The world’s attention has been on Syrian refugees escaping to Europe. But Jordan has been home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled their nation’s civil war as long as four years ago.
MAFRAQ, Jordan — In 2012, Malik Saleh, uprooted by fighting near his home in Syria, fled with his mother, five sisters and three brothers to this city in northern Jordan. He enrolled in classes but dropped out last year. Now, at the age of 14, he spends his days cleaning a coffee shop.
“I want to go to school, but only in Syria,” Saleh says. “Here, I want to make money for my family.”
Saleh is one of 630,000 Syrians registered in Jordan as refugees, most of whom are under 18. They now reside in one of the poorest nations in the Middle East, but one that, from early in the Syrian civil war, emerged as a crucial haven for refugees.
• More than 4.1 million refugees have left Syria because of the civil war. The United Nations estimates another 7.6 million are “internally displaced” within the country.
• The U.N. has sought $4.5 billion this year to assist all Syrian refugees. So far, it has collected $2.01 billion from public and private donors.
• Jordan, a nation of nearly 8 million people, has more than 630,000 Syrian refugees registered through the U.N.
• In October, 210,000 of those refugees living outside camps received $21 per month in food vouchers — 80 percent of the amount the World Food Program was previously able to provide. Another 229,000, who are slightly better off, received $14 per month in vouchers.
Source: Seattle Times research
As Europe and the U.S. debate how to handle Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, key programs that have supported refugees in Jordan for years face big funding shortfalls. Over the past year, as aid faltered and conditions became more difficult, the flow of new refugees to Jordan has waned while the number seeking to leave here has grown.
In Jordan, most Syrians do not live in camps. They reside in urban areas such as Mafraq, a town that five years ago had 60,000 residents but has since doubled due to the influx of refugees. In contrast, the United States has resettled less than 2,000 refugees since 2012.
To help accommodate the Syrians, the Jordanian government, with the support of international aid organizations, has taken such steps as adding school shifts and investing in new water and sanitation systems.
But the United Nations has received only 45 percent of its $1.2 billion funding appeal this year from public and private donors for the refugees in Jordan. And as the Syrians’ stay here has stretched from months to years, their presence has fueled tensions.
One flashpoint has been housing. Rents have soared along with the refugees’ need for shelter. In Mafraq, some rental rates have risen sixfold, while average rates have nearly tripled, according to a Carnegie Endowment for Peace study released in September.
As early as 2013, Jordanians pitched tents on a main street here to protest high rents and the efforts to help the refugees in a nation with so many poor citizens of its own.
Meanwhile, Syrians have chafed over government restrictions that prevent the vast majority of refugees from legally obtaining a job, and rules that require those without proper permission to vacate the cities and move into camps.
Many refugees have been forced to crowd into smaller spaces, and a survey last spring showed a sharp jump in those who’ve had trouble finding adequate food.
Struggling to get by
As life in Jordan becomes more difficult, more Syrians are leaving for Europe — and even returning to their homeland despite the continued warfare.
Many Syrians who remain in Jordan have sold off belongings and depleted any savings. Their survival often depends on working illegally in restaurants, construction and other industries.
“We need to understand that Syrians, like any other human beings, have aspirations and want to pursue careers,” said Natasha Shawarib, a Mercy Corps staffer based in Amman. “Even if they work without getting permission, at least they can feed themselves.”
Mercy Corps, a Northwest-based aid group, has received $360 million from governments and private donors to respond to the refugee crisis. It has taken a wide-ranging role, operating a supply line that reaches people deep inside the Syrian war zone as well as providing assistance in Jordan and other nations where refugees now live.
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In Mafraq and four other northern cities, Mercy Corps is working with local organizations to offer skills training combined with a kind of psychological counseling for troubled youth.
The No Lost Generation program — funded through a grant from the Canadian government — offers courses ranging from hairdressing to computer skills. In October, Saleh attended a kickoff session where he introduced himself to other boys in his group and talked about enrolling in carpentry and an outdoor adventure class that featured hikes in the nearby mountains.
All the classes include equal numbers of Syrian and Jordanian youth, with the hope they will finish the courses with new skills, fresh dreams for the future and friendships outside their own community.
Across northern Jordan, Mercy Corps has joined with other aid agencies and the Jordanian government in grappling with another big challenge — a growing demand for water.
Jordan faced a water crisis even before the refugees arrived, pumping from declining aquifers and then sending the water through an aging network of pipes that lost much of the flow before it reached consumers.
Syria is a water-rich country, and many refugees were not used to conservation. The demands refugees placed on water supplies became yet another source of tension.
By the summer of 2013, water shortages hit, sparking some Jordanians in the Mafraq area to block roads with burning tires and prevent operators from accessing a well that delivered water to the Zaatari refugee camp, according to Tapped Out, a 2014 report by Mercy Corps.
When one poor community, Thaghret Al Jub, ran out of water, villagers blocked a roadway and an official who tried to negotiate a resolution received death threats. Finally, King Abdullah II arrived on the scene and personally promised to restore water service.
All of this has prompted the government to drill more wells and quicken the rate at which aquifers are being depleted.
“We’re not thinking about the future. Everyone is thinking about what we can do right now. The government is now thinking, ‘I have people — I have to give them water, otherwise they will riot,’ ” said Ghazzan Hazboun, who directs Mercy Corps water projects in Jordan.
Hazboun said Mercy Corps has focused on conservation. Studies indicate that the amount of water Jordan loses through leaky pipes could meet the needs of about a third of the nation’s population.
“What I tell the government is, ‘Guys, stop drilling wells and fix networks.’ That’s what I always say to them. ‘You need to conserve water,’ ” he said.
Bleak life in camp
With the Syrian conflict showing few signs of ending, the Jordanian government has been tightening refugee policies. Early on, Syrians who first arrived in the camps could move with relative ease to urban areas.
But the government has been restricting their movements in urban areas, ending access to free health care, and returning some urban refugees without proper documentation to camps.
These policies were a big topic of conversation at a Mercy Corps listening session in October in the north Jordanian town of Ajloun.
Momen Issa Rhayel, a Syrian house painter, said he was walking on the streets in March when he was stopped by police who asked to see the documents that allowed him to be there. When he couldn’t produce the papers, he was jailed for several days, and then told he must go to the Azraq refugee camp along with his wife and three children.
“They told me if I don’t go, they will send me to Syria,” Rhayel recalled.
Azraq is one of two major Syrian refugee camps, opened in April 2014 by the United Nations and Jordan. It was designed to build upon the lessons learned from the first major settlement camp — Zataari, near Mafraq — and features insulated metal huts, rather than tents, that are clustered in village-like groupings.
But Azraq is located in a bleak desert landscape subject to fall dust storms, and many Syrians have been loath to move there. Though it has a capacity of 50,000 people and can expand to accommodate 130,000, fewer than 26,000 people live there.
Rhayel reluctantly went to the camp last spring. He said he was treated well but disliked the high cost of food there, the lack of electricity and the distance he had to walk to get water.
So he stayed only 15 days, escaping on what he called a “vacation” pass that allowed his family to leave for a week. He and his family now once again live illegally in Ajloun.
In recent months he has found illegal work painting chairs and tables. As he ventures out each day, he risks getting stopped by police. If that happens, he’s already decided his next move.
“I will ask to go back to Syria, not Azraq,” Rhayel said.