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By: Fabrice de Pierrebourg
A Syrian man holds his small child in his arms, another child peeks from a doorway.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Mohammed At-Khatib and two of his three children, refugees in Jordan since 2013.

Every step he takes raises a cream-white dust as fine as flour. Sweat drips down his forehead. On this scorching day, when the mercury is close to 40oC, Amir takes advantage of a welcome break to rest in the shade. The 28-year-old Syrian has been a refugee in Jordan for 10 years. He was hired eight months ago as a material handler by an artisanal company that produces marble slabs in Irbid. Located in the far north, it is the country’s second-largest city, with 1.8 million inhabitants.

It is a hard job that pays 14 dinars ($26) for a 12-hour day of work, six days a week. Just barely enough, he says, to pay rent, electricity and water, and feed his family. “But here I have found peace,” the frail man with a slightly shy smile says consolingly.

Amir is part of the wave of Syrians who found asylum in Jordan in the early stages of the war, in 2011 and 2012. Convinced that the conflict would not last, they believed their exile would be temporary. So too did most of their co-nationals, who took refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly Turkey (3.8 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency) and Lebanon (840,000).

A decade later, 674,000 men, women and children in Jordan are still registered with either the UN Refugee Agency or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In fact, nearly 1.3 million are scattered throughout this country, which is only slightly larger than New Brunswick yet has about 11 million inhabitants.

Only 17% of “official” refugees live in isolation in two camps, Za’atari and Azraq, established along the border of their country of origin. All others work and live within communities. They’re not crammed into large ghettos or miserable camps like the hundreds of camps in Lebanon. Instead, they have settled on land leased at high prices by opportunistic landowners. In Jordan, these refugees are almost invisible, blending in with their hosts.

Almost all the Syrians we met during our trip from Amman to the Syrian border were full of praise for the Jordanian kingdom. Even the United Nations recently stated that Jordan is “at the forefront of global efforts to give [Syrian] refugees [. . .] access to decent work.” 

Nevertheless, a wind of anxiety is blowing in. It is as hot and abrasive as the wind that whips the basalt ruins of the ancient site of Umm Qeis, overlooking Syria, Israel and the Golan Heights. The last two years have seen a fall in tourism due to COVID-19. The resulting economic difficulties have damaged Jordan, a country where tourism had formerly made up 12% of the GDP. With unemployment hovering between 22% and 25% since 2020, the government must perform a perilous tightrope walk to avoid public discontent. Jordanians are half-heartedly beginning to say that the ban with the neighbouring regime, which also hurts the cross-border economy, may have run its course.

Not to mention that international aid, pulled in other directions by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, is gradually drying up. As a result, some Syrians are reluctantly thinking of returning — despite the war that is still raging. 

“This interminable war is depressing, but the world has forgotten us,” laments Amir, disillusioned. His voice is almost drowned out by the din of a machine cutting an imposing rock into even slices with disconcerting ease.

Amir’s story is similar to those of most Syrians we spoke with. Like many of them, he used to live in Deraa. Three kilometres from Jordan, this small town is considered the cradle of the unfinished popular revolution that began in the wake of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt.

A first demonstration in March 2011 demanded justice after the arrest and torture of Deraa teenagers for their anti-al-Assad graffiti. A second demonstration was bloodily suppressed. Both spread into all-out war. The Damascus regime has, vengefully, long persecuted Deraa and its inhabitants. 

From the country he had hurriedly left in November 2012, Amir could only bring memories of brutality and inhumanity. He lost the hearing in his left ear after being beaten by his pro-regime jailers when he was incarcerated for being a “foreign spy”.  After enduring two months of abuse, listening to the groans of men being tortured to death, and living in overcrowded four-square-metre cells, he was finally released.

Once safe in Jordan, Amir struggled to find odd jobs, even underpaid ones. And he still lives in insecurity.

A Syrian man stands in front of rock slabs.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Amir, who cuts marble for $26 a day, six days a week, left Syria 10 years ago.

Yet, when asked if there is a Jordanian model for hosting, many refugees say they feel at home, even if everything is not perfect. Their view is based on experience or on comparisons of their fate with that of relatives exiled in Turkey or Lebanon. In those countries, Syrians are victims of “discrimination” especially in the workplace, notes Mohammad, a 29-year-old cook in the Zohour district of Amman. His stay in Beirut was brief and “difficult”. 

Elsewhere in the capital, another cook, Mohammad Nabulsi, also 29, says, “Jordan is the most hospitable country I know. I got a work permit. I got married here. My children were born here. We enjoy the freedom. I will never go back to Syria!” he assures, standing next to his spit roasted shawarma chicken.

His colleague Hussam Barqash, 26, says he crossed the border in March 2013, carrying his leg-amputee father. He immediately witnessed the “phenomenal generosity of Jordanians. The Jordanian military welcomed us and offered us tea and water.” 

