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Refugees in Jordan

Using theatre to examine environmental and social sustainability

This module uses Jordan as a case study for examining questions of sustainability in the context of refugee flows. It begins with lectures on Jordan’s environmental conditions, their political history with refugees, and how theatre fosters responses to current challenges. The second stage of the module entails collaborative work by students in teams to research the situation and use those materials to create scenes for a play. At a third stage, students create a theatrical piece based on the resources they have gathered. In the final stage of the module, the students present the final play to an outside audience.

Note: Content adapted from the curricular project.

The module was developed for junior-senior level courses in:

  • Anthropology: Space and Place (Professor Julie Fairbanks)
  • Theatre Arts Senior Seminar (Professor Susan Wolverton)
  • Environmental Studies Seminar (Professor Marty St. Clair)

The module serves as a capstone course for the latter two programs. To give theatre students adequate time to develop the play, the module activity began near the beginning of the course. In the anthropology and environmental studies courses, this module fit into a larger framework for the overall course.

The learning outcomes of the module include:

  • Increased awareness of the interaction between political, cultural, and environmental factors in the refugee crisis
  • Recognition of the key roles that different disciplines can play in examining a “wicked” problem
  • Use of the arts to convey important societal messages
  • Effective collaboration to produce a cohesive work about complex issues that is accessible to a broad audience

The anthropology course does not require prerequisites in the discipline, but does demand skills in critical reading, analysis, and research. The environmental studies program is a collateral major; students must complete another major as well as the requirements for environmental studies. Thus, students in this course are bringing diverse disciplinary expertise and a broad background (environmental science, economics, statistics, humanities, social sciences) into environmental studies. Theatre arts majors have diverse experiences in theatre along with specialties in technical theatre, playwriting, directing, and acting.

All students are bringing analytical skills developed in their majors, but are being asked to apply them to an area outside of their expertise in collaboration with individuals of very different backgrounds, and present their material to a public largely unfamiliar with the issues.


The main concepts goal is that students understand one or two key concepts from each disciplinary perspective – environmental science, anthropology, and theatre arts.

The primary content goal is that students understand Jordan’s refugee crisis and the means taken to handle the crisis from environmental, social, and artistic perspectives.

Students in the module will:

  • Gain skills in analysis, evaluation, and creation
  • Engage in analysis as they compile sources to support their scenes during the team project assignment
  • Evaluate one another’s ideas as they work to develop the scenes

Although the theatre students will do the primary creative work on the devised theatre piece, the other students will evaluate the script as it takes shape and take part in presenting the final theatrical production. 

Each class will come to the course with expectations to learn more about the particular discipline under study. Our goals include developing an appreciation – and indeed an understanding of the necessity – for the perspectives which other disciplines bring to solving “wicked” problems such as refugee crises and water scarcity.

The final product of the course is a play, which highlights the importance of theatre as a mechanism of communicating difficult concepts to the general public.


Research Assignment

Recent news reports in the Jordan Times newspaper (RSS feed on Coe’s Moodle account) indicate that the arrival of many Syrian refugees into Jordan has put additional pressure on a water supply that is already limited.

Research this situation, taking into account as many relevant factors or issues as you can (e.g., the number of refugees housed in Jordan (both within refugee camps and in urban areas) and predicted increases in that number, regional differences in water supply levels within Jordan, differences between water supplies in Syria and those in Jordan, the effect of climate change on temperatures and water availability in the future).

Create a scene (an outline in 350-500 words; no need to flesh it out entirely) that highlights the challenges of this situation from at least two actors’ or groups’ points of view (e.g., government officials, local residents, refugees, representatives of international aid organizations).

Support the information in the scene with six sources, including both news stories and academic articles beyond course readings (at least one of each type of source). Your scene should reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the course, that is, it should speak directly to environmental and social issues discussed in class or illustrated in readings and should effectively and skillfully communicate ideas to an audience of theatregoers unfamiliar with the Jordanian situation.

Your work as participants in the project will be evaluated according to the following rubric.

All group members are expected to contribute to each component of the play and to document their individual contributions (e.g., by initialing information each found or identifying ideas each contributed)

  • Bibliography (academic and news sources, at least two of each type of source, six sources total) (25 pts.)
  • Scene: Content (45 pts.)
  • Scene: Perspectives (environmental studies, anthropology, theatre) (15 pts.)
  • Presentations (5 pts.)
  • Midterm check-in (5 pts.)
  • Play participation (5 pts.)

Total: 100 pts.

