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Brick by brick: green homes build cohesion between Syrian refugees and Jordanians

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By Adela Suliman

For some low-income Jordanians the attention and funds directed towards refugees from Syria are a source of tension

DHLAIL, Jordan, Oct 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syrian refugee Umm Mohammed fidgeted in her chair in a breezy office in Dhlail city, northern Jordan, before joking: "We don't know how to sit still."

Along with others who fled conflict in neighbouring Syria, she works with low-income Jordanians in this industrial town famed for its dairy and textile factories.

But their work is different: retrofitting homes to make them green.

"We want to work - we don't want to sit around idly. We want to contribute," she said of her fellow refugees' motivation.

Umm Mohammed - she uses the moniker, which means 'mother of Mohammed', to avoid potential difficulties with Syrian officials - is from Deraa, a city close to the Jordanian border.

It was the scene in March 2011 of the first major peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Umm Mohammed arrived in Jordan later that year with her husband and four children, carrying just a few pieces of luggage.

At first she worked from home, fermenting pickles and making soap to sell in the local market, but she soon became involved with a local women's project to hand-make straw shading devices that are fitted to windows to keep homes cooler.

Her work forms part of a bigger effort - a pilot project to retrofit and build affordable green homes, led by two non-profit organisations: the Jordan Green Building Council (JoGBC) and Habitat for Humanity.

The project involves retrofitting existing homes by adding shading devices, solar-thermal water heaters and rainwater collection tanks, and building new homes using green techniques such as reflective paint and double-block brick walls for better insulation.

So far, about 48 homes have been retrofitted, while another half-dozen or so have been built from scratch and have near-zero carbon emissions.

The JoGBC is hopeful that the project, which cuts emissions and builds community cohesion, will spread to other parts of the country.

Making the straw shades suits women who do not want to work in factories with men or who need to work from home due to childcare, Umm Mohammed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

And doing so has also allowed her to socialise with her Jordanian neighbours.

"This project has definitely helped community cohesion in this area," Umm Mohammed said.

"Some of us (Syrians and Jordanians) are like brothers and sisters - we don't see any difference. The Jordanians are very generous and supportive. But in other areas sometimes they shout at our kids: 'Why are you still here? Go back to Syria.' So it varies."