Adozen Syrian girls, ages 12 to 16, mainly refugees from the flattened city of Homs, sit in a semicircle. Their heads are covered. They are naturally reticent in dealing with a male foreigner. But they eventually warm up, talking about their escapes, their plans for school and Syrian pop stars.
Have they witnessed any violence themselves? I ask. Every hand is raised.
“My grandmother was collecting her clothes, trying to escape. A sniper killed her right on the spot. We could not reach her because we were afraid of the sniper.”
“Out of my balcony, I saw two people slaughtered with a knife. I can still see the details. They don’t go away.”
“Right outside our house, the soldiers would force girls to take off their clothes and decide who would be raped or killed. It is why we didn’t look out.”
Their tone is unsettlingly matter-of-fact. “When there is too much death around,” one explains, “people stop feeling anything.”
There is plenty of death around in Syria. Unlike, say, in Libya, where Moammar Gaddafi ended up friendless and hunted, every faction in the Syrian conflict has powerful outside sponsors, leading to a war without resolution.
Atrocities can be found on various sides. But the regime of Bashar al-Assad has made a systematic march across the moral boundaries of war: targeting schools during school hours, making use of what are believed to be chemical weapons against civilians, dropping barrel bombs (oil drums filled with TNT, oil and chunks of metal) from helicopters to destroy neighborhoods. When they first arrive at the Zaatri refugee camp, preschoolers dive to the ground when they hear an airplane overhead.
In Jordan, there is a broad realization among government officials, aid workers and refugees that the Syrian crisis is now chronic. One humanitarian worker estimated to me their efforts might be required for six to 12 years.
This adjustment of the time horizon can be seen at Zaatri — with about 120,000 residents, the second-largest refugee camp in the world. Tents are giving way to prefabricated housing. Some residents are fashioning these units into three-sided dwellings, with a paved courtyard in the middle on the model of a Damascus home. The main shopping street offers washing machines, cigarettes, phones, wedding dresses and televisions. Jordanian officials visiting the camp look at the signs of permanence and worry, recalling past waves of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
More than three-quarters of Syrian refugees live outside the camps in cities and towns. Initially, many Jordanians opened their homes and even took out personal loans to offer help. But this welcome has (naturally) faded over time. In a Jordanian border region near Syria where I visited, hospitals are full and refusing referrals, medicines are in short supply, schools are running double shifts, scarce water is delivered less frequently and wages have been undercut by high-skill, low-cost Syrian labor.
Add to this a growing resentment that refugees get aid while equally poor Jordanians often do not. Add to this a recent cut in the electricity subsidy in Jordan, a reform mandated by the International Monetary Fund as an austerity measure. At best, this is a recipe for tension; at worst, for instability. And Jordan is the keystone of stability for the whole region.
Jordan — a nation of about 7 million next to a collapsing country of 22 million — is in the process of being overwhelmed. And this demonstrates the yield of foreign aid. During the current crisis, the U.S. government has spent more than $1 billion in the region to limit the spread of chaos. In Jordan, for example, it is involved in renovating 100 schools. This is not an altruistic add-on to U.S. policy; it is a particularly successful, non-military instrument of influence. Donors and humanitarian organizations — such as CARE (which hosted my trip), Mercy Corps and Save the Children — are shifting their focus from emergency refugee assistance toward helping whole communities, trying to mitigate the tensions between migrants and hosts. The success of this approach is essential to Jordan, to the region and to U.S. interests.
Yet few make the case. The Obama administration has little interest in raising the profile of Middle Eastern problems that offer few clear solutions. And appeals by humanitarian groups for private donations to help Syrian refugees have generally fallen flat. Americans apparently believe the Syrian crisis is a purely internal matter, with no good guys to root for.
They might think differently after meeting the young women from Homs.