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Refugee Camps: Problem and Learning Opportunity

Of the over 5 million people living in refugee camps, women and children are overly represented and disproportionately exposed to their hardships, dangers and utter lack of opportunity. Camps are a window to understanding the plight of the word's 15 million refugees or 45 million people displaced from their homes by war and natural disaster. They also often offer a microcosm of the urban slums where 1 billion people live without a functioning social contract, legal system or formal economy. The strong presence of international NGOs in refugee camps, however might enable experimentation and learning for efforts with potential to scale outside the camps themselves.

Photo of Jason Rissman
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I began thinking about refugee camps after hearing an NPR piece about Malala Yousafzai and her work advocating for schools within Syrian refugee camps. Malala is a Pakistani girl who survived a gruesome assassination attempt by the Taliban because of her insistence on attending school.

To most of us, the thought of living in a refugee camp is totally unfathomable, let alone being born and growing up in one without knowing about the outside world. Its a human travesty of epic proportions, and I am deeply humbled by those that work in refugee camps to improve the lives of refugee.

For those of us who don't think about this issue often, its shocking to be reminded of the size of refugee camps and the number of organizations working within them. The Zaatari camp is a good example:

- 144,000 people make it Jordan's 4th largest city in just a 1.3 sq mile area
- A market like structure exists on the main street for purchasing food, houshold equipment and even coffee shops for smoking shisha
- Dozens of organizations work in the camp on health, nutrition, education, sanitation and safety issues

How might we support and learn from this important work? How might we partner with those working in camps to build upon their successes and -- when appropriate -- apply them to other, similar contexts? 

Some further reading:
- NPR story:
- On women and children refugees:
- On the Zaatari camp:
- UNHCR stats:
- UNHCR Report:


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Photo of Sophia Marx

I've been following Malala promoting education in the camps in Syria as well. What a brave girl. Thank you for building on my ideas.

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