As refugees develop roots, Jordan grows wary

Norimitsu Onishi / New York Times News Service /

MAFRAQ, Jordan — For Jordan, a small desert nation that is one of the world’s driest, the recent home improvement trends at its biggest camp for Syrian refugees may prove particularly unsettling.

“This helps us forget the war,” said Dalal al-Mansour, 35, smiling at her children who were splashing around inside the four-level family fountain one recent afternoon.

With no end to the 30-month-old war back home, some Syrian refugees are seemingly settling in for the long haul by recreating fixtures of their past domestic lives: paved courtyards with decorative water fountains. One man even built a swimming pool in his courtyard.

That growing look of permanence is deeply unsettling to Jordan, which over the decades has weathered large-scale migrations of refugees, among them Iraqis and Palestinians, as well as the accompanying, existential threats to its fragile demographic balance.

Syrian refugees

The latest arrivals, nearly 600,000 Syrians, have weighed heavily even as Jordan’s importance to the United States as an Arab ally in the Middle East has increased with Egypt’s instability. They are among the roughly 2 million Syrians who have fled their country, most of them this year, and registered as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Hundreds of thousands more are believed to be living in the region illegally.

Like previous generations of refugees, the Syrians are quickly developing ties to their surrounding areas, increasing fears that they will stay and that their huge numbers will cause a sudden, and potentially destabilizing, redrawing of the demographic map.

Their presence presents a particular challenge to Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy, which was installed by the British to rule this new country after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Like his predecessors, King Abdullah II depends on the support of the land’s original inhabitants, Bedouin tribes known as the East Bankers. Pampered politically, the East Bankers have been losing their influence to the Palestinian-Jordanians who came to Jordan as refugees in 1948 and 1967, and risk further losses if the Syrians stay. Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees who came to Jordan in the past decade have also stayed.

In a country of only 6 million, the long-term presence of 600,000 Syrians — the Jordanian government says there are actually hundreds of thousands more — could further decrease the percentage of East Bankers.

“If the Syrians stay, we will be destroyed,” said Raad al-Nisah, 30, who owns a small coffee stand in Marka, a neighborhood in Amman, the capital. “We will become minorities and guests in our own nation.”

Nisah said he grew up in Marka, where his parents still live. But he was unable to find an apartment there when he got married last year and was forced to move farther away. As in many other areas with a lot of Syrian refugees, rents have doubled.

Ibrahim Saif, the minister of planning and international cooperation, said the presence of the Syrians in Jordan was tantamount to “the United States absorbing the entire population of Canada.” Jordan has said the cost of hosting the refugees is $1 billion a year.

Saif said that the “backlash, animosity and all kind of negative feelings emerging” toward the Syrian refugees was a source of worry for the government. While providing assistance, he said, it was necessary to ensure that the refugee population remained a “temporary phenomenon.”

“You try to restrict their access to the labor market,” he said. “You try to restrict their access to areas that could enhance sustainability. You provide the minimum education, health and food, but not anything further. You don’t want to enhance their engagement with the rest of the society.”

He added: “It’s a very delicate balance. But you also want them to be isolated while they’re in your premises, in your country, and this is what we’re trying to do.”

In the camps

Trying, but with great difficulty — particularly in Mafraq, the center of the refugee crisis. The Zaatari camp is about 10 miles east of here, but the distance shrinks by the day as the ties between the city and the camp increase. With the Syrians’ arrival since the start of the war, the population of this town has doubled to 250,000.

“The situation is reaching a breaking point,” said Abdullah al-Khattab, the governor of Mafraq province, which includes the city and the camp.

Inside his office, he rattled off the most common complaints: Municipalities are overwhelmed, with streets littered and sewers clogged. Rents have doubled, but so have the prices for residential garbage pickups and water delivery.

With the population increase, business was booming in Mafraq’s commercial area, but low-skilled Jordanians were losing their jobs to Syrians, “who have a reputation for being good and talented workers, and are willing to work for less,” Khattab said. Registered Syrian refugees also receive monthly cash allowances and food coupons from the United Nations, a source of envy for poor Jordanians.

At the Rabee Bint al-Maouth elementary and middle school here, about 1,000 Syrian children were enrolled in a new afternoon shift. Many had missed years of schooling because of the war. Many were traumatized. When a military exercise was held recently at a base near here, children thought that a war had started.

