Green Centre in Azraq refugee camp: Syrian refugees clear the streets for a brighter future

June 24, 2020
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In the middle of the Jordanian desert, a refugee camp home to almost 37,000 Syrian refugees, has managed to establish itself as an exemplary model of environmentally-friendly waste management. Through the EU-funded Environmentally Responsible Solid Waste Management programme, Azraq camp has been implementing a unique recycling and waste management approach, embodied by its cutting-edge “Green Centre” facility operated by World Vision. Since its inception in 2016, the programme has provided work opportunities for over 1,409 Syrians, starkly improved the residents’ living conditions all the while tackling one of Jordan’s most pressing challenges: waste management.

An energetic short man with a broad contagious smile, Mahmoud does not let the hardship he has endured over the last few years shine through. Four years ago, the father of eight was forced to flee his comfortable life in Hama, Syria, due to the raging civil war, losing everything he had ever owned.

Yet, Mahmoud counts his blessings. “The Jordanian authorities were very generous and kind, they helped us a lot. This type of treatment made us forget all about our pain and struggle in Syria.” Most specifically, he keeps a vividly fond memory from his arduous journey to Azraq: the first time he was able to use clean toilets again. “It felt like being born again!”

A seemingly minor detail amidst the tragic circumstances he overcame, Mahmoud says that having access to hygienic facilities and a clean environment was life-changing, as hygiene constitutes a deeply rooted value in the Middle Eastern culture.

Changing the minds, clearing the streets

Determined to raise his children in a decent environment embodying this value, Mahmoud’s interest was captured by the SWM programme an acquaintance told him about. “To be honest, I joined this project because I needed money first. But also because the camp was not generally very clean. For instance, you could find dirty diapers laying on the streets, which was very unsanitary.”

“I wanted to take part to raise awareness on how to better dispose of trash.” Whilst he admits he knew “a bit about waste management before”, he says that being part of the project greatly enriched his knowledge as he learned about sorting waste and ways to manage it. “For me, waste management only meant that we shouldn’t throw away plastic or metal and that liquids should be disposed of differently. But, over time, I became much more aware and started working as a supervisor for several villages inside the camp to spread the word.”

The behavioural change campaign that Mahmoud partook in is one of the three pillars of the SWM programme, along with the Green Centre and the most recently launched litter picking. The campaign, which is run by up to 40 Syrian Incentive-Based Volunteers (IBVs), delivers awareness sessions to community meetings, individual households, schools and children centres, in order to encourage people to sort and recycle their waste in their household. “I would explain to people how to sort their trash the right way,” Mahmoud explains, pointing to the easily identifiable blue –for dry waste- and green –for moist/wet waste- barrels lined up along the street.

Personal values

One beneficiary of the awareness sessions, Khalid, says the project truly resonated with his own personal values. “As you know, we, Middle-Easterners, prioritise hygiene so I was already keeping my shelter very clean and ensuring that my wife and five children knew how to best use the bins and plastic bags inside our home.” Although he was never formally employed in the scheme, Khalid regularly assisted the team in conducting awareness sessions and gladly talked to people he knew about it. “Cleanliness is part of our culture and we have to continue it here, especially after being given the means to recycle.”

For SWM project manager, Hasmik Kocharyan, this innovative approach is what helped sustain the project. “While Azraq was managing waste before, it remained very limited in terms of scale, cost effectiveness and environmental care”. By directly involving local communities in every step of the process, the gains of the waste management become apparent to all. “Of course, such behavioural change takes years. It requires stability, which is not always ensured in a humanitarian context. Besides, people have many other issues to deal with,” she acknowledges, noting nonetheless the efforts exerted to tailor the campaign to the beneficiaries. “We want to convey the message that, despite living in what they see as a temporary environment, such changes will improve their lives, even if just for a year. We also highlight the impact this can have on their peers and family members.”

And … it worked. With the blue and green bins system, “residents have become active participants in this unique approach by conducting a pre-sorting of waste before it reaches the Green Centre, which greatly lowers the workload stemming from unsorted waste”, she adds.

