The Syrian Crisis in Jordan
For background on Iraqi refugees in Jordan, see Nicholas Seeley, “The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan,” Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010). See also Isis Nusair, “Permanent Transients: Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan,” Middle East Report 266 (Spring 2013).
For an early take on a new Arab cold war, see Morten Valbjorn and Andre Bank, “Signs of a New Arab Cold War: The 2006 Lebanon War and the Sunni-Shi‘i Divide,” Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007).
An hour and a quarter north of Amman the rural highway rolls through the remote desert hamlet of Zaatari without slowing. The town’s lone intersection is too sleepy to need a stop sign.
But in the backyard of this unassuming town, imposed on the nothingness of the landscape, is the behemoth Zaatari refugee camp, a pop-up city of more than 28,000 structures and nearly 120,000 Syrians who have fled the violent civil war to the north. Behind the barbed perimeter lies a crammed panorama of tents, trailers, water towers and power lines supporting relief agencies from more than a dozen foreign countries. On a clear morning in early spring the spectacle is blindingly bright, the sun reflecting off the endless grid of gleaming trailers and alabaster-colored tents set atop 1,300 acres of chalk-white gravel. Sixty-five babies are born here every week. There are 26 mosques. Two years ago the area was a defunct military airstrip; today the vast encampment houses enough people to be Jordan’s fifth largest city.
The Zaatari camp feels like a city, too, complete with its own economy. Through the main gate and the police checkpoint extends a bustling market street, nicknamed the Champs-Élysées after the nearby French field hospital. Crowded shoulder to shoulder with foot traffic for a mile, the Champs-Élysées is lined with makeshift shops selling all the amenities that the UN’s emergency relief does not provide. Improvised lean-tos hawk SIM cards, fresh vegetables and Syrian cigarettes; electrified stalls offer ice cream treats; barbers beckon passersby into their booths. Illustrating the complete relocation of lives into Zaatari, there is even a small shop showcasing wedding gowns.
Nearly all the residents of Zaatari -- and the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan -- come from the southern province of Dar‘a, the “cradle of the revolution.” The uprising started in the city of Dar‘a in March 2011, sparked by the government’s harsh response to an incident of teenage graffiti. Protests begat clashes, which escalated into outright war, and since 2012 the regime has covered the city with sniper fire and laid siege with aerial bombardments. As conditions worsened across the south, the exodus of Syrians into Jordan began -- approximately 1,500 people now cross the border every day. For the majority of refugees, who enter through the 45 or so unofficial crossings along the 233-mile border and are gathered onto Jordanian army buses, the first destination is Zaatari. Those with local relatives or adequate resources continue to Jordanian cities, where three fourths of refugees currently reside, but the most vulnerable remain in Zaatari. “If people come across to Zaatari, then you know they are in trouble, and the situation is really desperate,” says Andrew Harper, Jordan representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which administers the camp. “Why would you take your family over to Zaatari if you have any choice whatsoever?”
At the far end of the camp, in a newer area called the “Saudi section” owing to the caravans donated by that country, UNICEF is completing a second school to accommodate the growing number of children living in the camp. Inside the school’s administrative trailer, the newly delivered cabinets are still shrink-wrapped. Sitting on a desk, Case Rteimeh, a relief worker who has been in Zaatari since the first tent went up, explains the challenges of maintaining a temporary city by pointing to the market stalls along the Champs-Élysées.
“You’ll notice that all of the stalls are built with materials appropriated from other communal structures in the camp. The needs are very great and money is very scarce, so on one hand you can’t blame someone in a desperate situation, who has nothing, for making do with what’s around them to earn a dinar or two. On the other hand it is vandalism -- or theft or whatever you want to call it -- that disrupts services for everyone and creates a cascade of problems.”
Rteimeh laments the Sisyphean task of continually rebuilding what is continually disassembled. “We may build a washroom facility on a Monday. By Tuesday the facility has been completely dismantled and by Wednesday the faucets, the piping, the sink have all been stripped and the cinderblock walls have been carried off and restacked in the market to make a new shop. On Thursday 1,500 new refugees arrive exhausted and confused to find a ruined washroom. Understandably, they come to us complaining of inadequate facilities -- that there is no washroom, that we wish them to suffer -- and we think ‘What are you talking about, we just built a new washroom this week!’ In this way there is much confusion and acrimony.”