When he arrived in Amman — the sprawling city of seven hills, with its four million inhabitants, its crowded stores, restaurants, its streets teeming with life under the shadow of the citadel, its remains witnesses of the rich past of ancient Roman Philadelphia — Hussam felt, he recalls with a laugh, “like Alice in Wonderland”.

“It’s an open country with a sense of empathy and hospitality, and where the concept of a refugee is accepted,” notes Oroub El-Abed, a lead researcher at the Centre for Lebanese Studies (CLS). We met at her office, in the capital. She cites the history of this small Hashemite kingdom, which absorbed nearly 2.3 million Palestinians, mainly during two waves of exodus. The first wave was in 1947, a year after independence. The second was in 1967, during the Six Day War, which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The Jordanian researcher, of Palestinian origin, has long been interested in the plight of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the region. Some of her research projects have been funded by the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

“Many of these Syrians arriving in Jordan did not come by chance,” she says. “Some of them already had professional or personal ties to Jordan: they had either worked here before the war in Syria or had marriage ties (at times dating back to the Ottoman era) or cross-border tribal ties.” 

But their situation is not as idyllic as one might think. And because words matter, this researcher insists that the term “inclusion” is more appropriate than “integration” when referring to Syrians in Jordan. “Integration implies the right to a good education, housing that is affordable — not at opportunistically inflated prices — and respect for workers’ rights. Our research shows that these three conditions are not being met,” she says.

For a long time, Syrian refugees were allowed to work only in three main industries: construction, agriculture and manufacturing, including textiles. Demanding, low-paying jobs. Nonetheless, the UNHCR has commended itself on the fact that these regulatory shackles have recently loosened, with the broadening of the healthcare field during the COVID-19 crisis, and sales services. In 2021, Syrians were issued a record 22,000 work permits, either paid by them, their employers or UNHCR. But the door to skilled “professional” jobs remains closed.

Oroub El-Abed’s main concern is giving young people access to a quality education that can prevent them from becoming a “sacrificed generation”. The most recent research she has led at CLS, funded by IDRC, looks at the “links between refugee youth and employment” in Jordan and Lebanon. 

Most of the Syrians we spoke to did indeed arrive young in King Abdullah II’s country. They interrupted their studies and put their professional dreams on hold because both had ceased to be a priority — especially if they had to support their families.

“I would have liked to become a petroleum engineer. But it’s impossible to study when you have to work to survive,” says Youssef K., 26. He spends his days making small savoury turnovers in Amman.

Walid Diab, 22, was also deprived of school from the age of 14. He went to work 12 hours a day in a supermarket run by a Jordanian who “treated him badly”.

Those who are able to study are limited to three hours of afternoon schooling (most mornings are reserved for Jordanians), often of poor quality, laments Oroub El-Abed. “Many Syrians were quickly demotivated because their teachers were either old, disillusioned, or spent their time on their phones!” 

Others stated during the research that they were not interested in a university education since, they argued, most skilled jobs were closed to them. Of the Syrian youth aged 15 to 29 surveyed in this study, only 11% had obtained a university degree, compared to 28% of Palestinians. In total, nearly 44%, mainly boys, were reported to have dropped out of school.

“These young people are condemned to stay here,” fears El-Abed. “Jordan holds the key to their future. After 11 years, it is time for Jordan to recognize that these refugees are valuable assets and grant them basic rights.” These rights include affordable housing, quality education and properly paid work.

The researcher stresses that if we do not pay attention to this generation, there will one day be a price to pay. Her allusion is clear: terrorist groups active in Africa and the Middle East take advantage of social frustration and educational failure to recruit followers.

Zakaria Ashour, 61, left the Damascus region in October 2012. He has an a priori fate more enviable than that of many of his co-nationals. A former engineer and local politician, he was hired seven years ago as a site manager by a Jordanian company.

This outspoken man gave us an appointment at the foot of a building of 12 luxury apartments being built in the south of the capital.

Zakaria Ashour loves his work and wants “things to be done perfectly”. So, starting at dawn, he walks tirelessly around his site for 11 hours a day, cell phone in hand, to inspect the work or give advice. And he never misses an opportunity to rave about the high-quality job of his workers — especially his co-nationals!

“Syrians are self-sufficient and have always worked in all fields. That’s why Syrian workers are more qualified, more meticulous and have a better command of techniques than do the Egyptians, for example.” 

He feels no jealousy or animosity from his host country’s citizens. “Despite the high unemployment rate, if all the Syrians and Egyptians returned to their countries, Jordanians would not be able take their place,” he confidently affirms.

Today, Bashar al-Assad enjoys the military support of Syria’s Iranian and Russian allies (including the Wagner group mercenaries), and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters: his regime controls two-thirds of a weakened and fragmented Syria. The rest of the country is in the hands of Western-backed Arab-Kurdish militias, Turkey, and even rebels and the jihadist group Hay’at Taḥrir al Sham (HTS). The are confined to the Idlib region.

