Syrian Refugees in Jordan

When I first traveled to Jordan in 2007 for ten days as part of a contingency of religion writers, I  became aware of how Jordan became a place of welcome for refugees. Over 45 percent of Jordan’s population of 6,508,887 consists of people who have immigrated from another country. During the Iraq War, they extended their hospitality toward Iraqi refugees, just as they embraced their Palestinian brothers and sisters back in 1948, and others from subsequent conflicts in neighboring countries. This time, in September, I was journeying to Jordan during a period of crisis, where even my more liberal friends expressed concerned for my safety. So I wanted to see for myself how the ensuing five years, and the war in Syria, had changed the country.

I still encountered the same welcoming spirit from the Jordanians toward their Syrian brothers and sisters. However, this time the situation was more dire. About a quarter of the Iraqi refugees still remain in the country and are unable to secure adequate employment. Add to this number the projection by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Jordan that 700,000 refugees may flee from warn-torn Syria by the end of the year. This number represents four times the number of refugees originally estimated, though the UPI cites the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat quoted a confidential Jordanian government analyst who warned that as many as 1 million Syrians could eventually cross into Jordan.

This same UPI report also noted that the Syrian crisis, and the tremors it is causing in the kingdom, has intensified demands by the Islamist-led opposition parties for sweeping political and economic changes. This dramatic surge of refugees has contributed to rising prices in Jordan, straining schools and other infrastructure, and leading to tightly contained protests against the Hashemite government.

As expected, our press trip shielded us from much of this strain as our itinerary consisted mostly of holy sites and other places geared for the pilgrim and tourist trade which remains safe and secure. But during conversations with our guide and other Jordanians throughout my stay, I could sense a growing frustration with a crisis that cannot be contained for much longer, even in a country well known for its gracious hospitality.

In particular, our journey to Umm Qais, the site of the ancient Greco-Roman city Gandara that’s situated within eyeshot of the Israeli and Syrian border, took us through some dilapidated towns that clearly lacked adequate resources to sustain even those people living there. Hence, I was not surprised when Melanie Megevand, who coordinates the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) women’s programming in  Jordan for Syrian refugees, told me that tensions between Jordanians and Syrians had increased in northern towns like Mafraq and Ramtha .

The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, which is overseeing this refugee crisis in cooperation with UNCHR, initially helped all Syrian refugees who had fled to Jordan’s northern border cities since the start of the Syrian conflict in March of 2011. However, by July 2012, as arrivals were surpassing 1,000 refugees per night, the stretched resources in the Northern cities reached the point where they could no longer house additional refugees in Jordan’s communities. This crisis led to the opening of the Za’atri camp situated 15 km (9.32 miles) from the Syrian border. A strip of desert where the temperature can soar above 40°C (104 °F) and sandstorms are constant had evolved into a tent city that currently houses over 31,000 of the 230,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed over the Jordan border to date. Within the camp, NGOs struggle to provide the necessary basic services found in other towns, including a mosque.

Approximately 75 percent of the residents are women and children who have no means of supporting themselves. Over half of those living in the camps are under 18, with a fifth of the population under five.  So far, they have not experienced any violent outbreaks at the camp, though this remains a source of concern.

Colin Gilbert, Country Director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Jordan,  reflects on the difficulty in reaching out to those living outside of the camps. “With the majority of the Syrians residing amongst the local Jordanian population, this puts pressure on the local population and on scarce resources. Urban refugees face isolation, are easily prone to depression, and it is hard to meet all of their needs owing to their wide dispersal.” They work to provide cash assistance, food baskets, and psychosocial support  for up to 200 Syrian families. Also at the non-formal JRS education project in Ashrafiyeh, Amman, 25% of their student body comprises Syrians, the majority of which are of kindergarten and primary-school age.

Like JRS, the IRC focuses primarily on those living outside of the camps, working predominately with women to provide psychosocial and case management focusing on gender-based violence, legal issues, and mental health. Presently, they are transitioning from providing primary health-care services to reproductive health care, a service that has been nonexistent for these women.

In an interview with Father Nabil Haddad, Executive Director of the Jordanian Inter-Faith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), he informed me that like many other crisis situations, unless one has lived for a time in this region and possesses the necessary training, the best way interested parties can offer assistance is through donations that can help pay for local workers and other tangible items that are desperately needed now that this short-term crisis is continuing into the winter months. In addition to the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF, other long-term cooperative efforts  include the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), who supports Jesuit Refugee Service and the YWCA with their work with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees respectively, as well as partnering with Caritas Jordan, a Catholic organization with service and distribution centers across Jordan. Also Lutheran World Relief provides supplies to Syria and Jordan with their longtime partners International Orthodox Christian Charities and International Relief and Development.

Also, Haddad emphasized the need for psychological services to help those who have been traumatized by this situation. He has gone to the Za’atri camp with Muslim leaders to counsel the men. But he stressed an urgent need for female doctors and local specialists who speak Arabic and understand Syrian culture to sit with the Syrian women and children and provide trauma counseling.

Along those lines, the IRC’s Megevand alerted me to the reports of sexual assaults on Syrians in their home country that have gone largely unreported in the news coverage of the war. One of her key concerns is not only that there is a lack of awareness about these attacks, but that victims rarely have access to essential emotional or material support once they arrive in a host country. Without that support, their opportunities to recover from the trauma are severely limited.

After allowing news crews to document the initial phase of the refugee crisis, those working with the refugees noted how this coverage seem to further traumatize the refugees. Hence NGOs working with the refugees now severely limit the media coverage of those refugees under their care out of concern for their psychological and physical safety. Here they appear to have chosen the more prudent path of caring for those in crisis instead of creating awareness for their work by inviting in bloggers for a very carefully orchestrated tour of their relief efforts. In these tightly controlled scenarios, reporters can find themselves exploited by aid agencies looking to amplify crises in ways that boost fund-raising, and to present stories of suffering without political or historical context.

Even though Syrian refugees are safe remaining in Jordan, they are fearful that having their names, stories, and pictures identified will have fatal repercussions for their family and friends in Syria, as well as on their own lives should the current situation remain unchanged. This raises an important question: How can writers best convey the stories of those fleeing from Syria without further traumatizing them or placing their lives in danger?

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).