URI graduate, Warwick native creates home, stability for Syrian refugees in Jordan

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Robert Maroni is country director for Mercy Corps, global relief nonprofit

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 22, 2014 – Children living in a refugee camp in Jordan go to school, kick soccer balls on a playground and watch movies on a big screen, thanks, in part, to Mercy Corps, a global relief organization with a University of Rhode Island connection.


Robert Maroni, 50, a URI graduate who grew up in Warwick, is the nonprofit’s country director in Jordan, where he’s lived for the last four years with his wife and children.


He and his team of 200 help bring stability to the lives of thousands of Syrians who have fled a horrific civil war that is destroying the country and leaving millions homeless.


Mercy Corps helps run two camps in the Jordanian desert: Za’atari, a haven for 85,000 refugees, and Azraq, which has 6,000. They are among the 500,000 refugees in Jordan today.


So far, the war, in its third year, has killed 190,000 Syrians and left 3 million homeless. The United Nations predicts 4 million could be displaced by the end of 2014, making it the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide.


At the height of the war, thousands of Syrians were crossing into Jordan daily. That number has decreased to about 100 to 200 daily, says Maroni, because the Jordanian government took steps to control the border.


Many of the refugees are children, some frustrated and scarred by what they’ve seen: shootings, destruction and terrible human rights abuses.


The average stay for a family in the camps is 15 years. Most hope to return to Syria when the war ends. “It’s home,” says Maroni.


Azraq is the newest camp, opened in April. It was designed to give the refugees a better sense of security and community. Families live in steel shelters, instead of tents. The houses are set up in rows resembling streets, so it’s easier to find people.


Families are given credit to buy food at grocery stores, which allows them to make choices about what they eat and fosters independence. Every shelter has a gas stove to prepare meals.


Playgrounds and other areas for kids to hang out provide much-needed support for youngsters and teenagers. The other night, children watched the movie “Mr. Bean” – dubbed in Egyptian-Arabic – on a big screen. “They loved it,” says Maroni.


Schools have computers and a gym in Za’atari offers a place to gather and exercise. A welcoming face in the gym is Mohammed Al Karad, Syria’s 32-year-old national wrestling champion and coach. He, too, is a refugee.


Maroni went to Toll Gate High School in Warwick, where he grew up, and graduated from URI in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He ran his own construction company for several years, but longed to work overseas.


In 1993, he joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in Cameroon and one year in the West Indies. After the Peace Corps, he earned a master’s degree in sustainable international development at Brandeis University.


By 1997, he was working in Rwanda, rebuilding villages in a country ravaged by genocide. He moved on to Eritrea to coordinate an HIV prevention project.


Maroni joined Mercy Corps in 2004 and, after a stint in Zimbabwe, landed in Jordan with his wife, Nadia al-Alawi, and their two girls, ages 11 and 13. He’s been there four years.


Maroni is uncomfortable talking about himself, preferring instead to focus on the refugees and their courage, reflected in their spirit.


“Our gym is full every day,” he says. “That’s fulfilling.”


Click here for information about Mercy Corps.


Photo above: Robert Maroni, a 1987 University of Rhode Island graduate and Mercy Corps country director for Jordan. Photo courtesy of Robert Maroni.