Many longer-term residents of Zaatari have settled into the rhythms of the camp and developed semblances of stable neighborhoods. Several areas have figured how to nick electricity from the camp’s grid, and children pile into caravans to watch “Dora The Explorer” via a jerry-rigged satellite hook-up. But others -- especially newer arrivals, and those living in less harmonious areas of the camp -- are extremely disgruntled. Residents in these areas are prone to offer the harshest assessments of the camp and even to doubt its humanitarian purpose.
‘Abdallah, 21, from a village outside Dar‘a, feels stuck in Zaatari. Apple-scented smoke wafts from his water pipe, and the stem of an upside-down apple tattoo peeks from the sleeve of his black-and-white burglar-striped t-shirt. With bold features and an aquiline nose he could be mistaken for a Roman bust were it not for his slickly gelled fashion mullet. ‘Abdallah is fed up with the inadequate treatment from the camp’s medical corps, complaining that everyone he knows is getting sick. “The only thing we need now is to leave -- but they will not let us.” In recent months the Jordanian government has tightened the cordon around Zaatari. To exit legally a refugee must be “bailed out” by a Jordanian citizen, a regulation that has created an extortionist black market of middlemen arranging for departures. If a refugee leaves the camp without going through the proper channels, he will not have the paperwork necessary to receive public services in Jordan. Nor will he be eligible for UNHCR aid in the cities. ‘Abdallah repeats a pervasive rumor that the camp exists as a display of suffering for the Jordanian government to garner extra millions in international aid -- and perhaps to serve as a cautionary example to the kingdom’s restive population. “We will make a big riot if they keep this up. We will tear down the fences and just leave.”
The hard truth is that many refugees who do manage to leave Zaatari end up returning. Jordan is a much more expensive country than Syria, and many families who attempt to rent apartments in the cities quickly deplete their savings. “In Dar‘a, 20,000 lira is a lot of money,” explained another refugee. “In Jordan it is 100 dinars and fetches very little.” (One Jordanian dinar is equivalent to $1.41.)
In the northern border village of Malka, a young medical student named Ibrahim Malkawi has been helping Syrian families settle in his village for over a year. “In the northern cities where most refugees end up -- Irbid, Ramtha, Mafraq -- the real estate market is completely saturated. The lowest tier of apartments rent for about 150 dinars per month, and these were completely filled by the first wave of refugees. By 2012 all the 200- and 250-dinar apartments were occupied. When families arrive now, all that is left are apartments for 300 and 400 dinars. This is extremely difficult for families with no income, who are not allowed to work.”
Malka is a quaint farming village tucked into in the northwest corner of Jordan, where the borders of Jordan, Syria and Israel wind along the Yarmouk river valley, a dramatic gorge that many refugees follow to safety. The local varieties of honey reveal Malka’s nearness to neighboring countries, as bees return from citrus groves in Israel and from fields of wild thyme inside Syria. With commanding views of Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights, Malka is lovely in the springtime -- enormous, sugar-white clouds pull their shadows like sleds across rolling hilltops stippled by orchard trees. Beyond the hills to the north lie the plains of Hawran, the rich agricultural tract that reaches across the Dar‘a province all the way to the doorstep of Damascus.
As Ibrahim’s family name suggests, the Malkawis are a long-standing notable family in town. They live in a well-appointed villa, lined with olive groves and a carport enclosed by a grape trellis. Recently they welcomed a family of four to live in their home -- a man, his pregnant wife and their two small boys. Ibrahim deflects all mention of his family’s generosity. “When you feel the magnitude of the crisis, you have no choice. And when you hear the stories of what they went through, you feel that whatever you do is the very least you can do.”
The Suri family (as the Malkawis’ guests wish to be known) comes from the city of Dar‘a, where they owned several corner stores and a small farm. Halim, the husband, thumbs wooden prayer beads while he speaks, softly, slowly. His deep-set eyes hold a somber, knowing quality and his tense smile, employed sparingly and to emphasize the irony or helplessness of a situation, reveals several gold-capped teeth. Usually taciturn, he makes an exception to share his story. As he relates his family’s ordeal, his wife rests comfortably upstairs and his young sons, 6 and 3, play cheerfully on the floor beside him, taken in like little brothers by the Malkawis.
