Will Syrian refugees transform or threaten Jordan's economy?

Syrians fleeing civil war are straining Jordan's resources, but they are also filling a gap in the economy as they set up small businesses and take jobs that Jordanians won't.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Syrian refugees collect water at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria September 26, 2013.

It’s early in the day, before the afternoon rush, so the server at one of Jordan’s newest shawarma stands takes time to carve a carrot into a reasonable representation of a rose before presenting a platter of marinated and grilled chicken slices to a customer.

The fast food restaurant, Enis Chicken, is one of the latest Damascus imports to Amman. Just down the street is the Syrian shop Bakdash, where the rhythm of wooden paddles beating against metal tubs rings out in tune with a centuries-old recipe that turns milk, rose water and Arabic gum into ice cream.

The shawarma stand, competing with a shop selling the more basic local version of the chicken sandwich nearby, is part of a wave of Syrian entrepreneurship that both promises and threatens to change the face of Jordan.

Over the past two years, an estimated 1 million Syrians have fled fighting in their homeland for their tiny neighbor, the latest of several waves of refugees from Jordan's neighbors – Palestinians at various points since Israel's founding, Iraqis in the wake of the US invasion, and now, Syrians. Fewer than half of those are in Zataari, the desolate, still-growing refugee camp that is now Jordan’s fourth biggest city.

“The people of Jordan were very much against us being here,” says Madian al-Jazerah, a business owner who was among the wave of Jordanians of Palestinian origin who resettled in Amman after being expelled from Kuwait in 1991. “Now with the Syrians it’s the same pattern."

Faced with the biggest refugee crisis in the region since the creation of Israel in 1948, the Jordanian government has warned that its population of 6 million population won’t be able to absorb more Syrian refugees and that the influx is a dangerous drain on resources. Jordanians slammed by higher prices for fuel, electricity, water and consumer goods due to the lifting of government subsidies are blaming the Syrian refugees for disappearing jobs and rising prices. 

During the 2003 war in Iraq, poorer Iraqis fled to Syria – the only place they could afford to live. Those Iraqis who sought refuge in Jordan tended to be well-educated and many of them wealthy – building and buying large companies and creating jobs.

The Syrians – who are setting up small businesses and working in shops, restaurants and construction – are a different breed.

“The Iraqis definitely had money,” economist Yusuf Mansur says. “The Syrians are more craftspeople. They come from a socialist economy in a country that was large, diverse and closed for the longest time and because they were closed they learned to do things.”

Filling in the gaps

Wedged between Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan has little water and few other natural resources. But it has parlayed its traditionally close relations with the United States and its position as a buffer state between Israel and the Arab world – and as a major recipient of refugees – into foreign aid that is its biggest source of income.

Many of the products sold in Jordan – from clothing and food to inlaid wooden boxes and handmade glass-- were Syrian. Until the 1990s, a ban on imported cars filled Damascus streets with vehicles from the 1950s and 60s kept running through ingenuity.   

“We were originally nomadic raiders,” says Mansur, referring to Jordan’s original Bedouin population. “The Syrians were traders.”

Mansur disputes government figures that indicate the refugees are draining limited resources to a critical level, saying that those living in trailers and tents consume far less water and electricity than Jordanians. Without the influx of refugees spending money in the most impoverished areas of Jordan, he says, the kingdom’s sluggish growth rate – estimated at 2 to 3 percent – would be even lower.

Most of the Syrians work in Jordan’s “unofficial sector.” At one Amman shopping mall, a Syrian salesman who says he works a seven-day week for the equivalent of $350 a month said he had been fined four times for working illegally.

Getting a work permit “would cost me two months rent,” he says.

Many Jordanian business owners taking advantage of cheaper, experienced labor have dropped the wages they are offering.  But business owners say the Syrians offer skills that Jordanians don’t have and like Egyptian laborers in the country, are willing to take jobs Jordanians don’t consider respectable.

Mr. Al-Jazerah, who employs more than 60 people at two branches of his books@cafe restaurants, says he pays expatriate workers the same as his Jordanian employees.  His waiters include a Syrian architect.

“Jordanians have finally accepted to be waiters,” he says. “Are they willing to sweep floors, are they willing to be a guard in an apartment building, are they willing to wash dishes? No. “

Adding flavor

Damascus, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, was on the silk road trade route and once the capitol of a powerful Islamic empire. Its cuisine and its culture also bear more recent traces of its legacy of a French protectorate.

At the shawarma shop, the simple chicken sandwich rolled in paper-thin bread is marinated in pomegranate syrup and scented with lemon and cardamom. It costs less than $2. The owners opened a branch in Amman earlier this year after two of their Damascus restaurants were destroyed.

“Syrians and the people of Damascus in particular are known for their food. It feeds the soul,” says Ayman al-Sayid al-Lahem, one of the owners.

Although it’s meant as fast food, the demand is so high that in the early evening, customers wait on the sidewalk for up to half an hour for the sandwiches.

“These people can bring in so much. I’m finally hoping to see good carpentry for instance, or good glass blowing, or just good sweets,” Jazerah, the business owner, says. “They’re bringing in culture and that’s what people don’t see – they’re just adding to our spice.”

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