Hospitality is an art in the Middle East, but over the past two years Jordan has taken it to another level, welcoming an estimated 512,000 Syrian refugees, in addition to millions of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees already in the country. To put it in context, Jordan’s acceptance of Syrian refugees would be equivalent to the United States taking in more than 23 million refugees in just two years – 22,738,000 more than the total number of refugees presently living in the United States.
On my visit last week to Zaatari refugee camp – now the second-largest refugee camp in the world – I heard how arrivals of Syrian refugees in Jordan are currently “artificially low,” having slowed to dozens or a few hundred entering the country each night, down from the thousands arriving daily just a few months ago. Officially the border remains open, but crossings seem to be deterred, with some of those seeking asylum trekking far out of their way to find a place to enter the country. Reports are swirling of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) clustered in villages along the Jordanian border, sheltering in abandoned homes, potentially waiting for an opportunity to leave. While the situation is very different from the IDP camps that have sprung up along the Turkish border, with its “controlled openings,” last week’s chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburbs can only increase the pressure for refuge in Jordan from the carnage within Syria. In a stark reflection of this reality, UN humanitarian workers in Zaatari are in a “permanent state of readiness” for an influx of 20,000 Syrian refugees in a single day, and a new camp is slated to open at the start of September.
Whether inside or outside the camps, the refugees’ presence has generated undeniable tensions in Jordan, a result of increased rents, lower wages as refugees are willing to work for cut-rates, and higher demands on already stretched water supplies and social services. And yet Jordanians from all walks of life continue to do what they can to provide hospitality to their beleaguered neighbors.
The majority of refugees continue to live outside the camps, but new arrivals must be “bailed out” of the camps if they wish to live elsewhere. That is, they must be sponsored to take up residence outside the camp, and receive official approval to do so. Many lack the connections and resources necessary to make this possible. Whether inside or outside the camps, the refugees’ presence has generated undeniable tensions in Jordan, a result of increased rents, lower wages as refugees are willing to work for cut-rates, and higher demands on already stretched water supplies and social services. And yet Jordanians from all walks of life continue to do what they can to provide hospitality to their beleaguered neighbors. I heard of many Jordanian families taking on personal debt to help out Syrian refugees they are sheltering in their own homes. A World Food Programme official told me of how officers from the Jordanian armed forces – one of the “unsung heroes” of the crisis, in his opinion – tasked with patrolling the border near Zaatari drive their vehicles to the crest of the hill overlooking the final seven kilometer stretch of empty land that Syrian refugees traverse by night, the final leg of an often tortuous journey to seek safety. Since it is easy for weary families to become disoriented in this dark expanse, the officers flash their lights so that the refugees know which way to go. Picking the refugees up once they stagger into Jordan, some officers apparently share with them sandwiches they bring from home before driving the new arrivals on to Zaatari.
How these acts of kindness – of hospitality – sit with the broader story of “artificially low” arrivals is unclear. Despite the phenomenal hospitality of the Jordanian people, problems abound. Not all would-be refugees are equally welcomed: Jordan does not generally accept Palestinian refugees coming from Syria, regardless of the abuses and atrocities they face there. Forbidden to work legally outside the camps, tens of thousands of refugees are impoverished and frustrated. These problems were embodied in the story of Wasim, a man I met in Zaatari, an accountant by training who used to supervise a staff of fifty. Since arriving in Jordan six months ago, he has been unable to work beyond a part-time cleaning job for the humanitarian agencies. Hospitality evidently has its limits, and must be complemented by internationally-supported efforts to strengthen livelihood opportunities for Syrians and Jordanians alike. And yet, in a region in which the bad news is relentless, it must be applauded and celebrated that as Wasim carried his six day-old baby across the last empty stretch of land before entering Jordan, he and the thousands more in his position may have someone to light the way.