Jordan's rural poor chafe under the burden of hosting Syrian refugees
In one village, a microcosm of the strains Syria's civil war imposes on an impoverished Jordanian society
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In one village, a microcosm of the strains Syria's civil war imposes on an impoverished Jordanian society
ZAATARI, Jordan — The cylindrical water trucks, their precious cargo sloshing inside, amble along the dusty road separating the small Jordanian village of Zaatari from the massive Syrian refugee camp that has taken its name. They do not stop at the village, which, like most of this desert state, is parched. Instead, they roll on to the camp, past the gray armored personnel carrier at its gate and into the sprawling warren of caravans and tents that is now Jordan's fourth-largest city.
It is often said that there was little except scorpions and sand in this forgotten patch of Jordan before waves of refugees from across the nearby border with Syria brought the camp into being a year ago. That's not quite true. Before the Syrian Zaatari, there was the Jordanian one — and today the two coexist uneasily.
The refugee camp, the second largest in the world, houses at least 120,000 Syrians, a fraction of the almost 550,000 who have sought sanctuary in this country of 6 million since the outbreak of Syria's civil war. But not all the refugees who have arrived in Zaatari want to live in the camp, with its common toilets and kitchens, disease and crowding.
As a result, the sleepy village that is home to 12,000 Jordanians has been transformed by the arrival of several thousand refugees.
Canvas tents, many bearing the blue logo of the United Nations' refugee agency, the UNHCR, are pitched in backyards or in vacant lots between the flat-roofed one- and two-story homes, which are sun-faded into dull shades of white, pale ocher or gray. The water and electricity to the tent dwellers is provided by the nearby home owners, who mostly foot the bills.
There are also tents abutting the village's neat olive groves, where a fine sandy dust covers the silvery green leaves of trees surrounded by chain-link fences. Some Syrians have established businesses here, such as Homs Nights, a shawarma restaurant along the village's main road. Most, however, are destitute.
Locals say that municipal water had been pumped through the village twice a week but that, since the refugee influx, it's just once a week — and they blame the Syrians for the rationing. There's not enough water as it is in this country, one of the world's driest, and now there are more people sharing what little is available.
There are other pressures too. Many of the schools in Zaatari village and its surroundings run double shifts to accommodate the increased number of students. Local health centers have seen a 30 to 40 percent increase in their case loads, according to Madallah al-Khalde, the head of Zaatari's development council and the leader of the charitable Zaatari Association, which has aided needy locals for almost three decades.
"This area was poor already," al-Khalde says. "Now it's a disaster area because of the large numbers of Syrian refugees." A trim middle-aged man in a blue blazer and slacks, with a thick black mustache and neatly slicked short hair, he says he has three Syrian families living on the grounds of his home.
The Zaatari Association, which relies on donations from charities in Jordan and around the Gulf, used to support some 300 Jordanian families in the area, providing regular handouts of food, clothes and money as well as offering sports training for children and health and hygiene classes. But that has all stopped. The last time his group offered aid to the village's needy Jordanians was this summer, during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, a traditional period of giving alms. "Now it's all to the Syrians. We don't distribute to the Jordanian families anymore," he says. "Syrians now have priority. The donors place conditions that the help is for Syrians."
Needless to say, that hasn't exactly helped reduce social friction between the two communities in the village, especially because Syrian refugees who are registered with the UNHCR can also receive monthly cash allowances and food coupons, regardless of whether they live in the camp.
The refugees' presence has created what al-Khalde terms "side effects," sometimes manifested as physical fights, occasionally involving knives, but more often as seething resentment loudly expressed to any and all who will listen.
His organization is trying to combat the rising hostility by hosting extended workshops with small groups of up to 30 young Syrian refugees and Jordanians in the village. "We try and tell Jordanians, 'Look, they (the Syrians) have lost their homes, their families. They've fled their country.' We are splitting the loaf of bread and sharing it with them, but it's hard, especially because the Syrian crisis looks open ended."
Zaatari is a poor town, he repeats. "The responsibility should not be just ours or Jordan's but on all countries."
Jordan's burden is heavy. Each refugee costs the country 2,500 Jordanian dinars ($3,530) per year to host, authorities have said. The interior minister has said that the foreign assistance extended to the country so far barely covers 30 percent of the costs borne by Jordan, which exceed $830 million.
Last year — unrelated to the refugee burden — the cash-strapped kingdom received a $2 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund on the condition that it end the fuel subsidies on which its government spends billions each year. The resulting hike in prices (a cylinder of cooking gas rose from 6.5 Jordanian dinars to 10) sparked protests, which rattled the politically fragile kingdom and were quickly quelled. On Oct. 12, Bloomberg reported, the IMF said it would relax some of the austerity conditions imposed on Jordan's loan in recognition of the massive strain created by the refugee influx.