3 men work on a paving machine.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Zakaria Ashour (left) was able to find a job seven years ago in a Jordanian company. On the work site, this former engineer works mainly with Syrian workers, whose meticulousness he values.

The war has killed nearly 500,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), and it has exiled about 6 million Syrians. But the war no longer attracts attention. Its bombings are only briefly reported in the global media.

The eyes of the international community are on Ukraine. And like the principle of communicating vessels, humanitarian aid — whose funding has already suffered during the pandemic — must now be shared between these two conflicts, among others.

On the ground, the partial or total disengagement of humanitarian organizations, both state and non-state, is perceptible. This includes Doctors Without Borders, which closed its clinic in the Za’atari camp in January 2022. The NGO justified this as an “operational” decision based on “an assessment” of “health and humanitarian needs”, not financial needs. It has instead deployed teams in northern Syria, still torn by war but where access “is guaranteed” to its members.

“Forgetting is a challenge for us, and the war in Ukraine is having an effect on funding,” notes Mario Echeverria, head of the UN Refugee Agency’s Sub-Office in Mafraq, northern Jordan.

The future is so bleak that this summer, the UNHCR’s representative to Jordan, Dominik Bartsch, called for at least US$34 million in emergency funding for Syrians in Jordan to avert an impending “humanitarian crisis”. This unfavourable international political and economic context comes at a time when the country is already struggling to recover from the pandemic. The latter also harmed refugees, especially those who ran small businesses in Za’atari. Many were forced into bankruptcy.

From the road, Za’atari looks like all other refugee camps in the Middle East. A sea of white containers surrounded by fences and strictly guarded accesses. What was a temporary tent camp in July 2012 has over time become a town, complete with shops, schools and clinics.

Nearly 80,000 refugees, half of them minors, are housed there. Barely 1,800 have a work permit. They work in factories or with regional agricultural producers. Those without a permit have no difficulty finding work under the table, especially among market gardeners.

Every day, as of early morning, dozens and dozens of refugees line up in front of the security entrance of the UNHCR’s Mafraq offices: they want to register on the official lists or renew their registration.

Mario Echeverria and his UNHCR team are working hard to do as much, if not more, with less. For example, they are lowering land lease costs. Echeverria also praises Jordan as “a model to follow in the Middle East, even if every model can be continually improved.” This stocky man in his forties, with a long history in the humanitarian field, has just arrived in Jordan following missions that took him from Haiti to Iraq via Venezuela.

“These cuts [in international funding] come at a bad time and jeopardize the progress made so far,” he says. And now Za’atari needs a makeover.

As early as 2013, 25,000 hard-standing prefabricated shelters — containers — had replaced the initial fragile tents. These containers now need refurbishing to extend their eight-year life. However, the budget only allows for the renovation of about 1,000 containers per year. “A big problem,” laments Mario Echeverria.

What’s more, the solar power plant no longer suffices to meet the growing energy needs. Consequently, the camp’s residents now have only 9 hours of daily electricity, compared with 12 to 14 hours previously. 

Another “challenge” is Syrians who, after living in the Jordanian community, have resolved to return to the camp in the first seven months of 2022: their numbers are already higher than the total for 2021. According to Echeverria, this will put further pressure on local infrastructure.

In early August, Canada’s Minister of International Development, Harjit Sajjan, visited Jordan, to which Canada has granted $25 million in aid. The minister took the opportunity to visit the Za’atari camp. His intention, says Echeverria, was to “convince his [Western] partners not to forget the Syrians.”

The decrease in funding is already impacting Syrian refugees, who receive monthly aid from the World Food Programme (WFP). This allowance is provided to vulnerable refugees living outside the camps. It is calculated according to the number of family members and their income. In early August, everyone received the same terse text message warning that their payments would be cut by one‑third.

In his modest house in At Turrah, a village on the Syrian border, Ahmad Al-Hayek, 47, is disillusioned. Physically worn out, this man who left Deraa 10 years ago survives “from day to day”, doing seasonal odd jobs in agriculture. Only once does a smile light up his face: while showing us the flower and vegetable boxes greening up his small yard, which he’s converted into an outdoor living space.

“Those who give me work do so out of compassion. In general, employers prefer to hire young people, not tired old people like me,” says Ahmad. His spirits were further dampened when a text message from WFP warned him that his family’s monthly allowance would be reduced from 138 dinars ($259) to 90 dinars ($169).