Dissemination Strategies

Weekly or bi-weekly written updates or meetings are helpful in keeping the classes connected over the course of the semester. Such updates allow students to access material covered in each course and find out how the play is progressing.

Jordan was the main geographical area of focus for the theatre seminar. It was one of two focal regions for the Environmental Studies seminar, and it was one of three areas covered in the anthropology course. Two seems to be the optimal number for the non-theatre courses; one comparative case allows students both to gain deep knowledge of Jordan and to see it in relation to another situation that they can examine in equal detail.

The Environmental Studies Seminar, in addition to Jordan, looked at Arizona as a comparative case study. The anthropology course considered space and place in three units. The first focused on Jordan and its neighbors, the second on an East German border town, and the third on the American southwest.

The ideal size for the team projects is about five students per group, although the number in each group may certainly be smaller or larger.

Resources & Materials

Course Handouts

Jordan Module Schedule

Theatre Arts – 600 Senior Seminar Syllabus

Selected Readings

Achilli, Luigi. 2015. “Syrian Refugees in Jordan: A Reality Check.” Migration Policy Centre, 1-12, http://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/34904. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Chatelard, Géraldine. 2010[2005]. “Jordan: A Refugee Haven.” HAL Archives ouvertes. https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00514403. Accessed June 16, 2015.

Hart, Sarah. 2016. “The Sundance Caravan.” American Theatre 33(5):24-25. Corporate ResourceNet.

Hosseini, Khalid. 2015. “Those We Leave Behind.” The New Statesman 144(5264):60-63. MasterFILE Premier.

Kelley, Colin P. et al. 2015. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Conflict.” PNAS 112(11):3214-3246.

Long, Katy and Jeff Crisp. 2010. “Migration, Mobility and Solutions: An Evolving Perspective.” Forced Migration Review 35:56-7. http://www.fmreview.org/disability-and-displacement/katy-long-and-jeff-crisp.html. Accessed August 24, 2016.

Malkki, Liisa. 1996. “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11(3):377-404. http://www.jstor.org/stable/656300. JSTOR. (OPTIONAL)

Margraff, Ruth. 2016. “Unquiet Luxury.” American Theatre 33(5):32-34. Corporate ResourceNet.

Meaton, Julia and Jamal Alnsour. 2012. “Spatial and Environmental Planning Challenges in Amman, Jordan.” Planning Practice and Research 27(3):367-386. Business Source Elite.

Pitchford, Bart. 2016. “From Loss to Laughter.” American Theatre 33(5):26-27. Corporate ResourceNet.

Shaer, Matthew, 2016. “Refuge: One Family’s Story.” Atlanta 55(12):90-106. MasterFILE Premier.

Weinert-Kendt, Rob. 2016a. “Staging a Movement.” American Theatre 33(5):28-30. Corporate ResourceNet.

Weinert-Kendt, Rob. 2016b. “Stuck in the Middle.” American Theatre 33(5):22-23. Corporate ResourceNet.

Zetter, Roger and Héloïse Ruaudel. 2014. “Development and Protection Challenges of the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” Forced Migration Review 47:6-10. http://www.fmreview.org/syria/zetter-ruaudel%20.html. Accessed August 8, 2016.


Zaatari Refugee Camp

Growing Home (2014) Faisal Attrache. Traces the experience of a Syrian barber living and working in Zaatari Refugee Camp.

Another Kind of Girl (2015) Khaldiya Jibawi. Filmed by a young woman living in Zaatari Refugee Camp who wants to enable other young people in the camp to tell their story.

The Last Passenger (2013) Widad Shafakoj. Interviews with officials and residents of the camp relates the challenges of life in the camp, the reasons people seek to leave, and the means by which they do.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

YouTube Channel: Short videos giving optimistic stories of Syrians making new lives for themselves, both in the Middle East and elsewhere (2017).

Supplemental Readings

For Environmental Studies Seminar

Summary of Jordan’s water issues in the context of the refugee situation

Tapped Out: Water Scarcity and Refugee Pressures in Jordan from Mercy Corps (March2014)

For Topics in Anthropology: Space and Place

Urban Development & Tourism

Abu-Khafajah, Shatha and Rama Al Rabady. 2013. “The ‘Jordanian’ Roman Complex: Reinventing Urban Landscape to Accommodate Globalization.” Near Eastern Archaeology 76(3):186-192.  Relates perceptions among some residents of Amman that urban development focuses on the needs of tourists, rather than those of the local population.

