Digital Futures in Za'atari

Hanging out with children in the Social Innovation Lab

UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children report team

25 May 2017

On a recent afternoon in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, some Syrian girls took a break from the hot sun outside to play games and relax. For the girls, it was a moment of normality in lives torn apart by years of conflict. It was also a chance to reflect on the projects they’d been working on in the Social Innovation Lab – the official name of the space where they were hanging out.


Despite its title, the lab is a cozy place. It’s filled with arts and crafts created by the children themselves that show off their make-do creativity. From a ceiling hangs a lampshade fashioned from plastic cups and staples.

The children have been working on bigger projects, too, as they meet the lab’s challenge to identify and solve problems facing their communities. For example, what do you do when someone donates a ton of dates? Answer, make – and sell – date jam. Other challenges are hi-tech. Children in the lab have created their own virtual reality headset and have designed ways to make their homes safer by earthing the electricity supply.

At the Social Innovation Lab
UNICEF Innovation

One of the girls explained the lab’s appeal:

We come here and express ourselves. The things we like are here.”

The lab is part of one of the camp’s Makani (“my space”) centres, which are supported by UNICEF and civil society partners. The centres, located in refugee camps as well as urban centres and towns across the country, provide learning and support for both local and refugee children. They’re a much-needed resource in Jordan: While the kingdom’s public school system has found places for most refugee children, almost 90,000 still rely on informal or non-formal education or are not receiving any education. In addition, around 30,000 Jordanian children are not attending school. The 200-plus Makani centres thus provide an important support for some of Jordan’s most vulnerable children.

Children attend Learning Support Services in UNICEF’s child-friendly Makani centres in Za’atari Refugee Camp. Their centre is called ‘Jupiter’. Makani (which translates as ‘My Space’) centres provide an integrated set of services to children in the camp, including learning support, community-based child protection, early childhood development, adolescent and youth participation, life skills and innovation labs. In Za’atari, there are 13 Makani centres serving over 7,000 children. Located in every district of the camp, vulnerable children, youth and communities have access to Makani, no matter where they live.

The centres are also proving to be centres for innovation. Not far from where the girls were hanging out in the Social Innovation Lab, another group of girls were taking an English class. But instead of reading traditional books, they were using electronic tablets, responding to prompts from their teacher to fill in answers on their screens.

This sort of “blended learning” is becoming common in schools around the world, but at Za’atari it faces a special challenge – much of the camp is offline. Material for classes must thus be downloaded in advance. The same is true elsewhere. At the camp’s Ideas Box centre, run by the Norwegian Refugee Council, children can access only an offline version of Wikipedia. Despite the limitations, the Ideas Box is a major draw. “We don’t have any resources at home,” explains one 14-year-old boy. “If we want information, we come here.”

“We don’t have any resources at home,” explains one 14-year-old boy.

“If we want information, we come here.”

On 19 January 2017 in Jordan, (foreground) Bashar, 11, grins while using a laptop computer at a UNICEF supported Makani centre in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees, in Mafraq Governorate, near the Syrian border. “I love watching cartoons, and want to learn to make animations one day,” says Bashar, who regularly visits the centre. More than 80,000 people currently shelter in the Za’atari camp. Over half of them are children.

Indeed, there’s a clear sense among refugees in Za’atari of the importance of digital technologies to their lives. Classes for the International Computer Driving Licence are booked up and there’s keen interest in online learning opportunities where they’re available and in vocational courses, such as in smartphone repair.

“In my time, someone who was illiterate could not read and write,” says one mother of seven children.

“Now, someone who is illiterate does not know how to use the internet. I don’t want them to be illiterate. It’s really important. We want a better future for our kids.”  

The team from The State of the World’s Children was in Jordan to attend UNICEF’s Global Innovation meeting. The next edition of report, to be launched in November 2017, will focus on children in the digital age.

Global Innovation Meeting
UNICEF Innovation


UNICEF’S Global Innovation Meeting held in Amman, Jordan from 16 -18th of May 2017 brings together UNICEF colleagues, representatives, and private-sector partners to discuss the global trends shaping children’s lives, understand the skills that children will need for the future, and discuss how UNICEF needs to respond.

Find out more: