DATELINE: AMMAN JORDAN -- Penn MSW Student Files News Reports on Syrian Refugees

Rachel Townzen embarked on a reporting project abroad this past summer that took her into the world of Syrian refugees living in Jordan. 

As a student fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Townzen, a second-year graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, covered the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis and how technology shapes the tense interactions between Syrians, international organizations and host communities in Jordan. 

“It was such a privilege for me to be able to turn my experience this summer into these articles and stories that might otherwise not have been heard,” she says.

The project is called “Uprooted and Unplugged: The Disconnects of Syrians in Jordan.”

Townzen, who already had experience working with refugees and asylum seekers in the United States and abroad, believes that media coverage of Syrians tends to focus disproportionately on refugees in Europe. She wanted to expand the coverage to the Middle East. 

“The reality is that millions more are in neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which are all straining under the influx of these refugees,” says Townzen. “It’s a vastly different context socially and legally for refugees compared to Europe, and I still feel like that story needs to be told in more depth.”

Her first article, “An Identity Crisis in Jordan,” published Sept. 14, told the untold story of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Jordan without proper identification. Missing proof of legal status affects every part of their lives from access to health care to the ability to document their nationality and potentially even to return to Syria.

Townzen documented how international agency workers reach out to refugees who haven’t registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, commonly known as the UNHCR. All Syrians living in the host country of Jordan are required to register.

In her next article, Townzen wrote a firsthand account of life in Za’atari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan. Her time in the camp showed her how 80,000 Syrians who live there are cut off from the outside world due to very limited internet access and lack of 3G coverage. She said Syrians and Jordanians view internet connectivity as a “double-edged sword.”

It is viewed as a threatening conduit for recruiting Syrians into jihadi groups while it is also an invaluable source of news from outside the camp.

“Internet access allows refugees to know whether family at home is safe when there’s news of an attack,” Townzen wrote. “It means knowing whether you have a home or a village to return to someday, insh'Allah, if God wills. Facebook has rapidly become one of the most commonly accessed sources of news.”

Her last Pulitzer fellow project news article was published Sept. 20 by Syria Deeply, an independent digital project of the media startup News Deeply

Her article “Trusting Tech Initiatives Isn't Easy for Most Syrians”  explored Syrian refugee security in Jordan, where a tech-driven humanitarian response has incorporated ever-increasing data-collection systems. Refugees there are only able to access benefits in their host communities after they register with UNHCR and their biometrics — including an iris-scan ­­— are collected.

Reporting from the ground on a massive humanitarian response, Townzen learned how much she took for granted before, such as the ability to enter and leave the refugee camps or travel wherever and whenever she wanted, choices the refugees do not have. 

Reflecting on her time there, she says, “Living in Jordan was an inspiring, challenging, humbling and life-affirming experience all at once.”

There’s no walking away from the experience. “I don’t want to be someone who has learned this much and seen this much suffering and need, and yet does nothing.”

Townzen’s passion to work with refugees is both academic and personal. Her grandparents were Armenians who left the Ottoman Empire, from what is now central Turkey.

“Displacement is in my blood,” she says.

She feels a sense of obligation to help displaced Syrians because the Syrian people helped the Armenians in 1915 when they were persecuted and exiled from the Ottoman Empire into what is now Syria.

Townzen earned her bachelor's degree in applied psychology and human development from Boston College in 2014. She became interested in helping people who’d experienced trauma just before the Arab Spring began. Not long after, she began to read more about human rights efforts on behalf of refugees and became determined to contribute to that work.

Early in her career, Townzen served as a cultural mentor for the Denver Rescue Mission and a refugee case management intern at Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains in Denver. She has also served as a volunteer with the Red Cross Society, Near East Foundation and TEDxYerevan team in Armenia. 

She chose to pursue a master’s degree in social work because the field focuses on people in their environments and emphasizes empowerment. Since arriving at Penn, she has interned with HIAS Pennsylvania, a provider of legal and supportive services to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In her first year, she was an asylee case manager, and now works on data management for multiple programs within the agency."

This year, she joined 30 other Pulitzer Center student fellows who filed news reports from 24 countries.

At Penn, Townzen is co-president of Social Work Advocates for Immigrant Rights, a student group at the School of Social Policy & Practice that focuses on international social work and human-rights issues. She has also been actively involved with the International Human Rights Advocates at the Penn Law School.

Off campus, she is a member of a young professionals organization for Armenians and volunteers to help expand the scope of RefAid, an app to raise awareness of and access to services for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in seven countries across Europe.

After graduating in 2017, Townzen plans to work in a career serving refugees and others in need of international protection, with an interest in how data analytics can shape legislative and policy decisions to advance and safeguard human rights. And someday she hopes to return to Jordan. 

Story Photo