The Green Centre: a world class environment-friendly facility

At the heart of the SWM programme, the Green Centre stands as a cutting-edge facility geared towards sorting and recycling the waste collected across the 14.7km2 refugee camp. Since its construction in 2017, the centre has been able to process around 17 tonnes of waste daily, and up to 500 tonnes monthly. These huge amounts of dry and wet waste are sorted and processed by a team of 56 Syrian IBVs, who received specialised training and support from the 22 staff members monitoring the project.

Out of the 500 tonnes collected monthly, up to 40 tonnes are recovered and sold to local buyers, generating over 3,000 Jordanian dinars (almost 4,000 euros) per month. This revenue helps cover the running cost of the centre, as well as the fees for the nearby landfill where the non-recyclable waste is sent. Fees which lowered impressively as well, as the volume of solid waste sent to the landfill was reduced to 514 tonnes monthly. The ratio of recycled material to overall waste stands exceptional high for a refugee camp, with up to 14% of dry material being recycled monthly. “It is slightly lower than the global average because camp residents already re-use metal cans and other material for their daily need,” Hasmik points out.

If this was not impressive enough, the camp’s Green Centre offices are also exclusively run on photovoltaic energy!

Turning trash into multifaceted opportunities

While the idea of collecting and handling rubbish to make a living typically suffers from negative connotations, the SWM project has restored nobility to the cause. In Azraq camp, trash has become a source of positive change and opportunities, ranging from economic stability, social integration, improved mental health and environmental change.

To begin with, more than 200 Syrian refugees have benefited from the cash for work opportunities, thanks to a bi-monthly rotation in the IBV positions. Truck drivers, litter pickers, community mobilisers, sorters, all commend the programme as “a life changing opportunity”.

As the head of a family, I felt I was not delivering much for my children,” Mahmoud remembers. “I stayed jobless for a year and a half and we depended on the vouchers to receive assistance.” Since starting his work as a community mobiliser, Mahmoud has managed to pay the debts he had inside the camp, while “keeping himself busy from the life he misses back home”.

Dreaming again

Zaheedeh, known as Um Ghazi, also heaps praise on the impact of the SWM project. The mother of three has been working with the team, preparing coffee and tea and cleaning the facilities. “Through this project, I received an income and was able to bring more to the house and help my children with whatever they needed,” she recounts. “I felt I was empowered to look after my house and provide for my family.” With her husband locked outside the camp due to the COVID pandemic, Zaheedeh has been using her income to support her daughter, who is married with 4 children. “I hope the project continues, expands and provides more work opportunities!”

Hussein, a 45-year-old sorter at the centre, echoes similar sentiments. “My work as an IBV allows me to buy extra food for my family. But, more importantly, it gives me a sense of purpose.”  This renewed optimism and newfound income have not only affected the direct beneficiaries of the programme as a ripple effect has been witnessed across all categories of people within the camp. “I have seen significant changes that happened progressively thanks to this excellent initiative,” Khalid explains. “People have better awareness and started sorting their trash and it is clear to me that there has been a change in behaviour. This will undoubtedly have an impact in the future and on my life, that of my five children and on everyone.”  Um Ghazi agrees, citing “a considerable change inside the camp”. “I don’t see insects, the camp looks far better and cleaner, and children stopped playing with the garbage because it is no longer there.”

For Mahmoud, this project was “a massive success”. He explains: “I witnessed a huge change in the camp. People stopped mixing all types of waste and they developed a good awareness on how to properly manage waste.” This even inspired him to start dreaming again: “I believe this project will have a big impact on my life as I actually thought of suggesting the idea of proper waste management in the area I will return to.”

A European Union initiative

The Environmentally Responsible Solid Waste Management Project has been funded by the European Union, through the Madad Fund, and by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). It has been implemented by World Vision in partnership with the German Development Agency (GIZ).

The second phase of the project, which started in January 2020 for a period of 35 months, received an overall funding of 5.6 million Euros.

The EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis or ‘Madad Fund’ was established in December 2014 as an instrument to deliver EU’s support for Syrian refugees and Syria’s neighbouring countries. It addresses educational, economic and social needs of Syrian refugees, while also supporting overstretched local communities and their administrations.