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How Syrian refugees strain – and strengthen – Jordan

Why We Wrote This

What role does culture play in a nation's ability to handle a huge influx of refugees? Jordanians say their hospitality stems from their Bedouin roots and ancient desert customs. Part 2 of On the Move: the faces, places, and politics of migration.

Taylor Luck
Syrian and Jordanian students exercise at the Al Hussein Secondary School in Amman, Jordan. The influx of Syrians since 2012, including 130,000 students, has put Jordan’s schools and infrastructure under stress.

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The influx of 1.3 million Syrians since 2012, including 130,000 students, has put Jordan’s cash-strapped schools, hospitals, and infrastructure under tremendous stress. International donor fatigue is leaving the kingdom to face these challenges alone. But in the noisy hallways and crowded classrooms of Al Hussein Secondary School in Amman, something else is happening. Jordanian and Syrian students are bonding. Students no longer ask each other “Where are you from?” United Nations officials say Jordanians’ empathy is rooted in history; many present-day Jordanians are themselves descendants of waves of Circassians, Armenians, Chechens, and Palestinians. Perhaps nowhere in Jordan has that hospitality been more tested than in the town of Mafraq, a desert trading outpost 10 miles south of the Syrian border. Between 2012 and 2014, Mafraq saw its population grow from 90,000 to more than 200,000 as refugees became a majority. Mafraq, like much of Jordan, has been through many stages of the Syrian crisis: emergency, solidarity, hardship, acceptance. “Now we are in the final stage: coexistence,” Mousa Shantawi says from behind the counter of his downtown supermarket. “We no longer notice who is Syrian or who is Jordanian any more. We are changed.”

Down to one janitor, four administrators, and a handful of teachers for more than 1,000 students, administrator Manal al Adwan says she is fighting “an uphill battle” each day to keep Al Hussein Secondary School running.

Children from 7 to 17 swarm the narrow hallways, whose purple paint has faded and chipped; groups of girls clog the stairways as young boys burst into classrooms mid-lesson.

The school used to have 700 students. It now also copes with 500 more – refugees from Syria – and Al Hussein has been forced onto a two-shift system, rotating Jordanian and Syrian students in and out in half-days to relieve the overcrowded classrooms.

With only one day off a week to set their syllabus, grade papers, and invent ways to educate Syrian children who have been out of school for years, teachers are exhausted.

“We spend every spare second to come up with ways to counsel traumatized children and teach students who don’t even know the letter A,” says Yasmeen Shalash, who teaches religious studies at Al Hussein. “We barely have time to see our own families.”

The strain shows in the school’s fabric too. Desks are cracked, chairs are broken, faucets in the bathrooms leak.

Al Hussein is typical. The influx of 1.3 million Syrians since 2012, including 130,000 students, has put Jordan’s cash-strapped schools, hospitals, housing, roads, and water networks under tremendous stress. And international donor fatigue is leaving the kingdom to face these challenges alone.

But despite cuts in services and increased competition for jobs, Jordanians have until now remained sympathetic to their neighbors’ plight, carrying the added burden with few complaints.

And in Al Hussein’s noisy hallways and crowded classrooms, something else is happening. Jordanian and Syrian students are bonding through sport, studies, and music. Students no longer ask each other “where are you from?”

“Teachers and students here treat us as if we are part of Jordan,” says Haya al Qarah, a 17-year-old at Al Hussein studying for her university entrance exam. Haya, like many girls who arrived from Syria’s rural south, comes from a family that expects girls to leave school at the 10th grade and marry.

But after five years in Jordan, where women’s education is part of the culture, Haya and her teachers helped change her family’s mind. The teenager is now set to become the first woman in her family to go on to university, where she hopes to study literature.

An economic burden

That success comes against the backdrop of considerable hardships for Jordanians, who face an 18.7 percent unemployment rate and a rising cost of living. Many say the influx of Syrians, who now make up about 15 percent of the population, is to blame.

For gynecologist Anwar Malkawi, the sudden influx of tens of thousands of Syrians into northern Jordan has meant three things: longer night shifts, longer day shifts, and more difficult cases. The Mafraq Women’s Hospital where he works near the Syrian border has seen its patient roster increase by 50 percent since refugees began arriving from Syria.

Taylor Luck
Dr. Anwar Malkawi, a gynecologist and surgeon, making his rounds at the Mafraq Women's Hospital in Mafraq, Jordan, Sept. 20, 2018.

“You have to give priority to the urgent and difficult cases, which are most of them,” the harried Dr. Malkawi says between rounds. Treating pregnant Syrian women with complications due to physical trauma or malnutrition, infants with severe birth defects and other cases, Malkawi says he is working in “emergency mode.”

