Thousands of runners took to the streets of Amman for the city's annual marathon this weekend, as pounding electronic music and the thud of trainers on concrete shattered the usual pre-prayer tranquillity. But this year there was a new addition: hundreds of Syrians and Jordanians who ran alongside each other to promote dignity for refugees, a campaign organized by the international aid agency Oxfam.
“When I heard about this event to show solidarity between Syrians and Jordanians, I loved the idea," says Fatima, a Damascus University student who fled to Jordan six months ago and ran in this weekend's 10 km event. "As refugees, we shouldn’t live inside a shell and we should go out and live a dignified life. It felt amazing to express myself and I want to be more active from now on."
As the Syrian civil war continues unabated, with more than 100,000 killed and a third of the country's population either displaced within Syria or seeking refuge abroad, Syrians know it could be many years before they return home.
Of the 2 million refugees that have fled the country, more than a quarter are living in Jordan. Most of them reside in urban areas, where their presence has sometimes led to resentment among host communities. Public health and education services have been stretched, while rents have more than doubled in some cities.
Earlier this year a number of Jordanian politicians called for the country’s northern border to be closed, stating that Jordan couldn’t cope with any new arrivals. National media narratives have become increasingly critical of Syrian refugees, with some newspapers blaming the influx of cheap labour for Jordan’s unemployment rate, which remains stubbornly high at around 12 percent.
But Fatima’s younger brother Mohamed, who also took part in the Amman marathon, says that while he recognizes the strain the country is under, he feels welcomed by the majority of Jordanians.
“It’s important for us to be here with Jordanians. Jordanians are our brothers and sisters and it’s nice to run side by side in the streets of Amman," he says, though he hopes to return to Syria.
Oxfam’s Jordan program manager Syma Jamil says that while it's true that Syrian refugees her organization works with are "extremely grateful" for Jordanians' hospitality, Jordan and other host countries need more support from the international community.
"The price these countries and host communities had to pay has already been extremely high, and other countries have to put their money where their mouth is," said Ms. Jamil in an email response to the Monitor.
In the meantime, Syrians like Fatima are adapting to life in a new place. Though it's been tough, Fatima’s self-confidence is steadily rebuilding as she throws herself into community life. She has taken a computer class, enrolled in a citizen journalism project, and now completed her first 10 km (6.1 mile) race – no mean feat for a brand-new runner.
“It was so tiring! It’s not flat like Damascus," she said at the finish line. "But it felt fantastic.”