In Jordan, tensions rise between Syrian refugees and host community

MAFRAQ, JORDAN — After months of shrugging off glares, Abdullah Saad could no longer ignore the feeling that he was unwelcome in this country. The message was spray-painted in red across the side of his home for any passerby to see: Go back to Syria.

“They once received us as guests and brothers,” the 45-year-old Syrian said of Jordanians last week as he ran his hand over the words marking his rented concrete house in this border city. “Now they see us as a curse.”


Expanding flight of Syrian refugees
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Expanding flight of Syrian refugees

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More than 500,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the onset of the conflict in their country more than two years ago, according to the Amman government and the United Nations — a figure equal to nearly one-tenth of Jordan’s population. While 160,000 are housed in refu­gee camps, Saad and the vast majority have been living in cities, where their presence is stoking tensions with an increasingly resentful host community and posing what Jordanian officials call one of the greatest crises the country has faced in decades.

Jordanian government officials say the cost of hosting the rapidly growing refu­gee population is expected to reach $1 billion this year. Yet the true cost of hosting the refugees, who compete with Jordanians for jobs and limited housing, is far broader, economic experts say.

The state-run Economic and Social Council says that due to electricity and water subsidies, each Syrian who crosses into Jordan directly costs the government about $3,000 annually. The Health Ministry says it spends half of its budget on medical care for Syrians alone and needs about $350 million in emergency funding to sustain the country’s public-health-care system past this month.

According to the Labor Ministry, about 160,000 Syrians are working illegally in Jordan, accepting lower pay to fill positions in bakeries, auto garages and cafes that were once held by Jordanians, about 20 percent of whom are unemployed.

“You walk into a bakery, there are Syrians; you walk into a factory, there are Syrians,” said Mohammed Mashagbeh, 35, a Jordanian carpenter who said he left Mafraq after losing work to Syrians and now lives in the capital, Amman, where he earns half his previous wages. “There is no longer room in Jordan for Jordanians.”

The kingdom has long served as an oasis for those displaced by the various wars that have wracked the region, and it is home to more than 1.8 million Palestinian and 500,000 Iraqi refugees. But unlike their Palestinian and Iraqi predecessors, the bulk of Syrians who have flooded Jordan hail from rural regions and are under-skilled and poorly educated, arriving with limited funds and placing an immediate burden on the government’s social services, economic experts say.

“In many ways, while Iraqis came to Jordan with investments and were effectively job creators, Syrians are arriving as job-
takers,” says Jawad Anani, economist and president of the Economic and Social Council. Many Jordanian business owners dispute that, saying that Syrians take work that Jordanians do not want and that they work harder.

Syrian refugees, most of whom are not authorized to work in Jordan, say they are often left at the mercy of employers, forced to perform long hours of labor — sometimes back-breaking — for low salaries.

Khaled al-Awad, who fled the southern Syrian city of Daraa, and his brother said they lay bricks for up to 18 hours per day in Zarqa, in northern Jordan, for about one-third of what Jordanian workers make in similar jobs.

“In Jordan, Syrians are seen as little more than slaves,” Awad said, grimacing as he popped his eighth aspirin tablet of the day into his mouth. “But at the end of the day, we have to feed our families.”

The reception was not always like this. In the early days of the Syrian conflict, Jordanians launched fundraising drives, hosted makeshift refu­gee camps and opened their homes to their northern neighbors. But as the war drags on and Syrians increasingly put down roots in Jordan, the strain on resources has transformed the goodwill to hostility, said Ziyad al-Hamad, president of the Kitab al-Sunna Society, the largest Jordanian organization providing aid to Syrians.

“We have reached the point where nearly all of the country’s problems are being blamed on Syrians,” Hamad said.

Mounting hostility

The major flash point for tension is the Syrian community’s effect on Jordan’s housing sector, with average rents soaring as high as 300 percent over the past six months. Modest dwellings go for more than $300 in rent per month.

One reason for the rise in rents is the sharp increase in demand for housing, analysts say. Also, several Syrian families often rent houses together, pooling their resources, thereby being able to pay higher rents.

In the border city of Ramtha, 12 Jordanians were huddled on a rainy day last week in one of several “refugee camps” for Jordanians that have sprouted across the country in recent months — shantytowns erected by those who say they have been evicted in favor of Syrian tenants.

At the Ramtha camp, residents reminisced about their former houses. Soon, talk turned to vigilante-style reprisals against Syrians, a community they blamed for the country’s economic woes.

“Syrians are taking our homes, our jobs and our livelihoods,” Mohammed Theibat said as he stoked a coal grill in the center of the canvas tent he has called home for more than a week. “If the government does not take action, we will take matters in our own hands.”

Such talk is sparking fears that Jordan’s social tensions may soon escalate.

“There is already talk of violence, and with time, we are afraid this is going to become a reality,” Hamad said.

Schoolyard scuffles

Although the growing stresses have not led to widespread violence, public anger is palpable in Jordan, with regular protests in border cities such as Mafraq that call on Amman to deport Syrian refugees.

Last month, members of parliament floated a proposal to establish buffer zones in Syria and relocate the refu­gees. Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour announced last month that the government is moving to declare the northern regions an “emergency area” to draw international attention to the plight facing Jordanian host communities.

In the meantime, rising tensions between Jordanians and Syrians have even trickled down to the schoolyard. The influx of about 30,000 Syrian students has forced many of Jordan’s schools to switch to abbreviated “two-shift” systems, rotating students in half-day sessions to ease stress on overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.

In a vacant lot behind a Maf­raq school this month, three Syrian fourth-graders wrestled their Jordanian classmate to the ground, kicking up clouds of dust, their bright blue backpacks waving wildly in the air.

After shopkeeper Mohammed Hassan rushed to break up the latest in what locals say have become nearly-daily schoolyard scuffles, the students admitted to the source of the fight: They thought that their Jordanian classmate had chanted “Long live Bashar,” a reference to the Syrian president.

“If our children cannot live together, how can we ever hope to do so?” Hassan asked, sighing as he wiped a smear of mud off the face of one of the children.

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