The economic impact of the refugee surge is most acutely felt by poorer Jordanians in Zaatari, like Em Attiyeh, who have little patience or sympathy for their new neighbors. A mother of nine, she lives with her husband in a crumbling home with cracked walls. "The Syrians ruined everything for us," she says bitterly, her voice echoing off the chipped white paint on the bare walls of a room with few furnishings to absorb the sound. Parts of the thin concrete ceiling in one of the house's four rooms recently collapsed, exposing the naked cinder-block and rebar base. There's peeling cream-embossed wallpaper in one room, the family's "best room," which, unlike the others, has furniture, including mattresses piled atop one another, a television and a carpet. Still, there are tents in Zaatari camp with as much furniture as in Em Attiyeh's home, if not more.
"Nobody is helping us," she says. "Before, we'd request help from associations and get it. Now, nothing. It's all for the Syrians. Everything is for the Syrians. Nothing is for us. Things are also more expensive — gas, sugar, clothes for the children. Our situation is miserable."
Em Attiyeh is her family's breadwinner, working as a farmhand for five Jordanian dinars ($7) a day. Her husband has a herniated disk in his back, she says, and can't help. Her two eldest children, both in their early 20s, are married and live elsewhere. The rest are in school. "We get our vegetables from the farms we work on," she says. "People are taking pity on us, giving us clothes for the children." Now she finds Syrian farmhands working the same fields, and Em Attiyeh resents their encroaching on her low-paying job. "They don't need to work the fields. They have support. They get external support. Not like us," she says. "They get money and help."
Still, there are many Jordanians in Zaatari who have benefited from the camp. "A lot of people here got jobs because of the camp," says Rasha, 24, who has an agricultural-engineering degree and has been working with the World Food Program in the camp for the past year. "Some who worked farther away in other cities have now found work closer to home."
In that time, she's been hurt twice in violent confrontations among refugees. In early 2012 she was caught in a melee among rival Syrians near her office. Somebody threw a chair at her so hard that it broke her left leg. On another occasion, an irate Syrian woman who was turned away from receiving food aid because her ID card was inactive attacked Rasha with the scanner she used to check the validity of the card, injuring her right hand and wrist. But it hasn't dissuaded her. "There are some people in the camp I would do anything for," Rasha says. "When I see them and I know I can help, I forget my tiredness and everything else."
Rasha's mother, Em Ahmad, doesn't want her daughter to work in Zaatari camp, but she is outvoted in this family of philanthropists. Rasha's father, Abu Ahmad, has been collecting and distributing donations to Syrian refugees since early in the two-and-a-half year crisis. His son Gassim, a 20-year-old third-year psychology student, helps with the collection. Before that, the family helped orphans and the disabled, but as in al-Khalde's case, their donors now specify that all aid go to needy Syrians, not Jordanians.
"You should tell a human-rights organization about my situation," Gassim jokes as he leads the way to his room. "I've been crowded out of my space!"
He's not wrong. Blue plastic bags full of donated clothes are piled in one corner of his room, near a new wheelchair and a walker. Packets of medicine line a wall. There are boxes of candy, children's toys — including dolls and Angry Bird figurines — and foodstuffs like electrolyte drinks for children.
The family is also hosting a Syrian widow, Em Farhan, and her two adult daughters, Ida, 23, and Farha, 19, who live in a round tent pitched outside their home. Unlike the overwhelming majority of refugees in the Zaatari camp, who are from nearby Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, Em Farhan is from a small town on the outskirts of the city of Homs. She's been living outside Abu Ahmad's house for six months now.
She says she tried to get into Lebanon, which is closer to Homs than Jordan is, but turned back because of the danger. "We tried to cross the border but were shot at by Syrian soldiers," she says. "They killed a lot of people." It took her four days to get to the Jordanian border, after which she and her daughters were taken to the Zaatari camp, where they lived for 19 days.
"I left the camp because I just couldn't live there," she says, sitting cross-legged in her carpeted tent. "I was worried about my daughters. I don't have any relatives there, no male member of the family, a son or father. Their brother isn't here. I can't protect my daughters. We are from Homs. They (the refugees in the camp) are all from Daraa. We don't know them. I fear for my daughters."
Her choice of refuge was not entirely random. "These people are related to us," she says of her hosts. "Our grandfathers were related. The old people know each other." The ties that bind many of the Syrian refugees in Zaatari village to their Jordanian hosts are more than just humanitarian; they are also tribal. "We are all Bani Khalid," Abu Ahmad says, referring to the tribe his family and Em Farhan's belong to. "This town is Bani Khalid."
Em Farhan says she feels safer with Abu Ahmad's family than in the camp. She spends her days doing odd jobs like picking olives while she waits for her only son, Farhan, to join her. He has been stuck on the Syrian side of the border for almost a month now, along with tens of thousands of other Syrians awaiting the Jordanian authorities' permission to enter.
His mother prays he will cross into Jordan soon and join his family in Zaatari — in the other Zaatari. The Jordanian one still feels as forgotten as it was before a refugee camp took its name.
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