At the outset of the crisis two years ago, Halim never imagined he would leave Dar‘a, let alone Syria. After the first year of the conflict, the regular army units composed of local conscripts were withdrawn and replaced by unfamiliar faces from various branches of the government security forces. Door-to-door raids increased and the new, more aggressive army would barge into homes and arrest all military-aged men, no questions asked. The raids, ostensibly mounted to root out terrorists, became entwined with motivations more like looting. “It was like a marauding medieval army,” recalls Halim. “They would move through a village with a truck beside their tank taking anything they wanted, refrigerators, microwaves, furniture, jewelry, anything.”
Local watch groups, which began as bands of residents armed with farming equipment and kitchen knives, hardened into squadrons of rebels. As fighting intensified, regular citizens became trapped. “The soldiers sat in tanks and the rebels fought from their bunkers, so it was the common man, caught in the middle, who suffered most. When the army would conduct a patrol in a neighborhood or wanted to enter an area of known rebel activity, they would first arrest several locals and force them to sit atop the tanks as human shields. Anyone who refused would be shot on the spot.”
Strict curfews were in effect, snipers roosted above the main streets and soon daily life ground to a halt. The Suris’ businesses foundered, as customers encountered danger in the simple act of grocery shopping and employees could not safely travel to work. Across Dar‘a, residents were confined to their homes, their resources dwindling. Artillery shells lobbed from outside the city fell haphazardly in all areas of the city. Two homes in the Suris’ extended family were destroyed. “You did not know when you might die. Asleep in your bed with your wife, and a bomb would fall on your roof.”
But the final impetus to flee came with Halim’s sister-in-law’s pregnancies.
In the first year of the war, the sister-in-law, Maryam, had a miscarriage. The family attributes it to the extreme psychological toll of the crisis. During the second year of the war Maryam again conceived. Just after Ramadan, when she was seven months pregnant, a shell landed on her street and started a trash fire in an abandoned store. The noxious fumes, inhaled, gave Maryam terrible pains in her stomach. Her husband, Tariq, tried to call an ambulance to carry her to the hospital about a mile away, but there was no response. No one was permitted to leave the house -- army snipers threatened anyone chancing the evening curfew. So Tariq telephoned the military checkpoint situated between the house and the hospital. He explained that his wife was pregnant. “There is a problem. We don’t know if she’s going into delivery, or if she’s going to bleed, or what.” The officer replied that Maryam would be allowed to go to the hospital, escorted by either her mother or her sister, on foot only. No men. Tariq, distraught at this predicament, decided to risk his life and accompany his wife and her mother to the hospital.
The three made it halfway to the hospital when they came under fire. Tariq realized he was endangering the women and, reluctantly, turned back. The women continued through the darkened streets on their own. After a long, frightening journey, Maryam and her mother arrived at the hospital, where they found only junior medical professionals -- nurses in training, young medical students, volunteers. There were no longer any experienced doctors on staff. Once admitted, Maryam underwent an emergency induced delivery. “The care was very poor, very improvised. Good intentions but without training.”
The baby, a boy, was premature and placed in an incubator, where he stayed until he expired. There was nothing left to do, and no rest beds at the hospital. Maryam got dressed and returned home, bleeding, by the same route. She took her baby with her, swaddled. The family wanted to give the boy a proper burial, but open places like cemeteries are off-limits and extremely dangerous. They buried the child at home.
The Suris’ departure from Dar‘a was sudden. Halim gathered the family, told the kids that they were leaving and packed a small bag for his wife -- herself now seven months pregnant. Asked what he packed for himself, Halim pinched the cream-colored windbreaker he was wearing, smiled and said in English: “This.”
Halim contacted the Free Syrian Army -- the putative main rebel group -- to arrange passage. The go-between was a local mechanic known for arranging these sorts of things. At a specified time a nondescript sedan fetched the Suris from the family home and drove them to a dropoff point where, along with four or five other families, they piled into the back of a flatbed agricultural truck. Under normal circumstances, such a trip would cost under $100, but drivers are now charging between $1,000-1,500. The truck followed a route considered safe by the rebels, and drove to a remote, recently “liberated” point along the border. The families disembarked and walked the remaining stretch across the arid waste. Once inside Jordan the families wandered until they encountered a Jordanian desert patrol. At a military staging area papers were collected, initial registrations logged and the families loaded onto buses to Zaatari.
From the first days in the camp, Halim decided that a tent in the desert with unpredictable access to medical services was no place for a pregnant woman. He made contact with a middleman who could arrange for the family to be bailed out of the camp by a Jordanian citizen. The Jordanian would take only $20, but the middleman (“a sick businessman”) demanded $600 for his part.