WFP claims that it has no choice but to reduce monthly payments to the 353,000 vulnerable, mostly Syrian, refugees living outside the camps. This UN agency says it faces a triple challenge: a global food crisis of unprecedented proportions that now affects 345 million people (compared to 282 million at the beginning of 2022). Meanwhile, funding for humanitarian operations is not keeping pace and operating costs are reaching record levels. One reason for this is the US$27.1 million monthly increase in the price of distributed foods such as wheat flour, peas and vegetable oil. This is owing to armed conflicts, climate shocks and the threat of a global recession.

“Syria is the international community’s last priority. Our fate is like that of the Palestinians,” sighs Youssef K. in his bakery.

In Ar Ramtha, in the far northwest of Jordan, the unending war in neighbouring Syria is weighing on the local economy — and causing frustration. There is a border crossing at the exit of this town of 75,000 inhabitants (plus an unknown number of refugees). Before 2011, a stream of trucks, and even cabs, loaded with goods from Syria used to transit through this border crossing. It’s now closed. This is to the great displeasure of local merchants, who, like Youssef al-Deek, have seen their sales plummet.

“Before the war, a lot of products came from Syria: vegetables, but also sweets, cookies, etc. Those products were in great demand here because they were inexpensive, but of good quality. I had deliveries every day. Suddenly, everything stopped. Then it picked up bit by bit at the second border crossing (25 km east),” he adds. And then it halted again in the summer of 2020, because of the pandemic. “I had to turn to Turkish, Egyptian and even Jordanian suppliers, who are much more expensive,” explains the shopkeeper. He’s behind his desk, which is buried in candy boxes and paperwork. 

This near total stifling of official border transport undoubtedly makes smugglers happy. Earth mounds symbolically block the paths and roads that formerly led to Syria and the Jordanian army has lookout posts and camera masts scattered across the vast and arid border plains where olive groves spring. Neither impedes smuggling. 

And so storekeepers in Ar Ramtha hint that they would like to see business resume, as in the past, with their Syrian neighbour. This, despite the punishment Syria receives by a large part of the international community. 

“The war and international sanctions against Syria do not only affect the Syrian people. Our local economy is also suffering, and taxes have increased on everyday staples like milk and oil,” laments Hussein Smairah, a household cleaning products salesman.

This 50-something-year-old with neat, wavy salt-and-pepper hair is dressed in an elegant black Lacoste polo shirt. He becomes animated when asked about the Syrians. “Every day, at least one Syrian comes to offer me their services. They want to work, unlike the Jordanians. [Laughter] When the war started, I hired some of them to help feed their families. But I know some who have gone back to Syria. They found life too difficult.”

During the fall of 2021, contacts resumed between President al-Assad and King Abdullah II of Jordan, putting an end to a 10-year hiatus. It makes some Syrians shudder. They fear being sacrificed on the altar of economic trade and realpolitik and being forced or strongly urged to return home. Neighbouring Lebanon is already in talks with Damascus regarding a plan for the mass return of Syrians to their country of origin.

“It would be a return to what?” asks Amir, the marble worker. In Syria, he may be treated as a deserter for refusing to enlist in the security forces. And then, there are all those who left their ranks.

Like Taher, an ex-policeman, who did not want to be “in the position of [his] hands being covered in the blood of the innocent.” Or Mohamed Z., a former recruit, who remembers being “terrified” by the escalating violence against civilians. Both now spend their days with their backs bent, planting vegetables in hot, humid greenhouses. 

A man puts plants on a shelf in a greenhouse.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Mohamed Z. is a Syrian ex-military recruit who abandoned the military rather than participate in violence against civilians. He is moving bean plants into a nursery’s greenhouse.

Amir sees only an “empty” future for himself, and especially for his children, a “lost generation.” Yet for him, returning to his country is out of the question.

His only dream is to earn enough money to provide housing for his small family and finally leave the Za’atari camp and its containers, which overheat in summertime.

Mohammed At-Khatib is already thinking of returning. This 43-year-old rents his Ar Ramtha apartment from the owner of a grocery store located just below. He is disillusioned. Mohammed arrived in Jordan empty-handed in 2013, during a short ceasefire. Since then, he has been polishing cars from morning to night — a job totally unrelated to his past employment in a dental office. 

He knows he will only find his apartment in ruins and a devastated economy. But he is tired of a dead-end life in exile, in a country not his own, and of increasingly difficult month’s ends. “I don’t feel any rejection here. But I don’t remember anything positive, as life is so difficult and increasingly expensive,” explains Mohammed At-Khatib.

“It will be tough in Syria too,” he acknowledges. “But that’s my country.” 

Fabrice de Pierrebourg visited Jordan at the invitation of IDRC. The organization supports the Centre for Lebanese Studies, which focuses on the link between education and employment among refugee youth in Jordan and Lebanon. This report was produced with the collaboration of Ibraheem K. Shaheen.

This article was published in the January-February 2023 issue of L’actualité, under the title “Syriens en Jordanie : les exilés oubliés”.

Top image: UN Photo/Sahem Rababah