Reworking spatially-framed gender interactions

Kaya, Laura Pearl. 2009. “Dating in a Sexually Segregated Society: Embodied Practices of Online Romance in Irbid, Jordan.” Anthropological Quarterly 82(1):251-278. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25488265. JSTOR.

On the status of Syrians within the region

Monroe, Kristin. 2014. “Labor and the Urban Landscape: Mobility, Risk, and Possibility among Syrian Delivery Workers in Beirut.” Anthropology of Work Review 35(2):84-94.

Outcomes and Significance

All three courses met on the same days at the same time, and schedules were coordinated to allow time for students in each seminar to work together. This format facilitated the interdisciplinary module, but allowed faculty to retain independence over the rest of the course.

Each class first met individually to lay out the overall scope of the term and to introduce how the module fits in with the class. We met jointly during the second meeting, and presented the handout given above. A Coe student who had taken part in the ACM’s Jordan term introduced Jordanian culture as well as giving students a glimpse of daily life in Jordan. During the second meeting as a joint group, Professor St. Clair gave an overview of Jordan’s environment with emphasis on the natural and human-influenced pressures on water. In the following session, Professor Fairbanks addressed Jordan’s history of accepting and integrating refugees. Professor Wolverton then addressed the role of theatre in social movements, as well as presenting different methods of devising theatre works from current issues.

The combined classes were divided (by the instructors) into groups with representation from each of the three courses. The groups received the instructions given above and were given two class periods to research and develop their scene. Faculty circulated among groups, answering questions and observing the interactions within each group. We then met in the Learning Commons to allow each group to present their results to the rest of the group. While we asked only for a scene, each group actually sketched out a possible narrative for an entire presentation – in some cases, with backgrounds, illustrations, and music selected to achieve the desired effect.

We met again mid-way through the term to find out how the draft of the final play was progressing. Anthropology and Environmental Studies students had the opportunity to provide feedback to the Theatre Arts students on the draft, which resulted in some significant changes.

Another remarkable resource used were the insights of Anne Struthers, a retired Coe faculty member who spent time as a Fulbright Scholar in Aleppo, Syria. She attended all joint meetings of the course, and one of her poems was incorporated into the final production.

Finally, as the play was taking shape, students in the Anthropology and Environmental Studies courses were given the option of performing in the presentation or helping to prepare and present an educational exhibit (Prezi presentation) prior to the play. Before the audience could enter the theatre, they were guided into the exhibition room and “interrogated” by students – costumed and in character – and required to state their name and their reason for wishing to attend the performance. They were then escorted into the theatre. When the play concluded, audience members were served Jordanian snacks and invited to participate in a talkback with the students.

Student Assessment

At the mid-term presentation of the draft play script, we asked students to address the following questions (in writing):

  1. What do you consider the strengths of the draft?
  2. How does it reflect the interdisciplinary work you did as a combined class?
  3. How do you think the draft could be strengthened?
  4. Which themes or additional information from your course would contribute to the final production?

The quality of the responses was high, and reflected an ability to incorporate the material from the individual courses into the ongoing development of the play. In fact, the primary critique was that the Anthropology and Environmental Studies students missed being engaged with the play.

We administered the following set of questions after the play was presented at a final joint meeting. The responses were hand-written, but then collated by class and transcribed.

  1. How would you define the term “refugee?”
  2. How would you define the term “devised theatre?”
  3. Jordan has access to a significant underground source of water in the southern part of the country. Why is pumping water from this aquifer not an effective long term solution to Jordan’s water shortage?
  4. What did you find most satisfying about the interdisciplinary work you did in the course?
  5. What did you find most frustrating about this work?
  6. Has the work changed your perspective on the experiences of refugees in Jordan? If so, how?
  7. Has it changed your perspective on the environmental issues facing Jordan? If so, how?
  8. Has it changed your perspective on the work of art in bringing social and environmental issues to people’s consciousness? If so, now?
  9. Has the interdisciplinary aspect of the course affected your thinking about international issues in general? Is so, please explain.
  1. Has the interdisciplinary aspect of the course affected your thinking about the approaches that social sciences, natural sciences, and/or the arts take to an issue? If so, how?
  2. Has the course shaped your thinking about communicating information to a wide and/or general audience? Is so, how?
  3. Would you sign up for an interdisciplinary course in the future? Why or why not?
    1. If this course were to be offered again, what would you like to see changed?

Responses showed that students achieved our learning goals: they reported appreciation for the multiple aspects of the refugee crisis in Jordan and the perspectives that each discipline brought to the issue. They also wrote about recognizing the ways that the arts can make an issue accessible to an audience and about the successful result of their collaboration.

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