The Suris made their way to Malka on the advice of Halim’s uncle, a close childhood friend of Ibrahim Malkawi’s father. The baby the Suris are expecting in Malka is a girl. They plan to name her Malak (Angel), a name with an echo of their adopted home.
On a crammed car ride from Malka back to Amman -- in which it seems an entire pack of cigarettes is being smoked simultaneously -- a young dude with a rat tail and a black leather jacket is hissing at Romeo, a white cat he bought in Irbid for a crush who lives above a car dealership in Amman. Passing through Jarash, lost, someone in the car spots a pedestrian who might know directions. The driver points to the sidewalk and delivers a line that gets a knowing laugh from the car: “Oh look, a Jordanian! You don’t see one of those every day.”
Anxiety is building that the influx of refugees is overwhelming the kingdom. As a government official said in private, “When you look around in a restaurant or in the mall you become paranoid that you are outnumbered. Psychologically, you feel that you are not in Jordan.”
Of the approximately 1.6 million Syrian refugees, almost a third have fled into Jordan, making it the largest host country. And, for a country Jordan’s size, the proportional impact is even greater. Turkey has accepted about 380,000 refugees, about half of one percent of the country’s population. In Jordan, the refugees comprise almost 8 percent of the kingdom’s entire population.
Jordan has a long history as a country of refuge; indeed, the nation’s demographics are a window upon regional turmoil. There are pockets of Chechens and Circassians expelled from the Caucasus in the nineteenth century; Lebanese who arrived during that country’s civil war in the 1970s and 1980s; and successive waves of Iraqis who settled here during the 1990-1991 Gulf war, the sanctions period and again after the US invasion in 2003. Even the royal family is not “from here” -- the territory, carved out of Ottoman Syria, was granted to a branch of the Hashemite family of Mecca as part of the post-World War I map drawn by the British and French. And, of course, nearly half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, stemming from waves of displacement from the West Bank in 1948 and 1967. To the East Bankers who dominate Jordanian politics, the Palestinian situation highlights the fears of instability that come with absorbing massive refugee populations.
Jordanian officials are eager to emphasize the burden that the Syrian refugee crisis has placed on the kingdom. Officials estimate that accommodating Syrians cost the treasury $200 million in 2012, or about 8 percent of a budget deficit swelled by high social spending and soaring fuel import costs. In January 2013, Jordan’s economic council announced that the kingdom had spent more than $833 million on aid for the refugees—an unsustainable expenditure amounting to 3 percent of the gross domestic product. Addressing a conference of international donors in Kuwait, the king said starkly, “We have reached the end of the line; we have exhausted our resources.” In March, before a special session of Parliament, the prime minister-designate, ‘Abdallah al-Nusour, warned that Jordan could enter a “catastrophic” period if the number of Syrian refugees climbs to 1 million -- a figure that, at current rates of migration, will be reached in early 2014. Addressing the UN Security Council in early May, Prince Zayd described the “crushing weight” of the refugee situation, remarking that international support had been “insufficient,” and adding that “from the perspective of the Jordanian government unless the support is forthcoming then we consider this to be a threat to our future stability.”
Skeptics argue that the government of Jordan has long used crises to petition foreign governments for increased assistance. As journalists such as Nicholas Seeley have pointed out, the government allowed estimates of Iraqi refugees to be inflated to secure more international aid, and subsequently diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of this aid into domestic projects. Talk of the refugee burden also allows the government to deflect criticism of its economic stewardship, when in fact many of its deepest budgetary woes predate the arrival of refugees by more than a decade. And yet, despite any ulterior motives that may exist, the Jordanian position is undeniable: The kingdom is under incredible strain.
“Whatever your opinion of the king, you must be sympathetic to his situation,” explains Emad, a political analyst who prefers to not use his full name or institutional affiliation so that he might speak freely. “Jordan, at present, is not stable. All of the tensions of the Arab spring exist here, too. And there are real concerns that the Syrian crisis threatens the very existence of the Jordanian state.”
Amid a stagnant economy, the cost of living is rising at a rate that far outstrips wages. Emad notes, “The fact of the matter is that Jordan was already facing numerous domestic crises, the result of a decade of bad policies, a weak economy and mounting public debt. Yes, the refugees exacerbate this situation -- and are used as a convenient scapegoat -- but, for example, the government has racked up something like $20 billion in debt over the last 15 years…. You can hardly blame that on recent refugees.” Nonetheless, he concludes, the flow of refugees heightens the extant tensions.
