Acting for Change: by a Syrian, for the Syrians

By Laura Clements

Evenings in the streets of Amman are especially pleasant during the summer months. A bit less so when trekking up the hilly lanes. My colleague and I try to match pace with a lanky Englishman, out-striding us one step to our two. He leads us to an apartment block, up a few flights of stairs to the hub of the Acting for Change team in Jordan.

We are welcomed in (shoes taken off) and invited onto the back porch. We sit at a white plastic outdoor setting while strong coffee is served and we begin to chat.

Acting for Change is a non-government organisation, established in Jordan in October of last year.

“Acting for Change, it’s like a family, we work like a family,” says founder, Kotaiba Alabdullah.

“We all work together hand by hand so we don’t like to have this ‘director’ or [other titles] like [in] the big organisations.”

This NGO is another addition to the already 200-strong groups currently responding to the Syrian refugee crisis.

This is an atypical NGO. Its founder, Kotaiba, is himself a Syrian refugee. This is not a man seeking to do good for his own sake. His countrymen are affected. He knows what it means to be labelled ‘refugee’.

Acting for Change is not based in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, but in Zaatari village just nearby. It is an hour and half’s drive from the capital Amman. Though the camp is a familiar sight in the media and synonymous with the crisis; the village that it takes its name from is far less so.

It begs the question, what sort of difference can such a small NGO make in this mix? And why establish one so late in the game? War has been raging for five years and many NGOs have already taken up the humanitarian call.

In general, it is hard to criticise the work of or the reasons for establishing an NGO. By nature, they aren’t created to run a profit, but to help maintain communities.

“The [Syrian] refugees in Zaatari village are from the [same] tribe. The Jordanians in the village, who lived there previously are also from the same Bedouin tribe. The grandparents, the oldest people in the community knew each other as children, so they’re distant cousins, they’re extended family,” says the lanky Englishman, Tom Carmichael, a volunteer with Acting for Change.

It is through this connection with community the benefit of their work is seen.

“The key is the relationships with the people. Because [Kotaiba] is a Syrian refugee himself, he is immediately treated with some credibility. A lot of the bigger or Western NGOs and organisations who try to operate in these contexts in particular, they struggle.”

He attributes this to a lack of consultation with the refugees themselves and coordination occurring more between organisations.

For now, they are focused on children’s education. A school has been established in Zaatari village with the help of British organisation, RefugEase. Caravans were supplied to be used as classrooms

Fundraising is ongoing and opportunities for corporate sponsorship are being sought. But this doesn’t mean Kotaiba owes his business partners anything.

“I have [a] contract between me and them, the first thing in the contract, nobody control me.”

“I will not accept anyone from outside who is coming in and control[ling] me and my volunteers.”

This works to his favour. Kotaiba says organisations see his relationship with villagers and accept his terms. Such is the power of his connections, he’s even managed to remotely set up a school in Rukban, just across the Syrian border.

Costs are an ongoing concern with transport being paid for out of Kotaiba’s pocket. Car rental is about $1000 AUD a month, petrol is about $20-30 each time they make the round trip to Zaatari. They use a site called Chuffed, a GoFundMe-esque service to raise funds for this and ideas for projects as they come around.

During the easy trot back down the hill at dusk, I think of Acting for Change in a different light. Their work seems less like a drop in the ocean and more like charity with a personal touch.

When you think about it, it figures. If your country was in peril, yourself unable to go home, wouldn’t you rather hear the dulcet call of “no worries mate,” rather than a language you don’t understand? Charity begins at home and Kotaiba Alabdullah’s vision is the embodiment of that in this fraught region.

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