28 July 2017 - Jordan

Learning about refugee learning: five ways to make youth participatory action research work

Co-written with Aya Abu Sitteh, Advocacy and Communications Officer, Save the Children Jordan

Originally published on Civicus.org

In Conflict Affected and Fragile States (CAFS), restricted access to facilities, the invisibility of marginalised groups, and general instability is putting young people’s learning at risk. Given these challenges, how can we better understand the learning needs of children and youth in CAFS? Citizen-driven research, such as Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), could help clarify factors affecting education in CAFS, helping us better monitor Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In a YPAR process, youth decide on a relevant social issue, conduct research on the topic, and take action based on their findings. YPAR upends the traditional researcher-participant paradigm by framing youth as experts of their lived experience. It often includes capacity building on intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, as well as conducting research and advocacy. The aim is for youth to identify structural barriers in their communities and take the lead in addressing them.

Over the last year Save the Children has worked with 20 Jordanian and Syrian youth (aged 18-22) in East Amman on an education-centred YPAR project. The youth are shining a spotlight on the critical lack of  psychosocial support within their schools. They chose this issue after identifying school counseling as crucial  to the learning and development of Jordanian residents and Syrian refugee children. The youth conducted focus groups with 147 children from their community and are currently working on writing their research report and designing an advocacy plan. During this energising ten-month process, we learned five important lessons for supporting a YPAR in CAFS.


The lived experience of youth varies vastly in CAFS. Our Syrian youth researchers left their homes within the last six years to escape the violence and seek refuge in Jordan. Additionally, because we recruited youth through an open call from a large area of East Amman, their knowledge and skills differed. Building youth’s social and emotional skills proved critical in the success of their research. It allowed them to reflect on individual limitations and how they could leverage strengths. For example, during data collection, the youth self-divided into trios: good communicators acted as facilitators, detail-oriented youth organised the logistics, and quick transcribers ended up taking notes. Giving youth time to reflect on individual strengths and limitations allowed them to take ownership of the research process.


At its core, YPAR draws from Paulo Freire’s work on critical pedagogy; it encourages youth to question the historical and structural barriers in their lives. This focus can add complexity to conducting YPAR in CAFS; refugee youth often have a limited legal status that restricts mobility and access to services.  Facilitating YPAR in CAFS comes with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of youth researchers as well as participants. In our project, some Syrian parents were uncomfortable with their children participating in the youth research because they felt that it may direct unwarranted attention. We conducted a risk analysis to understand the legal ramifications of the youth’s research and action and developed an action plan with the youth for how best to ensure the safety of the research team as well as participants.


How much direction should we give youth in the research area? How do we support without influencing research questions? We think about the guidance we give youth during YPAR as a spectrum from independent to directed youth research. In Jordan, the effort was focused on the education of children, especially Syrian refugee children. We made this clear to the youth researchers and provided them a literature review, overview of the SDGs, and a briefing of the national education structure. However, we did not define a topic within the “education” research area. We fell close to the middle of the spectrum between independent and directed YPAR. Rather than holding youth back or overriding their own agendas, the scaffolds helped them think more constructively of a topic for their research.


YPAR initiatives often focus on closed systems: communities that have a defined physical and/or membership boundary (e.g.: schools, youth recreation centers). Our YPAR initiative focused on an open system, a neighborhood in East Amman. YPAR within an open system has unique challenges. It was unclear if youth who applied to be part of the research team were part of the “community”; boundaries differed depending on who we talked to. We recruited youth researchers via Facebook. Being clear about the “community” in a quick online post is tricky and it is impossible to control the spread of a recruitment flyer through Facebook networks. In YPAR focused on open systems, having a clear definition of the system—the community—is critical to the success of the research and implementation of an action strategy by the youth. This clarity should reflect not only the physical boundaries of the community but also what constitutes membership to that community.


In YPAR initiatives focused on a closed system, mobilisation of youth researchers and research participants can be straightforward. Most schools have a protocol for how youth can be engaged and how children can be recruited to participate in research. In open systems, this mobilisation can be more ambiguous. A key challenge for us was that the youth researchers were not able to adequately mobilise child participants who attended school within the East Amman community. Mobilisation challenges included: the same children showing up on multiple occasions, children from outside the “community” showing up, children not coming to the centre, school examinations, and inclement weather. A lesson is that the facilitator must work with youth to institute a mobilisation strategy as part of the research protocol.

In CAFS, the structures that facilitators put in place for youth, the community, and the mobilisation can be critical to the success of the youths’ research and their action. Few YPAR resources focus on the level of preparation that is involved in facilitating YPAR. Being realistic about this preparation, in terms of resources and time, is as important as preparing youth to conduct participatory action research.

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