To encapsulate the king’s predicament, Emad points to the flashpoint of fuel costs. Jordan depends almost entirely on imported fuel, which the government sells at a subsidized rate, a policy it now views as fiscally untenable. But any move to scale back the subsidies comes at the peril of political stability. In September 2012, there was widespread pushback against plans to increase the price of subsidized gasoline by 10 percent. In Irbid, 3,000 rallied in a protest promoted by the Muslim Brothers’ Islamic Action Front, the best-organized political opposition. More worrisome to the king, fuel riots erupted again two months later that appeared to be organized by disaffected groups from within the king’s traditional constituency. Curtailing subsidies and reducing the bloated civil service is part of the king’s economic liberalization agenda -- and a major stipulation of International Monetary Fund loans. These expenses, however, are central to the patronage system that forms the backbone of the royal family’s support -- especially among its base of East Bankers.
Since the creation of Transjordan the resource-poor kingdom has depended on international assistance: first from the British, then from the Americans and now from the oil-rich Gulf countries. In 2011 Jordan asked to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, which soon pledged $2.5 billion in development aid over the next five years. Yet, increasingly, international aid comes with strings attached, and these strings are pulling the king in directions counter to what many believe to be Jordan’s interest.
“Syria is a proxy war,” says Emad, echoing the common belief that the region has entered a new Arab cold war with Jordan caught in the middle. “Qatar and its allies want to topple Asad to diminish Shia influence in the region. And they expect Jordan to give greater tangible military support to the rebels. It’s one thing to treat the region as a chessboard if you live on a tiny island a thousand miles away -- it’s quite another if you are speaking about a war along your own border.”
Jordanians have not forgotten the “blowback” of the Iraq war -- in November 2005 al-Qaeda affiliates killed some 60 people in suicide attacks in Amman. Intimations of such spillover appeared in September 2012 when massive explosions struck Beirut and 11 were arrested in Amman in a foiled plot to bomb shopping malls and embassies. More alarming than retributive attacks is the threat of a regional war if the conflict takes a turn for the worse. “Unlike others, the biggest question for Jordan is not should Asad fall,” Emad insists. “The biggest issue for Jordan is how Asad falls.” A sudden collapse in Syria could create a vacuum that sets the stage for a second, more chaotic war, a dire outcome that helps to explain why the king has continually pressed for a political settlement to the crisis. “If a managed transition is not in place,” says Emad, “you can expect it will be worse than Iraq in 2006.”
Nor does the king seem to desire an outright rebel victory. In a candid interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the king dubbed the Muslim Brothers a “Masonic cult.” Preventing them from gaining regional power, he said, is “our major fight.” Yet Jordan’s Gulf patrons are pressuring the king to support rebel forces who are believed to espouse a staunch Islamist ideology and an exiled Syrian opposition said to be dominated by the Brothers. “Look who is primed to take over in Syria,” Emad continues. “Over the last two years Qatar has worked to install and prop up Islamist governments across the region -- in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt -- why should the king want his powerful northern neighbor run by a group that would embolden his main political opposition?”
That is not to say that Jordan is a passive bystander in the armed conflict. It is widely understood that Jordan facilitates the transfer of weapons to rebels and that the US and other foreign powers are using Jordan as a staging area to train rebel fighters. After all, Damascus is only 85 miles from the Jordanian border. This activity is prompting the Asad regime to step up the firepower to hold fast to its southern border. But with the sharper fighting comes greater population displacement into Jordan. And it is here that Jordanians are eager to have the international actors pushing for war contribute more to the mounting humanitarian costs borne by their small country. As the president of a large Jordanian corporation joked privately, “Putting aside the political calculations for a moment, if the Qataris want to play kingmaker in Syria, fine. But they should at least pay the bill…and tip the waiter!”
In the palatial offices of a suburban government compound, Anmar Hammoud, the personable and articulate spokesman for Syrian refugee affairs, is also keen to highlight the stresses on the kingdom. He points to a Ministry of Planning study which measured the impact on every organ of state -- health, education, energy, security -- and forecasted that hosting 660,000 refugees (a total the state projects) would come at a cost of $448 million per year. “Consider for a moment the burden on the armed forces alone. They serve all day and all night patrolling the border we share with Syria. Much of this land is traversable only by specialized vehicles. All of this takes extra fuel, extra manpower, extra wear on equipment. There are 45 common crossing points for refugees in the desert. Many of these points in the east are completely barren -- no water, no vegetation, no birds, not even Bedouin. The refugees would perish without the Jordanian military. And so at each crossing point we must be present to receive the refugees, register them, hire buses to transport them to Zaatari. We do not begrudge our duty to help our brothers, but you can see how it all becomes extraordinarily expensive.”