Jordanian public hospitals treat Syrians just as if they were Jordanians. Citizens of both countries can see a doctor and fill a prescription for a few dollars. But with hospital beds filled with Syrians – and surgery waiting lists stretching months into the future – Jordanians who cannot afford to go private are not being treated as well as they once were.

“Poor Jordanians have suffered a lot,” admits Dr. Mabrouk Saraheen, director of the Mafraq Women’s Hospital .   

“Sometimes a doctor would have to tell a Jordanian that he could not admit his wife. They would shout, ‘I am a Jordanian, this is my right!’ ” Dr. Saraheen says, shaking his head. “But we had to give preference to the most severe cases and first cases we saw, no matter their nationality.”

Bedouin hospitality

Despite multiple reasons for resentment, it is difficult to detect envy in Jordanians’ voices when they recount their problems.

“May God heal these Syrians and help them,” says Um Khaled, a mother of four. Despite having previously been turned away for a check-up at Mafraq Women’s Hospital, she says she does not hold it against the Syrians.

“These people are coming from war, and we are blessed with security and stability. We should share our blessings,” she adds.

Where does this remarkable tolerance come from? Many Jordanians say their hospitality stems from their Bedouin roots and ancient desert customs, which dictate that a tribe must take in a weary traveler, no questions asked.

In the harsh desert plains where water is scarce, this hospitality can make the difference between life and death.

United Nations officials say Jordanian’s empathy is rooted in more recent history; refugees have played an integral part in the creation of modern Jordan, and many present-day Jordanians are themselves descendants of waves of Circassians, Armenians, Chechens, and Palestinians who fled to the kingdom in the first half of the 20th century.

“You see the solidarity from Jordanians as they have lived through or witnessed wars and displacement,” says Stefen Severe, UNHCR representative in Jordan. “They share the plight of their neighbors and they feel for them.”

However, aid agencies and UN officials warn that this hospitality has its limits, as they cut their aid to Jordan nearly by half in the face of budget crises brought on by donors losing interest in a conflict nearing its eighth year.

“We must not take this harmony and hospitality for granted,” Mr. Severe says.

A desert outpost transformed

Perhaps nowhere in Jordan has that hospitality been more tested than in the town of Mafraq.

This desert trading outpost 10 miles south of the Syrian border became a magnet for Syrians fleeing the war in their homeland; between 2012 and 2014, Mafraq saw its population grow from 90,000 to more than 200,000 as refugees became a majority.

Nearby, the UN established the Zaatari refugee camp, which now houses more than 150,000 Syrian refugees.

In the early years the influx was a demographic disaster.

Rents in Mafraq rose by over 200 percent. Many Jordanians – farmers or public sector employees – were priced out of their own city.

Mafraq also became a symbol of the chronic water shortage in Jordan, classified by the UN as the second water-poorest country in the world.

With the increase in demand from Syrians, the town went months without water services; residents were forced to truck in water from wells and private companies, paying as much as half their income to do so.

Manual workers in Mafraq were doubly hit. Syrians, subsidized by foreign aid and lacking legal work permits, were both able and obliged to work in the grey economy for salaries far lower than the legal minimum, driving down wages for farmers, construction workers, electricians, and carpenters.

“We can’t retire, our sons can’t find work, and we can barely make the rent,” Mohammed Mashagbeh says as he places a tiny pot of Turkish coffee on a flame at the coffee kiosk he runs. He works 12 hours a day to supplement his $400 army pension so as to pay his rent and his children’s tuition fees. “We are racing to keep up,” he says.

Local improvements

But the refugees have also brought improvements in their wake. Foreign governments have undertaken public works projects in Mafraq – water and sewage networks have been replaced, roads have been improved.

Today, the main road into Mafraq is wide and freshly paved; roads connect distant villages in the desert; a new bus terminal with shaded benches and parking stands at the center of the city; 16 pristine, white limestone, high-rise apartment buildings tower over the town’s traditional squat concrete homes.

Rents are inching back to pre-crisis levels; the dozens of NGOs working in the nearby Zaatari camp have opened up jobs for residents as drivers, guards, and even humanitarian workers.

Mafraq, like much of Jordan, has been through many stages of the Syrian crisis: emergency, solidarity, hardship, acceptance.  

“Now we are in the final stage: coexistence,” Mousa Shantawi says from behind the counter of his supermarket in downtown Mafraq, as Jordanian and Syrian employees stock the shelves with cereal and cooking oil.

“We no longer notice who is Syrian or who is Jordanian any more. We are changed.”

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