International Rescue Committee (IRC)

IRC reuniting refugee families in Jordan

I had a hard time finding time to sit down with Iris. “We’re working 24/7,” she’d remind me when I’d call. “We have to be here for these children. That’s our priority.”  

Iris Knuppel is with the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Response Team. She was deployed to northern Jordan in January to take over a critical children’s program at Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. A veteran of close to a dozen humanitarian emergencies around the world, the 31-year- old Belgian sat down with me in Amman a couple of days before she left for her next assignment.

The children are Syrian refugees who cross into Jordan without close family members. Thankfully, there aren’t many of them. Since the IRC took over the “Unaccompanied Children” program at Zaatari in February, the IRC team has provided temporary care and shelter for more than 100 children. Their families have sent most of those arriving in Jordan out of Syria. The majority are boys, and of those, Iris says some fled because they are close to conscription age and didn’t want to be called up to fight for the Assad regime. The goal of the program is to ensure the safety of the children, then to find family or close friends from their home community they can live with.

The effort starts as soon as refugees cross the border from Syria. Recently, some 2,000 have been arriving every night, walking across the desert border.  Government buses meet them on the Jordanian side and deliver them to the Zaatari refugee camp. In a typical night, some 60 busloads of refugees make their way to Zaatari. While on the bus, aid workers call out for any children and teenagers who’ve crossed without family. At Zaatari, now home to almost 150,000 refugees, the new arrivals receive a meal, a blanket and start the process that allows them to receive housing and aid. The search for unaccompanied children continues through the night at Zaatari, where IRC caseworkers walk through arrival tents looking for young people who’ve crossed without a close relative. “These children are very vulnerable.” Iris says. “Quite often they get separated, and there’s a time gap before they can meet up with their family.” Unaccompanied children are taken to an IRC welcome center, where they provide what personal information they have — such as name, age, hometown and what relatives they have in Jordan or Syria.

Iris Knuppel surveys the site of a possible new refugee camp in northern Jordan
Iris Knuppel is a children's protection expert who works with the IRC's Emergency Response Team. Here she surveys the site of a possible new refugee camp in northern Jordan. 

Photo: Ned Colt/IRC

After they overnight in a supervised children’s space, the IRC begins tracing and contacting family members. Most children have brought a mobile phone with the name and phone number of a relative who is already in Jordan. In that case, the tracing process is straightforward. “When that person arrives, we verify that they are indeed who they say they are,” says Iris. “That is done by interviewing the child separately from the adult. When possible, we will verify with a phone call back to Syria, and we’ll ask if this is indeed the person who should be caring for the child.”

If, in the rare instance there are no relatives in Jordan, the IRC looks for a host family from the same community as the child who can take him or her in temporarily.

One method of gauging success is the speed with which families are reunited. When the IRC took over the program in February, Iris says some children had been in the unaccompanied section for more than two months. “Because we put a greater effort into finding caregivers, children are no longer staying for two to three weeks, now they stay for two to three nights.” She says stability is critical for these children, so many of whom have been through traumatic and unsettling experiences over the past two years of war.

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good luck

good luck

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