Hammoud mentions that in the near term the government is likely to declare the northern governorates an emergency zone, comparing the move to the US government’s response to natural disasters. Extra money will be allocated to the north -- small public works projects, increased bread distribution, higher subsidies -- which, it is hoped, will provide relief and appease disgruntled citizens. “Many poorer Jordanians look at the camps and say, ‘Three meals a day and free shelter…that’s more than I have. How can the government help foreigners while its own people are in need?’” But the emergency zone declaration is also intended to demonstrate the gravity of the situation to the international community.
Given the immense costs of supporting the Syrian population in Jordan, coupled with the inconstancy of international aid, some have suggested permitting refugees to work. Hammoud dismisses the idea out of hand. “Look, it is one thing to have a guest in your home. It is another to give your house to him.” To the Jordanian government, employment is a zero-sum game: There are a finite number of jobs, and every Syrian who works is one more unemployed Jordanian.
Seated behind a stately desk in the office of his financial consulting firm, Yusuf Mansour is an imposing gentleman with diplomas as his wallpaper, large collegiate rings on his fingers and a resolutely bald head. In his weekly economics column for the Jordan Times, Mansour has consistently pushed back against the government narrative that casts the Syrian refugees purely as an economic burden. “I was more polite in my column, but, to be frank, the government’s recent financial impact study was stupid. It was a cost-and-benefit study -- with no mention of benefit! It was half the story and it was propaganda.”
For Mansour, there is no doubt that refugees are enlarging the economy. “Jordanians complain that rent prices are too high because every apartment in the whole north of the country has been filled by Syrians. Well, yes, and where do you think all that rent money goes? Into the pockets of Jordanian landlords and into the Jordanian economy.”
In shops and restaurants and work sites across Jordan, Syrians are finding work, typically at exploitative wages of 10 or 15 dinars per day, paid under the table. But Mansour brushes aside the pervasive complaint that Syrians are taking these jobs from Jordanians. “The Syrians are doing work that Jordanians refuse to do. Whom they are actually displacing are the Egyptians,” Mansur says, alluding to the several hundred thousand migrant workers from Egypt, some legal, some not. “Unemployment is high, but it’s not for lack of opportunity. It is one of our major problems that Jordanians only want to accept high-status desk jobs.”
Mansour’s controversial proposal is to allow Syrians to work. He believes talented Syrian labor is precisely what Jordan needs to break out of its economic malaise. Mansour repeats the line that Syrians are the most enterprising, industrious, business-savvy people in the Arab world. He illustrates this point with a story about a visit to a hidden pantyhose factory, built to elude the regime’s restrictive controls. “The owners had bought the machines in Germany, disassembled them, shipped the parts in crates and reassembled the machines in caves under Aleppo. They were cranking out pantyhose by the thousands, all day and night -- it was an incredible sight to behold. And these are exactly the people we need to propel our economy, to move it from an economy of patronage and corruption to a self-sufficient, creative market economy.”
Forty minutes outside of Amman the benefits of Syrian industriousness to the Jordanian economy are apparent in the ‘Abdallah II Industrial Estate, the original of Jordan’s specialized sites of production known as free industrial zones. Inside the compound walls, amid a small city of factories and warehouses with smokestacks for minarets, is the headquarters of the Jordan Industrial Estates Company, which oversees investment and production in the free industrial zones. In the fifth-floor office of ‘Uday ‘Ubaydat, the director of investment, clocks display the time in New York, Istanbul, Amman, Baghdad and Riyadh. Through the window behind his desk a flurry of cement trucks and 18-wheelers crisscross the sprawling, dusty compound, ferrying materials between factory lots.
