future in displacement. The WP hereby explores how time-honored Syrian ideals of being smart and independent (Rabo 2005) translates into the Jordanian context, where financial, legal and social barriers and restrictions mean that being good in school may not always be perceived as what to opt for (HRW 2020, Younes & Morrice 2019). Setting the investigation in three differently located high schools with a high concentration of Syrian students, WP3 contributes insights on the local contextualization of the desire and ability to invest in education.
WP responsible: Andreas Bandak
The project is hosted by Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, UCPH, a unit with a distinguished history of research and education on the Middle East. Accordingly, findings of the project will be integrated into courses and discussed with students at UCPH as the core group teaches recurring courses on migration, politics and social change (Holst), structure and change in the Middle East (Hastrup) and how to design and conduct ethnographical studies (Bandak). This institutional anchoring also enables ongoing cooperation and synergy with the Sapere Aude young research leader project Archiving the Future: Re-collections of Syria in War and Peace, a research project on Syrian image construction and future-making in Lebanon, Denmark, Germany and the UK. The project is headed by Andreas Bandak and has formal cooperation with leading international scholars on Syria and the question of future-making.