The boys act up and are violent, said Samiha Hijleh, the principal. They have broken classroom chairs, torn down the few trees in the schoolyard and smashed water pipes.

“We don’t know what to do,” Hijleh said in the schoolyard, where the additional trash produced by the new students was being burned inside three large bins. The school could not afford the extra garbage pickup.

Like the other Palestinian camps in Jordan, the Schneller camp in Amman has long melded with the area surrounding it. Moussa Youssef, 42, who grew up there after his parents arrived in 1967, said that, in his lifetime, tents gave way to shacks made of wood and corrugated zinc, then to sturdier homes of concrete and stone, and finally now to the sometimes four-story structures occupied by several generations.

An extended stay

No one is suggesting that the Syrians will stay permanently in Jordan. But signs that their stay could become an extended one, most clearly visible inside the United Nations’ 14-month-old Zaatari camp, strike a deep chord in Jordan.

On the main commercial strip, nicknamed the Champs-Élysées, the original tent shops have been replaced by stores made of corrugated zinc and concrete blocks. Trade between Zaatari and the outside, including the smuggling of goods, is flourishing despite the trenches and mounds that the United Nations has dug along the camp’s perimeter.

“Everything happens at triple speed in Zaatari,” said Jonathan Campbell, the emergency coordinator for the Syrian refugees in Jordan at the U.N. World Food Program. “We don’t look at Zaatari as a camp anymore, but as a municipality or town. I don’t believe the Syrians want to stay. But I know that Jordan is suspicious because every wave of refugees in the past has never left.”

With 120,000 refugees, Zaatari is already the fourth-largest community in Jordan. Each of the camp’s 12 sections is headed by local leaders, many of whom do not hesitate to exercise their influence through violence.

In the camp’s oldest section, around the Champs-Élysées, Mohammad al-Hariri, 48, a former instructor of air-conditioner maintenance in the Syrian city of Daraa, had emerged as a leader. Better known as Abu Hussein, he welcomed guests inside a trailer reserved for entertaining.

“Tea, coffee? Whiskey, hashish or beer?” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. “Just checking.”

Abu Hussein lamented the difficulty of maintaining order in his area. The refugees had come from different villages, he explained, though a sense of community was slowly taking shape. He waved away suggestions about his leadership, finally allowing that he sometimes helped settle disputes.

Mansour, the woman with the four-tier fountain, has been in Zaatari for one year. The nearly $250 her husband spent on the fountain was worth it, she said. In the evenings, the couple sat in the courtyard with their five children, turned off the lights and listened to Umm Kulthum, a famed Egyptian singer. “Everyone is jealous of my home,” she said.

But Mazen al-Hraki, 31, was not so lucky. He spent one month and $1,400 to have a small, concrete swimming pool built in his compound, before the authorities forced him to close it last month, citing health risks, not to mention the need to conserve water.

“We were able to enjoy it for only four days,” Hraki said. “I’m hoping a storm will come and tear it apart.”

For Jordan’s monarchy, which has faced popular protests over promised overhauls since the Arab Spring revolts, the refugee crisis has presented a challenge.

With the fears of its core constituents, the East Bankers, that they risk losing their influence to Palestinian-Jordanians, Jordan has rejected Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin, sometimes turning them back at the border, according to international humanitarian organizations. Many of those who have made it into Jordan have been kept in a facility in a northern town called Cyber City.

Jordan has remained vague about its policy toward refugees of Palestinian origin. Saif, the planning minister, said it was a “sensitive issue,” adding, “We don’t want really any additional demographic pressure on the country.”

The East Bankers have been the hardest hit as the influx of Syrian refugees has led to higher rents. In Mafraq, protests were held early this year after many East Bank families became homeless because of higher rents. A group called the Mafraq Youth Movement bought U.N. tents from dealers inside the Zaatari camp and housed about 20 Jordanian families in a park in the middle of the city. They called it “Camp for Displaced Jordanians.”

One of the group’s leaders, Ahmad al-Amoush, spoke inside his organization’s storefront office. “We’re not against the Syrian refugees, but we want them kept inside the camps,” he said, adding that, if they exceeded capacity, “We should build more camps.”