“Out of the 52 new investments this year, 12 are Syrian. Whereas several northern companies moved into Turkey, companies throughout the south mainly resettled in Jordan.” In 2012 the total volume of Syrian investment in the industrial zones amounted to 9.3 billion Jordanian dinars (more than $13 billion) and created nearly 700 new industrial jobs. In ‘Abdallah II, most of this new production is in the fields of foods, beverages, snacks and small plastics. “Our biggest success story here has been Katakit, the very famous confectioner from Damascus. As you can imagine, fighting made production extremely difficult, so in 2012 the owner decided to move his operations across the border into Jordan.”
The conflict in Syria has disrupted not only production, but also distribution. Syria and Jordan formed an important transit route for regional trade. Goods from Europe and Turkey headed to the Gulf used to travel overland through Syria and through Jordan, and the costs were held down by generous diesel subsidies provided by the Syrian government. Now trucks heading from Turkey must make a roundabout trek through Iraq, adding an estimated 60 percent to transportation costs. Shipments from Europe that used to unload at the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous now must pass through the Suez Canal, around the Arabian Peninsula, before docking at ‘Aqaba. These extra costs, plus the instability inside Syria, are leading companies to view to Jordan as a stable hub rather than just a transit country.
“The new arrivals set up shop in our various industrial zones depending on their target market. So, those established in Irbid in the north sell product to Iraq and back into Syria; investments in Karak are intended for Gulf exports; and in Muwaqqar they mainly produce domestic products.” As ‘Ubaydat explains, the prerogative of Syrian industrialists is not to move into old facilities, but to buy plots and construct purpose-built factories. In Amman, Yusuf Mansour emphasizes, “These are not short-term benefits. You cannot expect to move a factory. These are long-term investments in the Jordanian economy.” Mansour is enthusiastic about the prospects at ‘Abdallah II and hopes that the example of Syrian investment in the industrial zones will pave the way for broader Syrian involvement in the Jordanian economy.
In general, Mansour believes that disparaging refugees is part of a convenient politics of blame. “We should let these people work, but instead the government is participating in disgusting rhetoric, demonizing these poor people.” He has proposed granting three-month work permits, renewable at the government’s discretion for as long as the crisis lasts. “It is not difficult to find a solution if you want to find one.”
Back in Zaatari camp, aid worker Case Rteimeh has come to similar conclusions. The majority of refugees in Zaatari come from working-class backgrounds. Rteimeh wants to enlist them in the refurbishment of the camp -- both to give them employment opportunities and to engender a sense of ownership of communal structures. “Every street in Zaatari has a plumber, a bricklayer, a construction worker. We are assembling these teams and saying to them, ‘Here are the materials to build a new washroom on your street -- for which we will pay you -- and once it is complete you will be responsible for its maintenance.’ We are trying to send a message that if something is broken it will not be repaired immediately and without consequence. Because, frankly, the camp has become too expensive to maintain in the same fashion.”
Despite the massive effort invested in the camp, Rteimeh awaits the day when Zaatari is again an empty field. Like all aid workers and refugees, Rteimeh has no interest in making the camp permanent and hopes the Syrians can soon return home or start better lives elsewhere. “Until that time, though, we must work to change the culture of the camp. At some point you arrive at the understanding that the camp will not function if we only understand our situation as ‘service providers’ and ‘service recipients.’ It will only begin to work once we recognize that -- on one important level -- we’re all in it together.”
Along the Champs-Élysées, Sayf, a tenth-grade chemistry teacher from the town of Dar‘a, carries his son, 2, stricken with fever. In hushed tones, so as to not wake the sleeping boy, Sayf explains that they have just returned from the Moroccan clinic where they waited four hours to receive a small dose of medicine. “We stood all afternoon in the sun for medicine that will last only two or three days.” The teacher is frustrated that his son may soon have to endure long lines again when he should be resting.
“Others are able to buy larger quantities of the medicine in the market. But the money I brought from Dar‘a -- the money I had left -- has run out.” For his final five months in Syria, Sayf worked without payment, as the regime had cut off all civil servant salaries in Dar‘a. He continued teaching chemistry until the day he and the remaining instructors locked the school doors and left the country.
Like most others in Zaatari, Sayf learned with great interest that relief agencies like Rteimeh’s are hiring refugees for temporary work. He has shopped his skills around to all the schools, to work even as a guard or janitor, thus far to no avail.
“Too much of our life has become like standing in line at Zaatari. All we can do is wait.”
Images: At the UNICEF school’s storage trailer, teachers queue children by class to distribute stiff new blue backpacks packed with notebooks, workbooks and pencils; an Ottoman-era railroad trestle in the gorge below Malka. (Matthew Hall)